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Hemlock Tavern hopes for encore after building demolition

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Patrons sit at the bar at Hemlock Tavern on Polk Street on Tuesday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

When plans were announced last year to raze the building that for more than 15 years housed Hemlock Tavern and replace it with new housing, many assumed it would be last call for the popular Polk Street bar and music venue.

But a tweak to The City’s planning code could allow Hemlock to return to the neighborhood once the new building is completed.

The San Francisco Planning Commission is expected to vote today on an amendment to Polk Street zoning regulations, introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin in February, that would allow liquor stores and bars that have been displaced by building demolitions to return after construction ends. The amendment would let them re-establish in the new building while maintaining their existing liquor and business licenses.

The change is tailored specifically to save Hemlock Tavern in response to a push by local officials, businesses and residents.

Local developers Dolmen Property Group pulled permits last year to demolish the three-story building at 1145 Polk St., which includes Hemlock at 1131 Polk St., to build a new, 54-unit mixed-use condominium building.

Hemlock’s lease expires in 2021, but the property’s purchase in 2015 sparked community concerns that the new development would shutter the local haunt.

“People are curious and obviously worried, nobody wants it shut down,” said Lorena Jimenez, a bartender at Hemlock who described the establishment as a “staple in the neighborhood.”

“Most people that live in this neighborhood live in studios or small apartments, so we don’t really have a lot of space,” she said. “This is like a lot of people’s living room.”

Employees and regulars of Hemlock told the San Francisco Examiner the bar is one of the last strongholds for the neighborhood’s vanishing population of punks, bike messengers and artists.

“I guess old-school Tenderloin. Most of these places are gone, and more and more are leaving every few months,” said a bartender and Hemlock patron of more than a decade who declined to give his name. “The main concern is, where do we go after this? Where do people like us migrate to hang out after work?”

The property is located within the Lower Polk Street Alcohol Restricted Use District, which was implemented in 2013 to curb the number of liquor establishments setting up shop in an area along Polk Street from California to O’Farrell streets and is up for another five-year renewal this year.

Under current law, a one-year grace period is allowed for temporarily closed businesses to reopen before their permit is deemed “abandoned.” It grants exceptions only to those shuttered by disasters, such as fires, or undergoing renovations or a change of ownership.

The revised ordinance would incorporate another exception for businesses affected by building demolitions, so long as the demolition permits were granted by Jan. 1, 2018.

But in an effort to extend this courtesy to Hemlock, an amendment further proposes to move this date, as it’s demolition permit was approved on Jan. 5 by the Planning Department and has yet to be approved by the Department of Building Inspection.

Chris Schulman, president of the Polk Street Community Benefit District board, said ensuring Hemlock’s return has been a “critical component” in negotiations between the community, Peskin and the developers.

“I think development and housing are important, but we have to make sure that we keep our cultural institutions, and the Hemlock is one,” Schulman said. “This is an example where development can occur, housing can be created and cultural institutions can be preserved.”

With much of lower and middle Polk Street becoming increasingly attractive for development, Sunny Angulo, Peskin’s legislative aide, said these are the “types of neighborhood planning controls that allow the community to have a direct hand in shaping their neighborhood.”

“Lower Polk has got a lot of character and the neighbors have deep pride in their hood,” she said. “So hopefully these types of land use policies can help preserve the diversity and charisma of Polk Gulch as more development continues in the years ahead.”

Planning Department staff has recommended a positive approval for the extension of the modified ordinance. Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards called the issue “straight forward.”

Since the implementation of alcohol restrictions, Lower Polk has maintained what is considered to be a healthy storefront vacancy rate of 9 percent, according to planning documents.

“I can’t imagine the commission will move forward with the extension for the RUD but keep the Jan 1. date that will be displacing the Hemlock,” Richards said.

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