The Mel’s Drive-In in the largely residential Richmond district has landed right in the middle of the debate over The City’s future housing stock.
The classic San Francisco diner on Geary Boulevard – the only one among the eponymous chain’s San Francisco locations that still occupies its original site -- could close by 2018 to make way for a proposed four-story residential complex. While the diner is popular among locals and boasts a loyal clientele, its large open footprint makes it unique in a densely populated urban area.
Steven Weiss, one of the chain’s three owners and son of Mel Weiss—who founded the original Mel’s Drive-In restaurants in the 1940s—said on Monday that if the project is approved, the beloved 1950s-themed diner could eventually occupy space on the first floor of the residential building. The property changed ownership a little more than a year ago for the first time in at least six decades.
“We’d like to [renew the lease] but we haven’t started negotiations on it yet,” co-owner Gabriel Mendez said. “Our intentions are to be able to work something out with the landlord and be their anchor tenant.”
An application to develop the housing complex has not been submitted to the Planning Department, but a preliminary project assessment from May 2013 outlines the proposal. It’s envisioned as a 44-foot tall, 23-unit mixed-use building at 3355 Geary Blvd. that would replace the 6,525-square-foot restaurant and parking lot, which has served customers for nearly 50 years.
THE PURSUIT OF MORE HOUSING
One of the longest neighborhood commercial zoning districts in The City is the nearly 4-mile stretch of Geary Boulevard from 28th Avenue to Fillmore Street, and city planners have called for multi-unit residences to be built over commercial space there, according to David Lindsay, who manages planning of the northwest quadrant for San Francisco.
“The zoning essentially is saying ground-floor commercial [space] with housing above,” Lindsay said. “That’s the desired development along this corridor.”
That type of property has sprouted up more and more in the area over the years, according to Lindsay. He said he has not heard of any opposition to the proposed project at the Mel’s site, but part of the development review process would include neighborhood outreach and a public hearing.
In San Francisco’s current tight housing market, many longtime residents feel they can no longer afford to live in The City, while new residents are paying peak market rates to rent or buy property.
The Richmond district has not been spotlighted as much as some other neighborhoods for inflated housing prices, yet residents there are generally receptive to the idea of bringing in more homes.
David Heller, president of the Greater Geary Boulevard Merchants Association, said additional housing in the area, like that proposed for the Mel’s Drive-In site, would help bring down rents.
“We need to build and we need to stop putting all sorts of conditions [on] building in this city,” Heller said. “We need apartments so our middle class can stay.”
The Mel’s location would be ideal for a mixed-use building that includes residences, Heller added.
“Right now it’s a total waste of air space,” he said. “Mel’s can be at the bottom, other people can be on top.”
But neighbors expressed mixed reactions to the idea of building housing atop a neighborhood landmark.
Andrew Goodman, a longtime resident of the Richmond district who has been dining at the Geary Boulevard Mel’s Drive-In since it reopened, said the proposed development could make the area less inviting.
“It turns this stretch of Geary into a much more homogeneous area,” Goodman said, referring to the several blocks on either side of the restaurant. “It just adds to the density and it replaces something that the neighborhood and many other people use and find very valuable.”
David Gousev, whose third-floor apartment on Parker Street overlooks the Mel’s, was wary of a new residential complex in his backyard, but said he understands the need for more housing.
“As long as it doesn’t affect parking,” Gousev added.
Jordan Darula, a University of San Francisco student who works at Earth’s Coffee across the street from Mel’s, said there is a major shortage of housing for students citywide and bringing more units to the neighborhood could help.
The project at 3355 Geary Blvd. would include a subterranean parking garage with 16 commercial, 17 residential and 15 bicycle parking spaces, according to a preliminary assessment.
“The design blends a residential scale with a massing appropriate for the Geary commercial corridor,” reads a post on the website of Ian Birchall and Associates, the architecture firm reportedly designing the building.
Last week, the website stated that “construction is anticipated for summer of 2014,” but that line has since been removed. Ian Birchall told The San Francisco Examiner on Monday that construction is not scheduled for this summer. He declined further comment on the proposal.
Weiss and Mendez reiterated that their restaurant isn’t closing anytime soon. There are four years left on its 30-year lease, which began when the diner reopened in February 1988 as part of the “next-generation” of Mel’s Drive-In restaurants.
The Richmond location was the second Mel’s to reopen in The City—and the only one to reopen in its original spot—after the first batch of Mel’s diners closed in 1972. The other locations are on Lombard Street, Van Ness Avenue and Mission Street. And there are three more Mel’s throughout Southern California.
City records show that the Richmond property was sold in December 2012. At the time, Weiss, Mendez and their other partner, Donald Wagstaff, tried to buy the property from the family that had owned it since the first Mel’s was built there in 1952. The trio even sent a deposit before learning the price had increased substantially, allowing another buyer to swoop in.
“We’d hoped to be there forever,” Weiss said.
CUSTOMERS AND EMPLOYEES CONCERNED
Pictures that decorate the inside of the restaurant—known for its burgers, fries and milkshakes—boast the date of the grand opening of the first Mel’s Drive-In at 140 South Van Ness Ave. on Dec. 23, 1947.
At the Richmond location last weekend, customers and employees -- some of whom have been dining or working there for decades -- expressed disappointment at uncertain future for the restaurant, even if it’s only closed for a year or so during construction.
“A lot of the customers are really worried,” said Ovel Gonzalez, the restaurant’s general manager, who started as a dishwasher at the Mel’s on Lombard Street a month after it opened in 1986. He transferred to the Geary Boulevard location two years later. He is one of six employees who have worked at the location for more than 10 years, he said.
Many regulars said they come for the drive-in theme with its countertops, booths and jukeboxes reminiscent of the 1950s and ‘60s.
“Some customers eat here three times a day,” Gonzalez said. “We get lots of families. Kids love this place.”
THE NEXT STEP
The preliminary project assessment issued May 3, 2013 for the mixed-use building at 3355 Geary Blvd. is valid for 18 months, according to the Planning Department. That means the architects must submit an application for development within the next six months or it will have to start the process over.
Because the restaurant building is more than 50 years old, the project is subject to the Planning Department’s historic preservation review. The department is likely to require noise and archaeological studies, but assessments of air quality, as well as traffic, shadow and wind impacts are not anticipated, according to the preliminary project assessment.
Additionally, city law stipulates that new residential developments with 10 or more units must allow for some below-market-rate housing or pay a fee. A 23-unit building would need to provide three on-site units or five off-site units of below-market-rate housing in lieu of a fee.
Outreach to neighbors within 150 feet of the project site, along with a public hearing, will also be required.
Whatever happens, the owners said they are hopeful that Mel’s will only have to close temporarily.
“We’re a big part of San Francisco,” Mendez said, “a big part of the neighborhood.”