by M. Brett Gladstone
Owners of apartment buildings do a great deal to improve their buildings to make the spaces more livable for tenants and keep their buildings full. Owners also know that their units are more marketable if neighboring buildings improve. Rarely do owners think about how what occurs at street curbs and sidewalks can affect this as well.
Thanks to City Hall’s emphasis on “greening,” there are now two things that property owners can do for their street curbs and sidewalks. This article mentions both of those items, starting with information on how a landlord can improve sidewalks (other than just responding to a city Notice of Repair to redo cracked sidewalks, which are a property owner’s responsibility in the city).
A new way to beautify the community is by replacing portions of concrete sidewalks with landscaping. This is done through a Sidewalk Landscaping Permit, requested through the San Francisco Department of Public Works.
The application must be submitted along with a drawing of the proposed plantings and a nonrefundable fee. The fee is currently $215 per property for one property and slightly less for multiple properties.
If the application meets the guidelines, DPW will issue a permit. If it does not meet all of the guidelines, the application may be revised or an exception may be requested. Any exception must be approved by the Urban Forestry Permits and Policy Division and the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping before a permit will be issued.
An appointment must be made with Underground Service Alert at least two days prior to digging to determine the location of underground utilities. The property owner is solely responsible for avoiding interference with utilities. In addition, a final inspection should be scheduled with DPW at least one week prior to the completion of work.
In a high-density area adjacent to parking, the current sidewalk needs to be a minimum width of eleven feet to allow sidewalk landscaping to be installed. This will allow six feet of unobstructed sidewalk, three feet of planting and two feet of courtesy strip. The sidewalk may be nine feet in residential areas and alleys with parking, allowing four feet of unobstructed sidewalk to remain with the installation of three feet of planting and two feet of courtesy strip. New landscaping may not in any case reduce the width of unobstructed sidewalk to less than 48 inches or increase the cross slope of the portion designed for ADA access.
Near intersections, height restrictions apply. Landscape material (other than trees) may be planted up to the projected property line on sidewalks and medians provided that it does not exceed 42 inches in height, measured from the street level. This applies within 25 feet of a traffic sign or signal and 25 feet from the property line near intersection approaches and exits.
In certain cases, plantings will not be permitted. This includes when the existing sidewalk is less than seven feet wide and has curbside parking. Plantings are also not permitted next to bus zones where the sidewalk is less than ten feet, and next to accessible blue, white and green parking and loading zones. No plantings are allowed in front of mailboxes, newspaper racks, police and fire call stations, payphones, parking meter boxes and within five feet of a fire hydrant. Plantings are prohibited if they impact existing or potential curb ramp locations, or are within a curb return, the curved part of the sidewalk at intersections.
Grading of planting beds should be a maximum of one inch lower than the grade of the sidewalk. Planting areas on steep sidewalks with greater than a 10% slope must be terraced. Heavier mulch is recommended in steep or windy areas to avoid spillage. Landscaping and edging must allow water to drain from the sidewalk into the landscaped area.
The city recommends planting species adapted to the local conditions and requiring minimal irrigation. San Francisco provides a Climate Zone Map and Sidewalk Landscaping Drought Tolerant List to guide owners in the use of plants suited to the microclimates of the area.
Raised planters not affixed permanently to the pavement may be permitted in areas where plantings in ground are not possible. These planters require a Minor Sidewalk Encroachment Permit from the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping. Any decorative or protective fencing or raised structures may also require a Minor Sidewalk Encroachment Permit. Planting of street trees requires a separate permit.
Once a Sidewalk Landscaping permit is issued, the permit holder is responsible for maintenance of the landscaping for the safety of pedestrians and vehicle traffic, and the area must be kept free of weeds and trash. Often, an agent of the property owner desires to install the landscaping, but the property owner must sign the permit application if the owner will be responsible for ongoing maintenance.
Property owners who receive a notice to repair their sidewalk may be able to hire a contractor through DPW’s Bureau of Street Use and Mapping if the site conditions are suitable for sidewalk landscaping. Predesigned landscapes can be selected, which are designed for each zone of the city. This service provides a simple way to bring the sidewalk into conformity while beautifying the area at the same time.
The Rise of "Parklets"
San Francisco’s streets and public rights-of-way make up fully 25% of the city’s area, more space even than is found in all of the city’s parks. San Francisco’s "Pavement to Parks" projects, modeled after a similar program in New York City, seek to temporarily reclaim portions of streets and quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks. One of the first in the city, and one of the largest, is the "Castro Commons," at the end of 17th Street at the intersection of Castro and Market streets, an area with extremely little open space.
"Parklets" are located at curbs in the space that would ordinarily be occupied by parking spaces. In the place of cars, a platform is built to bring the grade of the sidewalk into the street. Eligible applicants for parklets include Community Benefit Districts, storefront business owners, non-profit institutions and community organizations. Other kinds of applicants may be considered on a case-by-case basis. The parklet must be located away from a street corner and along a street with a speed limit of 25 mph or less. The width of the parklet must not extend beyond six feet from the curb line in places where there is parallel parking (and sometimes in locations where parking is angled or perpendicular).
Also, safe hit posts and wheel stops will be required, along with a parklet edge consisting of plants, railing or cabling. Parklets may even replace yellow or blue zones or motorcycle parking if there are appropriate adjacent locations for these zones to be relocated, and the applicant is willing to pay additional fees to relocate these zones. They may be allowed in white and green zones if the entity that originally requested the white or green zone agrees to repurpose that curb area. They are not permitted in a way that restricts access to any public utility company or city utility covers, valves, etc.
Unfortunately, as with most permits, permits for parklets must be processed through several agencies, including the Planning Department, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency and the Department of Public Works, the latter of which actually collects payment and issues the permit.
There is a public notice period of 10 days. Objections raised during this 10-day period will result in a public hearing. The party who is unsuccessful at that public hearing may appeal the decision to the Board of Permit Appeals within 15 calendar days of the decision. The permit may be overturned or modified by a vote of four out of five commissioners. The construction of the parklet is paid for by the applicant.
It is important to know that the permit is known as a Revocable Temporary Sidewalk Extension (Parklet) Permit. Thus, it is clear that this is a temporary permit issued by the city, revocable at any time.
Two or three parking spaces may be occupied, with additional fees of about $300 for each parking stall used beyond the first two, and an additional fee of about $3,000 for each additional parking space removal beyond the first two if meters currently exist. Finally, the applicant will be required to provide evidence of at least $1 million in liability insurance (the same requirement as sidewalk café tables and chairs), naming the City and County of San Francisco as an additional insured.
As with all permits in San Francisco, public support will be viewed very favorably in the review process. Larger parklets reflecting the support of two or three merchants, or two parklets along a corridor, will also be viewed favorably.
Many applicants for these “parklets” are restaurants in neighborhood commercial areas. However, the regulations state that the restaurants may not use these spaces for their customers. In fact, these parklets must be open to all members of the public. However, there is no regulation prohibiting restaurant customers from using the parklets to eat, just as any citizen who buys food at a nearby deli may also eat there. However, the regulations strictly prohibit a restaurant applicant from providing any table service, and the chairs and tables must have a different design from any chairs or tables that such a merchant may have on the sidewalk adjacent to its building, pursuant to another kind of city permit for sidewalk seating.
Architects, urban planners and artists are given a good deal of freedom to create different styles of borders, planter boxes, tables and chairs. Given the low costs of construction, it allows creative designers to take some chances and experiment in the creation of parklets.
The information contained in this article is general in nature. Consult the advice of an attorney for any specific problem. M. Brett Gladstone is a partner in the San Francisco real-estate law firm of Gladstone & Associates, and can be reached at 415-434-9500.