A vacant storefront at 42nd Avenue and Irving Street in the Sunset District is slated to become a restaurant called Palm City Wines. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Confusion over planning codes nearly kills Sunset District restaurant project

A San Francisco couple that dreamed of serving the community they live in almost lost their restaurant before it even opened when conflicting interpretations of a planning code ordinance led to the suspension of their building permits.

After verifying with City officials that their approval process met legal standards, acquiring building permits and draining their life savings to fund the project, Monica Wong and Dennis Cantwell had to stop construction of their future restaurant, Palm City Wines, at 4055 Irving St. when the San Francisco Planning Department revoked their permits on Oct. 15 due to a dispute over the interpretation of recent legislation. The issue was first reported by Eater SF earlier this week.

The Small Business Attraction Ordinance Program, introduced as a two-year pilot in 2018, was designed to shorten the permitting process for small businesses by eliminating the requirement to notify nearby residents of certain changes to a space, such as converting it from a retail establishment to a restaurant — exactly what Wong and Cantwell were doing by converting a shuttered grocery store into their dream restaurant.

However, when neighbors complained that the pair had not properly notified them about the project, zoning officials decided the ordinance was not applicable to their case.

“Everything that the Planning Department has advised us to do, we have done,” Wong said during Wednesday’s BOA meeting. “Were we to have known that we needed to give public notice, we would have done so when we received our permits and would be done with this process by now, or at least very close to it.”

Under Planning Code Section 311, notice must be given to owners and occupants within 150 feet of a property in the event of building expansions and changes of use.

Usually, providing notice to nearby residents and addressing the concerns of neighbors opposed to the changes takes about six months to a year. In almost all cases, businesses get the approval of planning in the end. But for first-time business owners Wong and Cantwell, such a detour at this stage would be the death of their restaurant.

“It just feels like the City is trying to make us start over from scratch just for us to sit and wait just for the sake of it,” Wong said to the board. “Our business will not be able to sustain this. As we have mentioned, not only have we already spent our life savings on business costs, but Dennis left his full-time job at a busy restaurant and I left my second job at a wine bar and cut back my hours at the school I work in, in anticipation of opening our business.”

At Wednesday’s Board of Appeals meeting, planning officials said the permits were issued “in error.” However the board determined public notice was not necessary and overturned the zoning administrator’s request for suspension.

District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai, who introduced the legislation with former supervisor Katy Tang in 2018, said he is very happy with the outcome of the appeal. He and Tang submitted testimony in support of the appellants, saying the Small Business Attraction Ordinance Program was designed specifically for entrepreneurs like Wong and Cantwell.

“Supervisor Katy Tang and I created the ordinance to precisely avoid what happened last night,” Safai said Thursday. “We wanted to make it easier for small businesses to open in our City and to support our mom-and-pop places.”

Scott Sanchez, acting deputy zoning administrator, said during the meeting that he sees both sides of the issue. On one hand, the planning code is massive, complicated and open to interpretation. On the other, the appellants had done everything they were told to, he said, calling the couple “respectful and honest.”

“I think what stands out for me in this case is, usually when we have a suspension request it’s because someone’s gone beyond the scope of a permit, work without permit, or lies or misrepresentations on the plans,” Sanchez said. “From what I can tell, and from what all our staff can tell, in this case the appellant actually tried to do everything right here. This is the best-case scenario of someone coming in and speaking with multiple levels of City government, with experienced staff and getting information that later [was] found to be incorrect.”

On Dec. 4 Wong and Cantwell have a second appeal hearing for a revision permit that allows voluntary changes to the construction methodology, according to the Planning Department spokesperson.

In the meantime, however, Wong and Cantwell are now able to resume construction. The couple said the Sunset District is one of the last few genuine communities left in San Francisco. It’s one they want nothing more than to serve.

“Needless to say, this has been a pretty challenging and emotional time for all of us involved,” Cantwell said at Wednesday’s meeting. “Our sole intention for this entire thing is to help make the community a better place.”

cmcfarland@sfexaminer.com

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