Eating Out(side)

The pandemic helped grow one of San Francisco’s best ideas, but the future of now-popular parklets is far from certain.

David Heft was in a state of despair. As the pandemic dragged on — first for weeks and then for months — he knew he had to do something, anything, to keep his restaurant open.

“Our thought process was: ‘If we close we die,’” Heft, the owner of Foghorn Taproom, says.  

He moved quickly to build a ramshackle parklet out front of his chicken-and-beer spot in the Inner Richmond and outfitted it with a propane fire pit to help keep his customers warm. Unsurprisingly, heat is a real asset to any restaurateur hoping to attract or retain plein-air diners after the sun goes down over the Avenues.

Before long, the fire marshall showed up and informed Heft the heating accessory had to go. The way Heft remembers it, he might have been able to keep it if only he could store the propane tanks in a backyard, which Foghorn doesn’t have.

He was disappointed, but he pressed on, deftly navigating a gauntlet of uncertainty and constantly shifting regulations. In January, with the post-holiday surge looming over San Francisco and the rest of the state, Heft opened a second Foghorn Taproom — in the Inner Sunset, near the corner of 7th Avenue and Irving Street.

After learning plenty of lessons the hard way at Foghorn’s 6th Avenue and Balboa Street location, Heft was better prepared to build out his second parklet. The key, he says, is to provide creature comforts and plenty of room to safely congregate, without breaking the bank. He installed a pair of TVs and brought in casual black chairs, while leaving ample standing room. The cost? “Real cheap,” he says — around $1,500 with materials and labor.

“Cement buckets and posts,” Heft says. “It looked like a shantytown, but it stood up no problem” — at least for a while. The original structure lasted from June to December. Heft took it down after the city updated its parklet guidelines, providing finer grain guidelines on safety protocols and preferred aesthetics. The next round of parklets he built came in closer to the $5,000 mark.

Now that California has eased off the most stringent COVID-19 restrictions and indoor dining has returned, Heft, like so many other local businessmen and women, has a decision to make — keep his parklet or tear it down?

At the moment, it’s an easy enough calculus for most restaurants. Given the cost to build a bare-bones parklet and considering that the city likely won’t be charging businesses fees on the structures until 2023, it only makes sense to keep the outdoor dining booths for now. But there’s another reason that some, like Heft, are considering keeping their parklets in place.

“I love sitting out in the parklets. I love seeing the bars decorate the parklets,” he says. “I think they’re a fantastic addition to San Francisco.” As to whether they will remain… that’s another question entirely.

CONVENIENT PARK(ING)

Well before the pandemic, San Francisco was a parklet pioneer, although the miniature public spaces that the city birthed had little to do with the restaurant industry at the time.

In September, 2005, a group of artists known as the Rebar Group found a parking spot at 1st and Mission, fed the meter, laid down sod, put up a bench and a potted tree, and declared the parking spot a park. Thus Park(ing) Day was born. Starting from that initial effort, the global urbanist holiday has spurred designers in cities all over the world to one-up each other, finding the most creative ways to reuse parking spaces.  

In 2010, the city began allowing more permanent parklets, often sponsored by neighboring businesses. These spaces would take over parking spots for months or years at a time. While sometimes serving as an additional seating area for businesses, like Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission or Réveille Coffee Co. in North Beach, these spaces were required to be publicly accessible, prominently displaying the message, “All seating is open to the public.” 

By 2019, parklets had become something of a phenomenon, with about 75 parklets spread across San Francisco, and other cities beginning to copy San Francisco’s program. Despite the fact that these spaces were required to be open to the public, they still drummed up controversy over the privatization of public space, and the loss of parking. 

When the pandemic hit, the city dropped virtually all permitting requirements for parklets, and began allowing restaurants, cafes, and bars to reserve these spaces for customers. There are now about 1,500 outdoor dining parklets. All of a sudden, concerns about the old parklet program are looking like very small potatoes.

The question of public access has been a major sticking point in the debate over making the parklet program permanent. Supervisor Dean Preston has argued in favor of retaining a certain amount of public access to all outdoor dining parklets. Some business owners have expressed concerns about the unhoused sleeping in these spaces, or using them as a makeshift latrine. The exact regulations will continue to be hammered out over the coming weeks. But if the supervisors impose too many restrictions on the program, Mayor London Breed has vowed to go to the voters with a proposal.

Extending the parklet program at the city level is contingent upon state-level reforms of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). While Governor Gavin Newsom recently extended the pandemic-era rules on full-service outdoor dining (with alcohol) and to-go cocktails through the end of the year, these policies can only continue in 2022 if the legislature acts. San Francisco’s state Senator Scott Wiener is leading that effort, with a bill that would permanently legalize drinking in outdoor dining parklets. 

BUILDING COMMUNITY

Kenzie Benesh and Isabella Bertorelli are the wife-and-wife team behind Yo También Cantina, located just a few blocks from the second Foghorn Taproom — on Hugo Street, near 3rd Avenue in the Inner Sunset.

Since opening three years ago, Yo También has always maintained an outdoor presence, which the owners say neighbors appreciate. “People always loved the option to sit outside,” Benesh says, noting the storefront has been home to a number of different cafes since the 1980s. “Pre-pandemic, people loved a chance to have a breakfast cookie and sit down with their dog.”

San Francisco’s COVID-19 shutdown changed that. In the wake of Breed’s shelter-in-place order in March 2020, Benesh and Bertorelli had to let go of their staff and pivot fully to takeout. The neighborhood lost a communal hub.

In the short term, Yo También offered pre-orders to-go. They also applied for a parklet permit through the SF Shared Spaces program. They were approved but waited until the fall of 2020 to build and open an outdoor area.

In the early days of the pandemic, restaurateurs like Heft weren’t sure how long dining restrictions would last. This factored into Heft’s calculus to build his first parklet quickly and cheaply. Benesh and Bertorelli took the opposite approach — deliberately saving money, lining up logistics, and figuring out what they wanted out of their parklet, both structurally and philosophically.

“I wanted the structure to feel sturdy and stable,” says Bertorelli, who has a background in architecture. “But I also wanted to build something blended into the context. Nothing that felt out of place, or would interrupt the dynamic of the street.”

Making a space that was inviting to all passersby was key.

Benesh points to Outerlands and Trouble Coffee Co. on Judah Avenue near the beach as examples of creative gathering spaces that existed long before COVID-19. Both Benesh and Bertorelli speak about wanting their parklet to be for everyone, not just for the business.

The design they settled on features benches built into the structure itself, so that when they take away their signature orange chairs after hours, there is still a place for locals to sit down.

“People can get a bag of chips from the corner store or sit there while they wait for their laundry,” Benesh says. “They enjoy the space on a day when we’re not open.”

At $5,000, the finished product was still cheap compared to some of the priciest parklets of the COVID-19 era. They scrimped where they could and leaned on the community for help with construction, tapping their neighbor — the shop’s resident handyman — to lead the project.

Bertorelli built the benches herself, in her garage. In a year where wood prices rose to historic highs, she even found a way to save a few bucks by purchasing planks from a discount wood supplier, running them through a planer to clean up rough edges.

“I felt supported by our friends and the community,” Bertorelli said. “It was lucky that I had the tools and that we could just do it ourselves.”

Like Heft, the couple thinks parklets should stay, noting San Francisco’s mild winters and relatively cool summers mean eating outdoors can almost always be accommodated, so long as it’s not raining. It’s true that these parklets take up street parking, but Benesh argues Americans are too attached to their cars and in a city as walkable and bikeable as San Francisco, it would be good to get people out of the driver’s seat and take in their own neighborhood at a slower pace.

“In Europe it is so much more normal to have these outdoor spaces,” Benesh says. “It’s such a positive direction the city could go.”

RESERVATIONS

Alec Hawley doesn’t plan on eating inside a restaurant any time soon. He has reservations about how safe such an activity truly is. Fortunately, given how many parklets now exist throughout the city — several of which Hawley designed and built himself — he says he doesn’t feel those who are worried about coronavirus variants need to miss out on some of the best dining experiences in the city.

A landscape architect with plenty of professional experience navigating San Francisco bureaucracy, Hawley got involved in helping restaurants early on in the pandemic, and he’s done all his work for free.

 “It’s not a boon for my business,” Hawley says. “But it’s certainly a boon for people appreciating public space.”

Hawley believes even if San Franciscans quickly adjust to going maskless and eating inside, many parklets are here to stay — and more eventually will be built, this time with a greater focus on permanence.

Though Hawley believes most parklets do a good job of fostering community, not all of the project’s he’s worked on are up to his standards, both aesthetically and structurally speaking.

Building cheaply and quickly often means looks take a backseat to functionality. In instances like these, Hawley says his main concern has been making sure parklets are safe and up to code. “Part of the reason I jumped in was because no one had any money,” Hawley explains. “A lot of them weren’t following the guidelines.”

The last thing he wanted to see was a local restaurant investing time and money into a structure that was going to become a legal headache or a legitimate health and safety concern down the line.

Going forward, Hawley says he would like to see more parklets with a bit more finesse in the design department — both in terms of looks and quality of build.

“My biggest pet peeve is the shanty roofs with the corrugated plastic,” he says. Not only does it look ugly, he says, it’s also likely to melt if a heat lamp is placed too close. Hawley also calls out “interior grade products for exterior projects,” which he says can be both unsafe — parklets made entirely out of chipboard are a fire hazard, for instance — and incapable of standing up to the elements. While the Bay Area does enjoy a Mediterranean climate, as Benesh and Bertorelli note, San Francisco’s fog and salty sea air can wreak havoc on cheaply built wooden structures.

Now, with restaurant owners, their patrons, and local and state lawmakers advocating to make outdoor dining and drinking a fixture in San Francisco and around California, Hawley anticipates businesses — and the community at large — are poised to reconsider what a post-pandemic San Francisco should look like.

“I think what the pandemic did was allow people to see their neighborhoods and their public space in a different way,” Hawley says, agreeing with Bertorelli and Benesh’s observation about the United States having a very car-centric culture. “For me, what I hope, as we start to return to normalcy — whatever that might be — is that people still hold on to that and understand that there are better things that we can do with the public space.”

BEYOND BRUNCH

Mark Bonsignore has been waiting for an opportunity like this. As the city has looked for creative ways to keep people sane throughout the pandemic, Bonsignore has been working day and night to meet the demand. After a career working in the environmental design space, Bonsignore now works for the San Francisco Parks Alliance, a nonprofit that champions public spaces in the city.

“I think the pandemic lowered barriers for businesses and normal residents to have a dialogue with the city in understanding what’s necessary to utilize their space,” Bonsignore says, noting parklets geared toward food service aren’t the only outdoor spaces that have sprung up in the wake of COVID-19.

The mental and physical benefits of being able to play, read, or simply zone out in open spaces were thrown into sharp relief over the course of the pandemic. And locals without easy access to a city park — who either lacked the means to transport themselves or feared getting on a bus or in a rideshare — felt this most acutely.

Bonsignore’s goal is providing open space for San Francisco denizens, especially in areas that are historically under-resourced. Most of his projects during the pandemic have been in neighborhoods with a dearth of public space.

Eagle Plaza is one of Bonsignore’s favorite long-term projects. He says this type of design is called a “major encroachment,” where the city expands sidewalks and works with businesses and organizations in an area. Such groups include the S.F. Eagle bar, a historic watering hole known for being a hub in the leather kink community; and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a protest, charity, and entertainment group focused on making the world a better place through drag.

Street closures, like the regular Thursday shutdown off of 6th and Market on Stevenson dubbed Skybridge on Stevenson, also fall into Bonsignore’s purview. After receiving a grant from the city, the S.F. Parks Alliance collaborated with businesses in the mid-market area to provide a staged show each Thursday. Folks could catch spoken word, ballet, live music, and dance competitions. Free food was an added perk and a draw.

“There’s a lot of single-room occupancy (SRO) in that area,” Bonsignore says. “The city really needed to get people outside of those buildings during the pandemic.”

The parklet Bonsignore is building on Jesse Street outside of Pentacle Coffee is another example of design enhancing local flavor. To honor the street-culture businesses that line the street, such as Supreme and Thrasher, Bonsignore is working on a parklet that is downright skateable.

So far, of all the parklets he’s worked on, the Moss Metamorphisis is Bonsignore’s favorite. The green zone is called the “Moss Street EcoZone,” and is intended to draw one’s attention to the history of the tidal wetland. It demonstrates ways to mitigate stormwater runoff and educates those enjoying the space about how San Francisco has worked to create a healthier, more sustainable sewer system over the course of its history. The local flora on the structure attract butterflies, too. 

“Small interventions add beauty, enhance the environment, and provide a habitat for butterfly species,” Bonsignore says. “And it mitigates the strain on aging infrastructure. I love educational parklets.”

SHAPE OF PARKS TO COME

Wiener has been working throughout the pandemic to ensure these unique spaces live on, well past the end of the pandemic. And he’s feeling optimistic.

“We’re all rowing in the same direction,” Wiener says. “It’s a complicated legislative process, so you can falter at any point in time. We’re going to keep trying to move it forward.”

Wiener says he would like to see the emergency powers granted to ABC be extended. He has introduced SB 314, which would allow for an extension of the authorization for one calendar year after the end of the state of emergency.

“Small businesses would then have ample opportunity to seek permanent extension,” Wiener said. 

Wiener recognizes how tricky the bill might be. “We have a very old structure for alcohol in California,” Wiener told SF Weekly in March. “There are portions of it that are more than 100 years old, and portions of it that went into effect at the end of prohibition.” California’s constitution gives ABC unique powers to regulate alcohol service, so the legislature cannot supersede this power through a bill alone. 

“I intend to work closely with the city of San Francisco and the ABC to see if we can come up with a streamlined, easier process so that it’s not just each individual restaurant or bar on their own,” Wiener said. “I want to work collaboratively.”

Wiener says the ABC has been very helpful, and the city has been committed to the program. The bill has even received bipartisan support, including a co-authoring by Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno). In fact, Wiener says the majority of his constituency is over the moon about parklets.

“You can never say everyone, but there’s a strong bipartisan response on the idea,” Wiener says. “I think people overwhelmingly like the parklets and outdoor dining.”

Many of those who may have been critics before the pandemic can now see the ways outdoor dining has activated the city. Neighborhoods become more vibrant; entire corridors that used to turn off by night are coming to life. The senator himself has found a few parklets to be favorites.

“In the Castro I love that several bars have outdoor drag shows,” Wiener says. “It’s just fun. It’s a fun thing on a Sunday afternoon.”


Paolo Bicchieri is a contributing writer. Twitter @Paoloshmaolo
Nick Veronin is the editor of SF Weekly. nveronin@sfweekly.com
Staff writer Benjamin Schneider contributed to this story.

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