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'It’s turned a negative into a positive': How parklets have changed the face of SF for the better

SF Gate logo SF Gate 10/14/2020 Tessa McLean

The Page is a quintessential San Francisco dive bar. Old-timey photos and taxidermy adorn the dark brick walls, a letterboard menu hangs in lieu of anything printed and a flickering chandelier is suspended in the center of the space.

If you’ve visited the bar before, you may be surprised that I just was describing the bar’s new parklet and not the interior.

“We were trying to bring the indoors outside since it’s such an indoor bar,” said owner Bob Wait. “We wanted touchstones from the interior. I saw some [parklets] I didn’t want it to look like. There’s a template that doesn’t need to be followed.”

Mattie Breen, a neighborhood regular, had experience in construction in addition to his regular work as a tattoo artist and multimedia artist, and offered to help Wait design the parklet. He said an architecture firm also helped out and assisted in bringing their vision to life.

But it wasn’t cheap. Restaurants and bars continue to struggle to survive a now seven-month-long pandemic, especially those bars that didn’t traditionally serve food, like The Page (they have since teamed up with two restaurants next door to serve burritos and pizza alongside their alcohol). An investment of $12,000 to build something that could be ordered by the city to be dismantled on Jan. 1 was rough to think about.

“If we end up closing because of a second wave or the park permit goes away, this will not look like a very wise move,” Wait said. “Financially, I’m rationalizing it as I’m hoping I get a six-month extension. I’m hoping the weather isn’t so bad. All the money spent is going back into the employees and Mattie. I’m hoping it sows some seeds of good. We’re hoping if it looks good, neighbors won’t be too annoyed. We hope it doesn’t get vandalized.”

While the word parklet probably wasn’t in most people’s lexicon until this summer, now a well-designed parklet is a marker of your brand, be it dive bar, high-end steakhouse or cocktail lounge. “We wanted to make an adequate investment in our parklets,” said Benson Wang, who owns both The Dorian and Palm House in the Marina. “It’s like IKEA furniture. You’d rather invest more and hopefully, it will endure more and last longer.”

Wang said each parklet cost more than $15,000, though he declined to reveal the exact amount. Contractors that had worked with the owners on building out the restaurants constructed them, and staff members foraged in thrift shops for decorative items like chandeliers.

Then there’s the self-proclaimed “biggest parklet in San Francisco” in the former parking lot of Pacific Catch in the Sunset. At 1,500 square feet, with capacity for up to 80 diners in private, socially distanced private booths, they’re probably right.

“In total somewhere around $70,000,” Steve Kelly, vice president of marketing for Pacific Catch, said of the price to construct the giant parklet. “We decided it was go big or go home. Initially, we were just going to build something more temporary under a tent, but because people can’t travel and people are stuck at home we wanted to build something that felt like escapism. We wanted to go tropical so it’s an experience beyond just tables outside. We wanted to go the extra mile.”

Kelly said the business was lucky to be able to utilize the parking lot adjacent to their space. The team worked with the contractor that had worked on many of the restaurants (there are 10 Pacific Catch restaurants in the Bay Area) and they were able to test a smaller scale version of the parklet with the same materials at the Chestnut Street location. When that was a success they began to build the 9th Avenue version.

“It was a big expense, but the plan is definitely to winterize it,” Kelly said. “We’re looking into a tent-like structure.”

Kingston 11, a Jamaican restaurant in Oakland, turned a parking lot for employees into a stylish new outdoor seating area complete with tropical plants, a red and yellow wooden overhang, and a blue tin backdrop wall, with fire pits soon to come. For materials and the labor they couldn't do themselves, the new “social club” totaled around $10,000.

Even businesses outside hospitality are banking on a parklet to help them drum up business. The Balboa Theater in the Richmond District constructed an outdoor parklet for socially distanced movie showings for 15 to 20 people on Fridays and Saturdays.

"The design of it has allowed for some real social distancing," he added. "And because there’s the video component, it makes it fun, and it feels like a movie theater parklet should feel. It’s been a real fantastic experience for everybody."

He said the parklet cost around $5,000 and they built it in just two days. On days when they’re not showing movies or hosting events, they encourage neighboring restaurants to utilize it for extra seating.

Not all businesses have the money to construct a parklet. High Five Nails, a nail salon in NoPa, received a grant from a new local initiative called Block Party, which helps design and construct parklets for small businesses in need via the city’s Shared Spaces permit. A parklet with two outdoor manicure stations was completed in September.

“There’s an illusion that this is really attainable,” Donna Mena, designer and creator of Block Party, said. “Money and cost is such a factor to why we wanted to do this project. Parklets are fun and cute but they’re really expensive. The permitting alone is like $3,000. A very simple parklet can be upwards of $10,000. I wanted to restructure that somehow.”

Mena said she hopes with her small initiative she can help out at least two more businesses.

“If you’re a business owner, you’re concerned with making sure your business stays open and your employees are safe,” Mena said. “On top of that, designing a parklet, finding the funds and the people to build it is too much.”

Even with winter approaching, most owners were optimistic about the cooler months ahead. “I'm constantly amazed at how people will sit outside at all times,” Kelly of Pacific Catch said. “It’s turned a negative into a positive.”

SFGATE reporters Amanda Bartlett and Madeline Wells contributed to this report.



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