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Embattled co-working space makes appeal to stay in Chinatown

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James Ng speaks during a 1920C hearing on Wednesday. (Michael Ares/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

A Zoning Administrator’s hearing was the battleground this week in the intense debate over whether co-working space 1920C can remain at its current Chinatown location.

Located at 950 Grant Ave. in the Chinatown visitor retail zone, 1920C from its inception drew a red flag for staff of the influential Chinatown Community Development Center, who fear encroachment of the tech sector and big money into the area historically populated with immigrant mom-and-pop shops.

The development center, which over decades of activism has regularly mobilized numerous community members to preserve neighborhood character, on Wednesday sent only its policy and community planning managers to oppose 1920C’s appeal of a prior Planning Department decision that states their operation is illegal under the 1986 Chinatown Area Plan. On the other side of the debate Wednesday, the co-working space had the presence of dozens of Chinese seniors and the voices of business owners and neighbors in support.

“Instead of pushing them out, find a planning code that will allow them to stay, or change the damn code,” said Andrew Young, whose family owned the building from the 1940s until 2012.

The co-working space’s attorney Chelsea Maclean argued the notice of violation from the Planning Department doesn’t discuss exceptions regarding the definition of office use — which is prohibited under the current zoning — and that co-working spaces should be exempt. She added the co-working operation occupies only 25 percent of the space and is open to the public, like the art gallery, conference room and other amenities at that site.

The area plan, Maclean said, was adopted to stop the Financial District from infringing on the neighborhood, but public comments show this is not a threat. “In fact, this is the opposite. This is revitalizing Chinatown.”

But the development center’s policy manager Gen Fujioka said there was no identifiable revenue source showing the co-working operation was not the primary use and revenue generator for 1920C and that the matter was not about whether the activities taking place there were “good or bad.” “It’s prohibited in the Chinatown area on the second floor,” Fujioka said. “We need to be able to rely on primary use.”

At the end of the hearing, Zoning Administrator Scott Sanchez announced he did not have enough information to make a decision. Typically a ruling letter is sent within 30 days, but generating 1920C’s “may be longer,” Sanchez said, adding he has not been on site personally and would like to “carefully deliberate.”

Maclean referenced five other co-working spaces in commercial zoning districts outside Chinatown. In response, Sanchez said, “Most, if not all, appear to be violations, so we will be following up with them as well.”

The co-founders of 1920C obtained emails showing that Cindy Wu, the development center’s deputy director and vice president of the Planning Commission, put the co-working space on the Planning Department’s radar. She also received confirmation the space violated zoning in the district and asked Sanchez to issue a notice of violation before June 1. Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak told the San Francisco Examiner that years ago she encouraged the development center to inquire about leasing the three-story building that now houses 1920C on the second floor. That did not materialize.

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