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Future still uncertain for historic ‘Empress of China’ building

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A large dragon hangs from the ceiling in the lobby of the former home of the Empress of China restaurant at 838 Grant Ave. in Chinatown. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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The future of a Chinatown building that for nearly half a century housed the Empress of China restaurant has been up in the air since the building switched hands in 2016, and recent efforts to open a new restaurant there have met neighborhood zoning hurdles.

The traditional banquet-restaurant occupied the fifth and sixth floors of 838 Grant Ave. and famously hosted wedding parties and social gatherings for the Chinatown community until it closed in 2014.

The developer initially floated an idea to expand the historic, six-story building to make room for a basement-level restaurant, but Planning Department officials determined earlier this month that the proposed expansion would violate zoning codes.

A letter of determination submitted to the Planning Department by architect Jeremy Schaub in August inquired about code regulations for the expansion of the building’s envelope and pointed to plans for increasing the amount of gross square footage inside.

In the letter, Schaub detailed plans to convert the building’s basement level from its current retail use to restaurant use, and to remove two sets of stairs connecting the basement to the first floor.

Though permitted by code, a restaurant conversation would require a conditional use permit, the Planning Department noted. As of Tuesday, no such permit application had been filed.

Schaub also proposed expanding the basement level by 568 square feet, from 6,579 square feet to 7,165 square feet. According to the letter, the developers also contemplated removing an existing recessed storefront located on the other side of the building that is “heavily used by a nightly transient population.”

A more “flush entrance” off of Portsmouth Square was also proposed. Closing off the recessed storefront would require an estimated 192-square-foot increase to the building’s gross floor plan.

But a response by the Planning Department on Nov. 6 found that the building is out of compliance with current code. The Chinatown Visitor Retail (CVR) Zoning District, which includes 838 Grant Ave., sets the maximum use size for restaurants at 5,000 square feet — an amount the building currently exceeds.

Schaub declined to comment on plans for the proposed restaurant or any other potential uses for the building.

“The CVR zoning, the integrity of the [Chinatown Master Plan] is critical,” said Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. “That is really what is essentially the bulwark that protects Chinatown against the kind of development that could lead to shifts in the role of Chinatown for its residents, future residents and for The City.”

The zoning regulations serve to protect Chinatown’s character and role as a “valuable immigrant gateway,” Yeung said.

On Tuesday, scaffolding that concealed the building in recent weeks had been removed, revealing a layer of fresh paint. A jewelry merchant inside of the building’s ground floor — one of last remaining vendors out of about a dozen that once operated there — set up shop behind locked doors and next to a sign that read, “Final sale, everything must go.”

“This was the best restaurant in Chinatown, that’s what I heard,” said a Grant Street merchant who declined to give his name. “They said all the [former] presidents and stuff used to eat up there.”

The merchant said the building has been largely vacant in recent years.

“[A restaurant] would be good because more people will come to this area,” the merchant said. “These stores open at 10 to 10:30 a.m because there is really no business. They used to stay open until 11:30 p.m. [or] midnight. Now by 6 p.m., you can see their lights being turned off.”

Yeung agreed that repurposing the vacant building quickly is “important,” but that it should come “in a way that is consistent with the plan.”

Previous inquiries to the Planning Department by the developers “sought interpretations regarding hotel use and other uses” on its remaining floors, according to Nicholas Foster, a planner with the Planning Department, although those requests were withdrawn before a letter of determination was issued.

Talk of converting some of the floors to tech office spaces drew the ire of Chinatown community leaders when the building first hit the market.

“We were shocked to see real estate marketing material that showed the banquet room in the old Empress of China turned into tech offices,” said Gordon Chin, former executive director of CCDC, who along with other community leaders formed a coalition to preserve the building’s use as community serving.

“We were pushing for restaurant use [because] it’s better for the community than office, and certainly not tech offices,” he said.

A restaurant could still be in the cards for 838 Grant Ave., but will likely require a public process, he said.

“The community is definitely watching,” said Sunny Angulo, a legislative aide to Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district includes Chinatown, adding that community interest is rooted in uses that “will prioritize jobs for actual small business owners that are actual Chinese residents.”

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