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Castro Street Closure Request for Dining Plaza Hits Roadblock

by Matthew S. Bajko

Bay Area Reporter

Wednesday August 5, 2020

A request by the Castro Merchants business association to turn a portion of a street running through the heart of San Francisco's LGBTQ district into an outdoor dining plaza on weekends through the end of the year has run into a roadblock over fire vehicle access. It is now expected the permit will be approved next week.

Supporters of the plan to allow nearby bars and restaurants to turn the roadway into a spot for al fresco dining had hoped to receive permission from city officials earlier this week and potentially launch this weekend. The neighborhood merchants' group is seeking to close 18th Street to vehicle traffic on the weekends between Hartford and Castro streets and between Castro and Collingwood streets. The closures would be from 1 to 10 p.m. Fridays through Sundays.

But the office of gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the neighborhood at City Hall, informed the Bay Area Reporter that concerns about fire vehicle access in the area and several other issues had delayed the city's transit agency from approving the street closure request. Under its Shared Spaces program, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has allowed similar street closures in other business districts such as Chinatown and the Mission's Valencia corridor.

Mandelman's office also told the B.A.R. that other issues needed to be sorted out, like if volunteers need to staff the intersections along the street closure. While community members are being asked to help staff the area to make sure people are wearing masks, a solution is being sought where the road closures will be set up in such a way that attendants will not need to be stationed at the entrances into the dining plaza.

The fire department had expressed concerns about there being someone present at all times to remove the barricades so its vehicles could gain access. It is expected that only one side of the street will be utilized for tables and chairs, leaving a lane open for safety vehicles to use.

"I am optimistic we are going to have an alternative work out that won't require the staffing at the entrances into the street closure area," said Jacob Bintliff, an aide to Mandelman who held a meeting with Castro business owners Wednesday to discuss the permit issues.

Approval of the permit could come next week. Mandelman will be joining the Castro Merchants virtual meeting Thursday morning during which an update on the street closure idea will be part of the agenda. Masood Samereie, a local Realtor who is president of the merchant group, had told the B.A.R. last week that he was hopeful the issues could be resolved fairly quickly.

"We have been working on the details for the past two months with the city, the SFMTA, planning, SFPD, and fire. It is not something you can just apply for and are going to get," he said. "At this point we are getting close to hopefully having it approved."

Not everyone supports closing the street, as the B.A.R. reported last week. Patrick Batt, owner of Auto Erotica on 18th Street, has concerns it will drive away visitors to the neighborhood. A former president of the merchant group, Batt wrote a letter in opposition to the closure request.

One reason why 18th Street was selected is that the 33-Ashbury/18th Street bus line that normally snakes its way through the Castro via 18th Street isn't running and is not one of the Muni bus lines slated to return later this month.

Should turning 18th Street into a dining piazza be approved, bars and restaurants would be responsible for setting up seating in the space. A number of community groups are being asked to provide volunteers to serve as ambassadors during the street closure to answer questions from visitors and ensure safety protocols are being followed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Castro Merchants are also considering a similar weekend closure request for Noe Street between Market and Beaver streets. It is the same block that is closed to traffic Wednesday afternoons for the neighborhood's seasonal farmers market.

Some sidewalk dining open
As the B.A.R. reported last week, a number of restaurants and bars on the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street, along a few blocks of 18th Street, and a portion of upper Market Street have already taken over the sidewalk and parking spaces in front of their businesses so they can serve patrons outside. Indoor dining is still banned by city officials due to the coronavirus outbreak and it is unknown when such service will be allowed to resume.

Thus, providing takeout or outdoor dining is the only way eateries and bars have been able to operate this summer. In early June the restaurant Fable on the 500 block of Castro Street was able to begin table service again in its backyard outdoor patio, having reopened in April to offer to go orders.

But in order to do sit down service safely, co-owners Jon Vargas and Ramsey Garcia have reduced the number of tables they have by half. They now have 12 tables and can seat about 26 people at a time.

They also have moved a few tables onto the sidewalk, particularly during their weekend brunch service. But they prefer to seat their customers in the rear dining area as it provides a nicer atmosphere and is better protected from the wind and fog that can roll down Castro Street in the summertime.

"We are very fortunate to have it," said Garcia, who added that business continues to be slower than expected. "Brunch is still down."

Safety on the menu
As they cater more to local residents, who tend to be older, Garcia understands they may be more reluctant to venture out to eat. In order to protect the safety of their customers and staff, all of Fable's employees are tested every two weeks for the virus. So far, none have come back with a positive result.

"I don't want to get sick and I don't want our people to get sick," said Vargas.

The owners also bought facemasks branded with the eatery's name for all of their employees. And they maintain a strict cleaning regimen for the staff and the restaurant, with tables receiving a thorough cleaning between seatings.

"Our hand sanitizer budget has gone through the roof," noted Garcia.

They are open Mondays through Fridays from noon to 3 p.m. for lunch and from 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. for weekend brunch. Seven days a week they offer a reduced happy hour menu from 3 to 5 p.m. then switch to a dinner menu until 10 p.m.

"Definitely, you get frustrated but our city leadership has done a great job at taking precautions," said Garcia. "We are all learning on the fly."

Since July 11 regulars of The Edge bar on the corner of 18th and Collingwood streets have been able to grab a drink at one of its sidewalk tables as long as they order from the El Capitan Taqueria across the street.

The bar 440 Castro soft opened July 25 having partnered with The Cove restaurant next door in order to offer customers a "Bar Bites" menu that includes burgers, burritos, and pulled pork sandwiches. And at the main entrance to the neighborhood at the intersection of Castro and Market streets, the Twin Peaks bar has also set up tables on the sidewalks in front of its famous see-through window facade.

It reopened in late July having joined with the diner Orphan Andy's around the corner on 17th Street to provide food to its patrons. It is a development that tourists, especially those from Europe, would surely welcome, as ever since the city turned a portion of the side street into a public parklet people from out of town would routinely try to purchase a drink from the bar to enjoy it outside in the plaza.

Yet under normal circumstances, they were barred from doing so due to state rules prohibiting bar patrons from leaving with their alcoholic beverages. And the bar is still forbidden from allowing patrons to take their drinks into the parklet area.

They are only allowed to serve customers at the eight tables they have set out on the sidewalk. Allowing for social distancing between guests, the bar can accommodate parties of two, three, or four people at the tables.

"We are very excited," co-owner Jeffrey Green told the B.A.R. last week about being able to serve customers again.

The summer has been "a roller coaster," he said, with the business expecting to be able to welcome patrons back inside the bar in mid-July. But due to a sudden spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, city officials reversed course and announced indoor operations would not take place as planned.

"We had some guidance that we would be able to open up inside, but the virus dictates that not the politicians," said Green. "It was very emotional to be closed."

Thus, the compromise was reached that bars could open for outdoor service if they teamed up with a nearby restaurant to offer food. They are doing so at reduced hours and capacity than they would normally.

Twin Peaks, for instance, is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 8 p.m. The hours are subject to change depending on how business is, said Green. When a reporter stopped by July 29, all the tables were full by 6:30 p.m. with patrons wanting to use the restroom required to have their temperature checked first.

"We have had a lot of positive feedback," said Green. "People are excited to see us open, and we are excited to be open."

In the meantime, the filmmakers Petey Barma and Bret Parker, lesbian partners who live nearby the bar, have extended their fundraiser to assist the employees of the Twin Peaks. Anyone can watch their 2019 documentary about the Twin Peaks online for $10 at https://www.throughthewindows.com/ until the historic bar is allowed to fully reopen.

Fable's Garcia noted patrons can help out their favorite local restaurants and bars by buying gift certificates now to be used later if they are not yet comfortable going out to eat. And if they order food for takeout, he urged them to do so directly from the restaurants in order to avoid the business from having to pay fees to food delivery companies.

"If you are not ready to go out and dine, that is totally understandable," he said. "We are doing our part to deal with that anxiety."

Added Vargas, "When you are ready, we are here for you."

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