Noe Valley Voice September 1997

The Benches Are Back On 24th Street

By Dodie Hamblen

Twenty-fourth Street merchants are celebrating a victory in their battle for sidewalk benches. In late August, the city agreed to suspend enforcement of the permit rules for benches along Noe Valley's main commercial strip.

Since last spring 24th Street had been the target of a DPW crackdown on "street furniture" -- the tables, chairs, planters, and benches the merchants put out in front of their shops. The city sweep caused many local businesses to remove their benches, rather than comply with costly fees and red tape.

In order to have a bench, businesses selling food had to pay an annual fee of $100 to $360, apply for a special permit, take out $1,000,000 in insurance, and submit schematic drawings showing where the bench would go. Non-food-related businesses were subject to a one-time sidewalk encroachment fee of $218, which also required schematic plans.

In mid-July, after a story in the Noe Valley Voice was followed up by a piece in the San Francisco Examiner, DPW announced it would drop the fees for benches in front of non-food businesses. "The fees will be revoked," said DPW spokesperson Alex Mamak, "and fees collected so far will be returned."

The Noe Valley Merchants Association was not fully satisfied, however. DPW never issued anything in writing, and the question of bench permits for food-related businesses was not addressed. The merchants continued to barrage City Hall with complaints.

Then on Aug. 22, following a meeting between local shopkeepers and officials from DPW, Mamak announced, "After walking 24th Street, the director [DPW Director Mark Primeau] is convinced that the benches are a public service. He has suspended enforcement of the ordinance that requires permits for all benches on 24th Street in Noe Valley." This includes the bench permits for food-related businesses, he said. Merchants who have paid the permit fees will be refunded.

Merchants President Robert Roddick, who represented the association at the Aug. 22 meeting, was thrilled with the outcome. "Fantastic," he said. "I think it's about time some rationality came to city government."

Reaction along 24th Street was equally jubilant. Patti Wood, owner of the Wooden Heel Shoe Repair, has reinstalled the bench she removed this spring after being hassled by the city. "Since the bench is back, everyone is stopping by to say, `We're so glad you brought it back.' The bench is loaded with people all the time. I'm very happy. Everyone is happy."

Harry Aleo, owner of Twin Peaks Properties on 24th Street, said, "The meeting [with DPW] was productive. We got what we wanted. If merchants spend the money [for a bench], they should be complimented, not penalized."

Carol Yenne, owner of the children's clothing store Small Frys, is "thrilled that the city and the Merchants Association are working together to make benches available to the public. It adds to the ambience of the neighborhood."

Noe Valley residents strolling 24th Street also applauded the news. Lynn O'Kelley, mother of an infant and a preschooler, said, "I'm glad the city backed down on this issue. Sidewalk benches are one of the things that make Noe Valley feel like a small town."

Owners of food businesses were particularly enthusiastic about the reprieve. Ali Keshavarz, owner of Tom Peasant Pies, had been deeply discouraged by all the bureaucracy he faced last spring. Now he says, "I couldn't be happier. I think merchants and neighbors should realize that it's important to believe in their cause. This gives me hope that there are still old-world values."

Mary Gassen, owner of the Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Co., plans to put her bench back right away. "I think it's great. I had to sit next door on the Wooden Heel's bench when I was here with my baby last week."

As for DPW, Director Primeau said last month that the decision to suspend bench permits reflected the department's desire to be more customer service oriented. He also noted that "the Public Works Code has not been revised since it was adopted by the city over 50 years ago. The bench issue is a perfect example of why the code needs to be rewritten."

He added that his department had started rewriting the code several months ago, and would be working with neighborhood and merchant groups to make sure it reflected common sense.

In the meantime, merchants who'd like to put a bench in front of their store should contact Denise Brady, chief of street use and mapping, at 554-5801. She'll fill them in on the safety guidelines.