Blocks hungry to fill storefronts with eateries

By Robert Selna

SFGate.com

In 1987, San Francisco banned new restaurants on Noe Valley’s 24th Street because residents felt they were losing local shops to eateries that drove up rents and caused traffic jams. Now, with nearly 15 vacant storefronts, there’s a push to get the restaurants back.

Today, the city’s Planning Commission is poised to undo the rule on 24th Street that allowed new restaurants only to replace old ones. The change would follow a trend in other parts of the city that are trying to cope with the down economy and recognizing the ever-increasing importance of dining to commercial vitality.

Most recently, merchants on Union Street, which has lost its shopping and dining luster, successfully lobbied the city to overturn a new restaurant ban, and now 10 new small and large restaurants may be added. In 2007 and 2008, Clement and Haight streets, which had similar restrictions, also were permitted to add a handful of eating establishments.

“People want to open restaurants here, and retail is really tough in this economy,” said Carol Yenne, who is on the board of the Noe Valley Merchants Association and owns a baby store on 24th Street. “We would prefer to have restaurants in those empty spaces rather than having empty spaces.”
Seeking more discussion

Roger Rubin, a longtime resident who writes a column for the Noe Valley Voice, said he wants more debate on the issue. Locals may not be aware of what the change would mean, he said.

“Do people want more restaurants and food service in space reserved under the current statute for neighborhood services?” Rubin asked. “We need a town hall meeting to discuss it.”

Jeff Moss, who managed the now-shuttered Streetlight Records on 24th Street in the mid-1980s, said the ban on new restaurants was an earlier version of chain store prohibitions that came in the 1990s and may have been a reaction to perceived gentrification.

“Now the area is gentrified,” said Ross, who is the general manager of Streetlight’s other Bay Area stores. “People who live there want dry cleaners, but dry cleaners can’t necessarily pay the rent.”
Not all neighborhoods agree

The idea of adding new restaurants is not popular in all parts of the city.

In October 2008, the Board of Supervisors restricted new restaurants and bars from replacing “neighborhood-serving businesses” in North Beach. The change was prompted by concerns about a bar and restaurant proliferation in the touristy area as hardware stores and cobblers closed down.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce says that limits on new restaurants amount to overregulation.

“When you do something really restrictive in the planning code, it takes a long time to change,” said Rob Black, public policy vice president at the chamber. “The city is now suffering from the Board of Supervisors trying to manage what the market demands, and it’s hurting the vibrancy of neighborhoods.”

Yenne and others in Noe Valley began the push for new restaurants on 24th Street four years ago after seeing new, attractive restaurants open on nearby Valencia Street and other areas without the restaurant limits.

There were 29 restaurants along 24th Street in 1987, and today there are 22, according to city Planning Department documents.

In 2006, the city allowed three new restaurants to open in the 24th Street-Noe Valley Neighborhood Commercial District, which runs on 24th Street from Chattanooga to Diamond streets and parts of some adjoining blocks. Of the three that obtained permits, only Contigo, a Spanish and Catalan restaurant on Castro at 24th Street, has opened.

Yenne and others said they thought the cap of three restaurants was restrictive and have now put forth a proposal – which the Planning Commission will review today – for an unlimited number, as long as each undergoes a special review and proves that it is appropriate in the neighborhood.
Increasing foot traffic

Real estate brokers on Union Street believe the recent changes there allowing for new restaurants may help attract more foot traffic in an area that lost 35 businesses last year.

Merchants on both Union Street and 24th Street said restaurants make more of an impact on an area’s commercial vitality than they once did. Fewer people cook at home, and more shop online now, they noted.

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