urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Ma’ayan Dembo: My First Public Hearing

This is the third post in a series chronicling Ma’ayan Dembo’s internship with the San Francisco Bike Coalition, for the Internship Capstone of the Urban Studies major at Stanford University.

At 2:00 pm on Monday, I took my bike and pedaled over to San Francisco City Hall—a mere mile away from the Bike Coalition. My destination— the Small Business Commission’s biweekly meeting. Composed of seven seats representing both current and former small business owners, along with one “expert in small business finance”, the commission reflected the diverse and varied small business owners of San Francisco. With my agenda in hand, I settled down in one of the many plush seats facing the panel. For over two hours, commissioners systematically abided by Robert’s Rules of Order and heard representatives speak, opened discussion to the public, and engaged in the various matters.

While a number of different items were in the agenda (small business month, street vending, a new “cottage business” law), the one that most concerned me was the presentation by small business owners and advocates on SFMTA outreach on parking, parking meters, and bicycle projects and programs. A huge issue within the Coalition has been the ongoing debates between the SFMTA/Bicycle Coalition and neighborhood associations along Polk Street, mainly representing small business owners who are concerned about their future.

In my efforts to learn more about the Bicycle Coalition (both before and after I started working there), I tried to find out as much as I could about the opposition to Polk Street—the best way to counter someone’s argument is to already know what they are going to say! Despite my most fine tuned searches through the interwebs, I was fruitless. Given the opportunity to take notes for the Bicycle Coalition at this hearing, I was eager to finally learn about the issue from another perspective.

When the presentation began, immediately the representatives launched into the Polk Street project; indeed, out of the five speakers, only one woman spoke on the parking meters instituted in the Northeast Mission District. Representatives from the Polk Street Merchants Association and the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association—two huge players in this debate—were present along with two long time Polk Street merchants and residents.

Overwhelmingly, the presentation highlighted the lack of outreach the SFMTA conducted when creating the initial plans for Polk Street. Merchants complained that they were only included in the deliberation process after the completion of the plans, as opposed to being part of the initial drawing. They asked for the commission to instate a formal seat on the SFMTA board for a small business owner to represent their interests—since small businesses make streets viable and thriving commercial corridors—or to just urge the SFMTA to operate with their interests more in mind. Commissioners nodded along and were very sympathetic to the small business owners throughout the entire process, echoing support of another seat within the SFMTA board.

When the presentation was over, the commissioners had an opportunity to respond, ask questions, and clarify certain points. One point that arose was delivery schedules—something of vital importance. The removal of parking spaces will impede shipment schedules that businesses need in order to sell their goods in a timely and effective way. Trucks loading goods in and out of a business will need to either double park within the bike lane (opposite of the purpose of a separate bike lane), or park around the corner and unload from a farther distance. While unloading from a farther distance may sound easy on paper, when you are carrying 30 pounds of silverware this task becomes much more daunting.

The public hearing opened my eyes to the world of civic engagement in a way I have never experienced before. The issues raised regarding the Polk Street project are complex, but I hopefully will be able to brainstorm a few ideas and share them in my next couple of posts.

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