Legislation from Supervisor Hillary Ronen would allow vacant storefronts to be used by nonprofits and other services. (Chris Victorio | Special to the S.F. Examiner).

SF’s vacant storefronts could become temporary homes for arts, nonprofits or COVID-19 services

San Francisco’s empty storefronts could soon start filling up with arts activities and social services along with programs to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, Supervisor Hillary Ronen introduced legislation that would create a special temporary use Planning Department permit to allow nonprofits and arts activities to operate out of empty storefronts throughout the city.

The concept was inspired by the large number of empty storefronts in San Francisco along with the displacement facing many artists and nonprofits. It would give them more places to temporarily operate from as they look for a long-term situation in the event of an eviction.

The proposal was introduced in February before the COVID-19 pandemic struck San Francisco.

But amid the pandemic, Ronen amended the proposal during Monday’s Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee to broaden what is allowed under the permits to include “COVID-19 recovery activities.”

The legislation defines these activities as services to help with housing, employment and financial assistance as well as food distribution, testing and bathrooms.

“This legislation seeks to create an efficient solution by establishing a new use permit option that will allow nonprofit agencies providing arts and social services to operate in unused vacant storefronts throughout the city,” Ronen said. She also said it would “bolster” The City’s COVID-19 response.

The legislation authorizes the Planning Department to approve the temporary permit for an initial period of up to two years with a possible two-year extension for a total of four years.

A Planning Department staff memo said the legislation would “open avenues for non-profit organizations and relief efforts to temporarily locate in the neighborhoods with the populations they serve, while avoiding delays caused by bureaucratic hurdles.”

The Planning Commission unanimously approved the proposal June 25 and recommended the amendments Ronen made Monday.

Audrey Merlone, a senior legislative planner with the Planning Department, told the commission that the process to review and approve the applications can take just 15 minutes.

The planning memo noted that arts activities, which are defined in the planning to code to include dance studios and ceramic workshops, “are vital to ensuring residents can access Arts education, creative spaces, and view artistic performances, yet they are often constrained not only by rental costs, but also by zoning controls.”

Art activities are permitted on the ground floor of neighborhood commercial districts in supervisorial districts 1, 4, 5, 10, and 11, according to the memo.

Artists and their organizations would have “temporary space across the City which may prevent an evicted Arts Activities Use from needing to leave the City while looking for another permanent location, and will allow residents of Supervisorial Districts that have not permitted Arts Activities in their NCD’s to experience the benefits of an Arts Activity use in their neighborhood, even if only temporarily,” the memo said.

Due to changes, the legislation had to remain in the committee for another week. It is expected to go to the full board at its July 27 meeting.


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