A new co-working space on Grant Avenue in Chinatown has drawn foul cries from community activists who call it an illegal conversion of retail space into tech offices.
The business co-founders, however, insist they are neighborhood-serving and the landlord was unaware of the area’s zoning laws.
Called 1920C, the co-working space on the second floor of 950 Grant Ave., the former location of the Grand Palace Restaurant, caught the eye of a Chinatown Community Development Center staff member last week.
Development center leaders determined the business violates the Chinatown Area Plan adopted by The City in 1986, when a wave of office developments and banks threatened to turn the neighborhood into an extension of the Financial District.
The co-working space sits in the plan’s “Chinatown visitor retail” zone. A November 2012 building permit states the basement, ground and second floor can contain two retail units each, none exceeding 2,500 square feet. But 1920C, up and running since April 1, occupies 4,000 square feet on the entire second floor, according to its website, www.1920c.com.
“For [more than] 30 years, we have prohibited office space. It’s in the books, it’s on the plan,” said the development center’s policy director Gen Fujioka on Thursday outside 1920C. “Also on the permit for this space, those conditions are black and white.”
The co-working space, which advertises an open desk for $5 per hour, $25 daily, and $300 to $500 monthly (the rent for a single-room-occupancy hotel unit five years ago) is the first tech-involved company to land in Chinatown’s core.
“It’s replicating what tech has used all over The City — they violate the law first and then they try to fix it later, which we don’t want to see in Chinatown,” said Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of the development center. “That’s how it happened with Uber, Airbnb.”
But Jenny Chan, one of 1920C’s three women co-founders who walked down to see what the commotion was about, said she had “no idea” about the permits and area plan.
While the main tenant at the co-working space is whil — a 14-employee digital yoga and mindfulness startup — Chan said the space welcomes all sectors and gives SRO tenants living on the floor above a discount.
“I think our space is providing a service, so we are allowed,” said Chan, 24, adding that 1920C’s grand opening party Friday evening invites neighbors and will include a lion dance.
Jacky Li, who bought the building a few years ago, said, “I don’t really understand the zoning or what Chinatown requires” and thought the permits allowed for a retail or office use on the second floor. He added he leased it to Chan for about $7,000 per month because they were the first to inquire.
Li said if The City says 1920C cannot operate in the space, he will abide by the rules. “Of course, if The City says they can’t stay here, we will tell [1920C], ‘Sorry, we can’t,’” he told The San Francisco Examiner.
Both the landlord and co-working space’s founders are at fault, as far as Cindy Wu, the development center’s deputy director and vice president of the Planning Commission, is concerned.
The Planning Department has been alerted to administer enforcement and “there is no way for them to come into compliance,” Wu said.
Work around the November 2012 permit for improving the interior shell of the building and adding handicap accessibility has yet to get the sign-off from the Department of Building Inspection, according to agency spokeswoman Lily Madjus, and the landlord has until the end of this year to finish.
In light of The City’s affordability crisis, it’s important for landlords and businesses comply with the area plan, said Alex Tom, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.
“A lot of other Chinatowns are looking to San Francisco in many ways holding the standard,” Tom said.