Neighbors fight new SF e-cigarette shop and hookah lounge

A young couple might want to call their new Ocean Avenue business Happy Vape, but nearby residents are not smiling over a venture that is testing the new process for opening an e-cigarette business in San Francisco.

The City despises empty storefronts yet it is picky about what businesses fill these spaces. And that is something Blake He has found out the hard way when he applied to

open up Happy Vape, which is planned to have electronic cigarette sales at the ground level and a steam-stone hookah lounge in the basement, at 1963 Ocean Ave.

He — who grew up in San Francisco and worked as a building engineer for Charles Schwab until he was laid off two years ago — once smoked traditional cigarettes, but gave them up for e-cigarettes when his wife got pregnant. That move proved to be the impetus for Happy Vape.

“I was able to quit cigarettes and electronic cigarettes with nicotine after nine months of use,” he said of the devices that vaporize nicotine instead of burn it. “Occasionally I use electronic with non-nicotine e-liquids.”

Ten months ago, He leased the retail space on Ocean Avenue and has since been fighting to obtain a conditional-use permit to operate the business. He would be the first entrepreneur to go through the special process for e-cigarette sales under new laws adopted in San Francisco this year. There are 21 such stores in The City, He said, and all opened before the new law took effect.

The proposal is wrapped up in seemingly odd rules. City laws don't allow e-cigarettes to be used indoors, but the steam-stone hookahs can be. There are 10 hookah lounges in San Francisco, three of which use steam stones. The others were grandfathered in after indoor smoking was banned statewide in 1995.

The Planning Commission approved the permit for Happy Vape to open in a 5-2 vote last week, but opponents have the option to appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors. And that is why He is not celebrating yet.

“We're preparing for the worst,” He said.

The commission heard an earful of the debate about how safe e-cigarettes are and how effective they are in helping people quit smoking traditional cigarettes, but did not weigh in on that aspect. The vaporizing industry has grown into a $2 billion field.

He tried to placate the neighborhood opposition by scrapping an outdoor e-cigarette sampling area. The commission also scaled back his hours from a midnight closing to 10 p.m.

“It hurts the business a little bit,” He said. “It would have been nice for a customer to try the flavors before purchasing, kind of like Costco. But some people are not going to be happy no matter what we give up.”

Working in his favor was the support he received from the Ocean Avenue Association, a community benefit district. And the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development said there was a concentration of vacancies located on the blocks around He's location. He said that “we are in the business to provide an alternative to traditional tobacco products, harm-reduction” and that the store would turn into a “destination place that will bring pedestrian traffic and vibrancy" to the area.

Still, neighbors are adamant that it is not a good fit for the area. Ingleside Terraces resident Irene Creps said she “strongly” opposes the project.

“The 1900 block of Ocean Avenue is already in some ways a moral hazard featuring a massage parlor that advertises on adult websites — you know what that means — a cannabis dispensary, a billiards joint and a tattoo parlor,” she said.

Anita Theoharis of the Westwood Park Association said the community needs traditional businesses.

“We feel the corridor is in jeopardy because we are not attracting neighborhood services that we need — hardware stores, stationary stores, toy stores, specialty grocery stores and many more,” Theoharis said.

Planning Commissioner Michael Antonini objected to the permit, saying that the business did not fit “on a block that has so many other bad things going on.” He said the area could use something like the restaurant Nopa, which “began the transition of the Divisadero” area when it opened in 2006.

And when his colleagues disagreed, Antonini noted that “when the neighbors didn't want a Starbucks in the Sunset we voted against it.”

It sounds like the neighbors will take their case to the board.

“We are very disappointed with the decision by the Planning Commission. They seem to be saying that filling a vacant storefront is more important than the health and welfare of the neighbors,” said nearby resident Robert Karis, adding that if they do file an appeal, “We trust that the [board] will place the concerns of the neighbors above that of a new business.”

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