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Benches on 24th Street Disappearing
By Dodie Hamblen
If you're looking for a bench to rest your bones on 24th Street, you might have trouble finding one. Since mid-April, 24th Street merchants have received a blitz of warnings forcing many of them to remove their benches.
According to the Department of Public Works (DPW), Noe Valley is the target of a three-month "pilot project" aimed at increasing compliance with the city's sidewalk and outdoor seating laws. "The goal of the pilot project is to address litter, and the permitting for cafe tables and chairs, and display merchandise," said DPW Inspector Robert Paul Horn.
Twenty-fourth Street shopkeepers have been told that they must comply with sections of the Public Works Code introduced by Supervisor Barbara Kaufman in 1993. The new rules state that in order to get a permit for outside tables and chairs, business owners must fill out an application form and pay a one-time application fee, submit a schematic design showing where the outdoor seating would go, pay an annual permit fee of between $100 and $360, and obtain liability insurance indemnifying the City of San Francisco in the amount of $1 million.
Sidewalk benches are not specifically covered under this section, but DPW has deemed that those belonging to food-related businesses should be treated like chairs. Non-food-related businesses are subject to a one-time sidewalk encroachment fee of $218. Prior to 1994, the Department of Health, rather than DPW, regulated these table and chair permits.
Police Officer Lois Perillo, who is involved with the pilot project as a community liaison, explains that without the proper permit, "no business is allowed to put anything in front of their store on the sidewalk except for planters adjacent to the curbside, bike racks, newspaper display racks, and trash bins."
She notes that six feet of egress must be maintained for foot traffic. "It has to do with liability."
Prior to the blitz, DPW had checked out the major coffeehouses on 24th Street. Managers at Spinelli's, Martha's, and Starbucks all said they were aware of the project, but had already gotten their permits for outdoor seating.
However, many other merchants felt harassed, as well as confused by the sudden enforcement of previously neglected ordinances. Some have removed their benches rather than pay the permit fees. Others have complied, but expressed concern that the rigid enforcement will cost the neighborhood its character.
J.P. Gillen, owner of Little Italy and a former Noe Valley Merchants Association president, says he's had a bench in front of his 24th Street restaurant for eight years. He sees it as a public convenience. "Benches are no particular benefit to me. Most of the people who use them are mothers and people eating ice cream from Rory's," Gillen said.
But after receiving a warning from DPW this spring, he took out his bench. "I just don't have time to deal with the permit process. People would rather spend the time on their businesses than spend three days trying to get a permit. Besides, where are the city's priorities? [They ought to] leave the little stuff alone."
Mary Gassen, owner of the Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Co., a few doors down, has also removed the bench in front of her store. Like Gillen, she felt that keeping it would be too costly and time-consuming.
In her eyes, the DPW crackdown is misguided. "Twenty-fourth Street is a wonderful merchant area," Gassen said. "Most of the merchants live in the neighborhood, and have an investment in keeping things looking good." It's a shame the city is undercutting their efforts.
The Wooden Heel Shoe Repair has also removed the bench that sat in front of its 24th Street store for 63 years. Owner Patti Wood says she will not pay a permit fee for a bench she provides as a convenience to customers and passersby. "The bench was for the elderly and nursing mothers. It was part of the neighborhood aesthetic."
Merchants who have opted to go through the process are frustrated at the amount of red tape involved. Ali Keshavarz, owner of Tom Peasant Pies at 24th and Castro, said he and his partner, Gerard Long, had spent many long hours filling out paperwork, taking measurements, and making trips to DPW to get an okay for their bench.
They debated removing the bench, which was more often used by the elderly than their customers, they said, but decided they would keep it because it added to the nice ambiance of the neighborhood.
"Noe Valley means a lot to me," said Keshavarz. "It is about people being friendly to each other. We chose Noe Valley because it had the feeling of a small European village. But dealing with the bureaucracy is very discouraging and disheartening," he continued. "If you are a big guy, you have a permit expediter. They do those kinds of things in a matter of hours. When it comes to a small business like me, you have to suffer and work and stay up nights just to get a permit."
Carol Yenne has two benches in front of her children's clothing store, Small Frys. She said she would hunker down and apply for the permits because she feels her benches are important to her store and the neighborhood. But she agrees that all this jumping through hoops will hurt small businesses on 24th Street. "If the neighborhood wants to maintain its character, the neighborhood will have to get the law changed."
Attorney Bob Roddick, current president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, has also come to the conclusion that the fees and insurance requirements are "unconscionable." In early June, he fired off a letter to DPW, stating the Merchants' position: "The [revocable street-use permit] ordinance is nothing more than a device to raise revenue in the guise of serving the public....
"Many of our merchants at their own expense provide benches for the public," Roddick wrote. "These benches have been well maintained and are a pleasant resting stop to converse with friends and family.... [They also] serve as a respite for our seniors, the disabled, our parents, and just anyone wanting to sit and enjoy the sunshine.... But your enforcement team has instructed those merchants to either remove the benches or pay the permit fee. This is unfair! You are simply punishing people for doing a good deed."
DPW spokesperson Anna Wong responds that Noe Valley shouldn't feel singled out. "Chinatown has historically been the focus of DPW enforcement," she said, noting that Clement Street, Laurel Village, and 24th Street in the Mission are also in DPW's sights during the three-month trial period. "The pilot project is examining the need for regular monitoring of areas not previously covered."
Wong added that the decision to include Noe Valley was partly due to complaints from neighborhood organizations.
Eleanore Gerhardt of Friends of Noe Valley admitted that the group had written to DPW, saying the six-foot sidewalk egress was not sufficient for foot traffic. "Egress and cleanliness are always concerns of our organization. We were also concerned about the benches in front of the coffeehouses," said Gerhardt.
Nevertheless, most residents the Voice talked to were dismayed at the loss of the benches. Jackie Haslam, the mother of a toddler, said, "I'm outraged. We always use the benches. Now where will we sit?"
Meanwhile, both Wong and Horn stressed DPW's desire to engage in a dialogue with merchants and the community. A final meeting for wrap-up and critique of the pilot project will be held at Mission Police Station on Tuesday, July 22, at 6 p.m. Neighborhood merchants and residents are encouraged to attend.