Mike Koozmin/SF ExaminerFounders of a co-working space on Grant Avenue in Chinatown

Mike Koozmin/SF ExaminerFounders of a co-working space on Grant Avenue in Chinatown

Chinatown co-working space could be legal, despite development group's claims

The new co-working space 1920C on Grant Avenue may be able to operate legally after all.

If the owners apply for the proper change-of-use permit and it’s granted by the Planning Department, they can remain in the building. That’s contrary to claims last week from the Chinatown Community Development Center.

The co-working space at 950 Grant Ave. has been operating since April 1 with the tech startup Whil as the main tenant, but it’s open to anyone seeking to rent a desk. It was called illegal by staff with the CCDC, which rallied outside the office Thursday.

That came as a surprise to 1920C co-founder Jenny Chan, 24, who on Friday sought help from Supervisor Julie Christensen, who represents the business district.

An April 28 notice of enforcement from the Planning Department states that a complaint alleges 1920C illegally converted from a retail or commercial use to an administrative service. That’s defined in the planning code as “a use, generally an office use, which provides executive, management, administrative, clerical and other services exclusively to the business community and not to the general public.”

Under the Chinatown Area Plan, an administrative service is prohibited within the Chinatown visitor retail zone, which is where 1920C is located. The area plan was adopted by The City in 1986 when offices and banks from the Financial District encroached on the neighborhood.

But Christensen and her legislative aide Kanishka Burns, a former city planner, pointed out to Chan that her co-working space was more like a professional service, defined in the planning code as “a use, generally an office use, which provides professional services to the general public or to other businesses.”

That can include accounting, legal, consulting, insurance, real estate brokerage, advertising agencies, public-relations agencies, and computer and data processing services.

“I think Jenny has some wiggle room,” Burns said, adding that there’s “a good chance to make it work if she can demonstrate she is open to the general public.”

Chan, who has 15 days to respond, said her attorney researched the legality of the business before the lease was signed.

“Our lawyer viewed our lease and did our research for us, and we were under the impression that we weren’t violating anything,” Chan said.

Chan plans to reply to the Planning Department this week.

The business came together when Chan met Molly Bacon, 23, and Paola Rossaro, 50, at a co-working space in North Beach and the trio decided to open their own space.

Chan said 1920C rents space to anyone, from residents in the single-room-occupancy units in the above floor to walk-ins looking to use Wi-Fi.

Still, Cindy Wu, deputy director with the Chinatown Community Development Center and vice president of the Planning Commission, said the notice “squarely categorizes them as an administrative service.”

“I don’t know if they’re pursuing changing the definition of an administrative service or the way the Planning Department has categorized them, but there needs to be a conversation with the larger community,” Wu said. “We shouldn’t change the code because of one business that’s been there for a month.”

Wu said the CCDC is open to working with the owners to relocate 1920C. Chan, however, has a different idea when it comes to collaborating.

“When I look at their website, we work on the same issues,” Chan said of the development center. “Maybe we can help low-income residents start their own small businesses.”

Christensen said she respects protections put in place for Chinatown, but 1920C is the type of business she wants in the neighborhood.

“I appreciate concern that people follow the rules,” Christensen said, “but we should be in the business to help new ideas, not pillorying them in public.” The ultimate decision on 1920C’s legality lies with Scott Sanchez, zoning administrator for the Planning Department.

“We will certainly be happy to review any information that they provide,” said Gina Simi, a spokeswoman for the Planning Department.

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