San Francisco Creates a New Planter Permit

AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

As I described a few days ago, residents and business owners in San Francisco have come up with their own plan for dealing with tent camps which crowd the sidewalks and sometimes even block access to doorways. Over the past few years, they have installed heavy steel planters on the sidewalks. The planters weigh up to 2,000 pounds each once they are fully loaded with rocks and dirt and they take up space that would otherwise be prime territory for homeless people looking to pitch a tent and settle down.


As recently as last year there were city officials encouraging residents to do this, knowing that the city itself was not going to come to their rescue. But this week there was a change of course. A group of about 30 homeless activists has filed complaints with the city about the planters which they call "hostile architecture." So residents and business owners started getting warnings from the city saying they had 30 days to remove the planters or they would be fined. 

The activists claimed they were doing this because the planters were blocking sidewalks and could, in theory, make it difficult for someone with a handicap to navigate the area. But KPIX spoke with a downtown non-profit which provides medical help to people with vision problems. Previously, the sidewalk in front of their building had been full of tents, creating a problem for them and for patients coming to get treatment. They put out planters and now the sidewalk is clear. But they received one of the notices from the city about their planters blocking the sidewalk.

"So, this is the problem," explained Viveka Rydell-Anderson of the Pacific Vision Foundation. "Here, they are saying that the width is not wide enough."

For Anderson, the planters were a measure of last resort. KPIX first introduced her last summer, when the encampment situation on Van Ness and Larch alleyway was complicating her work, which is helping underserved patients from across California.

"We have a lot of patients who come for sight-saving care, so it's really important that they can navigate the sidewalk," Anderson said. "So we did what everyone else had done, and it has dramatically allowed us to have sidewalks that people can navigate."...

The frustration for those like Anderson is that when tents were blocking the entirety of these sidewalks no one seemed to care.

"When there were tents blocking the whole sidewalk, we didn't get any help,"  Anderson said.


But that's not the end of this story. The Department of Public Works has announced that it will soon be requiring anyone who has or wants to have a planter out on the sidewalk to get a permit for it.

The “Love Our Neighborhoods” permit also allows individuals to “beautify” their sidewalks with installations such as “little libraries” and benches. Community organizations will be allowed to apply for sculptures, murals, and other larger projects.

The department said the process will make it “easier, quicker, and less expensive for communities to beautify and green their neighborhoods.”

The bad news is that the permits are another hoop residents have to jump through to solve a problem that the city itself should be responsible for dealing with. The good news is that the permits are free and they seem like they may legalize what has been, up to now, a kind of grey zone in the city.

One of the new requirements is that planters must have live plants, not fake ones. One resident said that would be tough to do because the homeless like to dig through the planters, often killing whatever is planted in them.

The Larch Street resident argued that it’s difficult to keep the planters stocked with live greenery because they’re often vandalized by drug users.

“They dig through the planters with some sort of fantasy hope of finding drugs buried,” he said. “My fervent wish is that the city simply stays out of it and not do anything that will impact a successful and creative solution.”


I find it hard to give the city of San Francisco any credit here. They let people put up thousands of these planters, knowing exactly why they were doing it and now they are buying into the bogus complaints of a small group of activists to threaten people with fines. It shouldn't happen this way. People shouldn't have to pay a fine to meet a city requirement which will only make their own lives intolerable. 

The only really upbeat sign here is that one of the leading activists behind the city crackdown, Hazel Williams, seems very unhappy about the "Love Our Neighborhoods" permits. "Displacing people is not love, it’s hate," she said. 

Is leaving mentally-ill drug addicts outdoors on the city's sidewalks until they overdose on fentanyl what love looks like? If so, San Francisco must be the most loving place in the country. Here's the KPIX report on the city's effort to remove the planters.

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