In a city known for its restaurants and bars, opening new locations is hindered by outdated and imposing obstacles, officials say.
The City adopted neighborhood commercial district zoning laws 20 years ago in an effort to keep the unique character of communities in the face of mounting development and economic pressures.
But the controls, which have been subjected to “piecemeal” changes, are outdated and prevent desirable businesses from moving into neighborhoods where they would be welcome along commercial corridors, according to City Planner Dan Sider, who presented the department’s NC@20 report to the Small Business Commission last week.
The 76-page report examines the success of the neighborhood commercial district controls and recommends improvements. Sider said that in particular, restaurants and bars are forced to contend with “superfluous red tape.”
“Urban designers and city planners are trying to tell different land-use categories apart by looking at, for example, the number of seats in an establishment, where a payment is made … whether payment is made before or after a meal,” he said. “What are the results of trying to cram modern restaurants into a 20-year-old pigeonhole? Establishments that could be great additions to our neighborhoods are forced to look elsewhere.”
Varying neighborhood zoning laws only add to an exhaustive permitting process for prospective restaurateurs, who have to attain approval from a litany of separate city agencies, said Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.
“It would be much simpler if there was one set of zoning requirements throughout The City,” he said. “There are a number of experienced restaurateurs who are trying to invest in The City, but it’s very difficult and they’re turning to other cities to start their businesses. They would never go through this kind of hassle in Oakland.”
Not everyone agrees with those assessments. Small Business Commissioner Kathleen Dooley, who supports specific controls for neighborhood districts, said detailed regulations could speed the permitting process because only those businesses desired by an area apply and they also indicate where their “niche” is around The City.
But Gabe Metcalf, director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a public policy think tank, was critical of the “micromanaging” approach. He said that given the chain store restrictions already in place, the time has come for The City to loosen the regulations for other types of businesses.
If not, only well-financed stores will be able to afford to navigate the system, and communities run the risk of seeing more empty storefronts, he said.
As The City hopes to climb out of the recession and fill empty storefronts, enacting zoning friendlier to bars, restaurants and other businesses could speed up that recovery. But San Francisco’s own financial constraints may hamper that effort. For any major revamping of the
20-year-old zoning laws to take place, city leaders would have to decide to invest in such an undertaking.
“It’s time to modernize, time to simplify and time to streamline,” Sider said.
Altering permit process ‘matter of political will’
The permitting process to open a business in San Francisco allows for community input — but that can hold up a project.
With a commitment of resources, The City could transform the expensive and cumbersome permitting process one has to navigate to open a small business into a much smoother experience, according to the Planning Department.
“Now is the time, given the economy, for The City to take this seriously,” said small-business advocate Scott Hauge.
When The City decides to address a problem, the result is generally successful, he said.
“It’s just a matter of political will,” Hauge said.
In 1987, 97 percent of the planning permits necessary to open small businesses like coffee shops, laundromats and nail salons were issued over the counter and right away. In 2007, just 30 percent were obtained as easily, according to a Planning Department report.
City Planner Dan Sider said the more challenging process has benefits in that it provides more scrutiny. Neighbors are notified and can weigh in, and the Planning Commission has a say.
However, “this process can be extremely burdensome, especially so for small businesses,” Sider said.
Rob Black, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce vice president for public policy, said, “Unless you can afford a political consultant and a legal consultant and floating a mortgage for a year, you can’t afford to open a business in a lot of areas in The City.”
A complaint by one person can also block a project for years, he said.
— Joshua Sabatini