City officials, business groups urge Park Service to find interim use for Cliff House

Historic building sits empty after long-time tenant shut down in December

Following the closure of San Francisco’s iconic Cliff House restaurant on New Year’s Eve and its immediate defacement by graffiti the following day, Supervisor Connie Chan and city business groups are urging the National Park Service to find an interim use for the historic property while it searches for new permanent tenants.

A resolution Chan introduced at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting calls on the Park Service to find an immediate short-term use for the property, and also calls on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein to work with the federal agency on plans for the site, which is normally a major tourist attraction.

“The Cliff House is an iconic landmark beloved by San Franciscans and visitors from around the world,” Chan said in a statement Monday. “Like most of us, I was devastated when it closed in December due to the impacts of COVID-19 and challenges with negotiating a long-term lease. As The City reopens and recovers from the pandemic, it is critical that we reactivate this iconic attraction for locals and tourists.”

The resolution notes that the process for finding a long-term tenant for a 20-year lease, which was launched in August with the release of a request for proposals, could take “years.” While the park service has said it plans to resume service at the Cliff House, it has also said the solicitation process is currently suspended due to the pandemic, leaving it unclear exactly when the building will be occupied again.

Business and hospitality groups including the San Francisco Travel Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, the Hotel Council of San Francisco and the Council of District Merchants Association also sent a joint letter to Feinstein on Monday urging her to work with the Park Service on quickly finding a use for the site, such as a restaurant and gift shop. They also offered to assist in finding a solution for the site.

The Cliff House, the first version of which was built in 1863, closed officially on New Year’s Eve after the longtime operators of the restaurant, Dan and Mary Hountalas, said they were unable to reach an agreement with the National Park Service over a long-term lease or continue operating at a loss during the pandemic. The restaurant had ended in-house dining in March, due to the pandemic, and ceased operations altogether in July after a brief, money-losing attempt at offering take-out only service.

The Hountalas’ had also operated a small cafe at the Lands End Visitors Center.

The Park Service, which controls the property, said at the time of its closure that it was “committed to maintaining this iconic building.” However immediately after the closure, on New Year’s Day, the white facade of the seaside building was covered with sprawling black graffiti.

On Tuesday, a Park Service spokesman said the agency as working with the Board of Supervisors and federal legislators to “reassure them that we are working as fast and effectively as possible considering the overriding pandemic circumstances our communities face.”

In the meantime, facilities staff and law enforcement are monitoring the property, and windows have been covered to prevent vandalism.

“We recognize how important this building is to our partner agencies and our community and hear loud and clear how passionate they are about continuing the Cliff House experience in the future,” spokesman Julian Espinoza said in a statement.

The Hountalas’ have a permit to use the building through March in order to allow them to remove their property. After that, the Park Service plans to offer “short-term, temporary uses for the building as a way to keep it occupied and in use,” Espinoza said.

The Cliff House’s closure is only the latest blow for the Lands End tourist area overlooking Sutro Baths. The two other restaurants in the immediate area, the Seal Rock Inn and Louis’ Restaurant, both also closed earlier in 2020. Louis’ was also in a property controlled by the National Park Service, as is the nearby Visitors Center, while the Seal Rock Inn is privately owned.

This story has been updated to include a comment from the National Park Service.

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