Life in the Tenderloin could soon get a little bit brighter.
A zoning change unanimously approved by the Planning Commission on Thursday would essentially allow neon signs in the heart of the neighborhood. The legislation would make it easier to restore the nearly 100 historic neon signs in the neighborhood and allow single-room occupancy hotels and ground floor businesses to install new ones.
“We’ve had so many businesses be negatively impacted by the pandemic,” said Katie Conry, executive director of the Tenderloin Museum. “Encouraging new, vibrant, artistically interesting, historically relevant advertising seems like just what the neighborhood needs right now.” The legislation will need to be approved by the Board of Supervisors in the coming weeks.
For years, efforts have been underway to refurbish the illuminated signs in the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s historic neon sign capital. In 2018, the Tenderloin Museum, SF Neon, and The City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development launched an initiative called Tenderloin Neon A-Z for that purpose.
“This legislation is a continuation of that work, a much needed new proposal, because we really hit some barriers with the way that the law is currently written,” Conry said.
While some signs were refurbished through Tenderloin A-Z, like those at the the Elm, Abigail and Jefferson hotels, progress was slow. Existing zoning prohibits neon signs in the Tenderloin, meaning historic neon signs had to be repaired on-site, instead of in a workshop. If a sign were removed for repair, it wouldn’t be legal to reinstall it.
“As we got funding to fix these signs, it was hard to find sign companies that would say yes,” said Randall Ann Homan, director of SF Neon. Many signs are covered in lead paint, or would be prohibitively difficult to work on in mid-air, Homan said.
Meanwhile, the Tenderloin Museum found historic photos of its building, the Cadillac Hotel, with a large projecting neon sign that was removed at some point in the middle of the 20th century. The museum and the hotel, the oldest continuously operating SRO on the West Coast, wanted to put up a new sign inspired by the historic one, reading “Hotel Cadillac” on one side, and “The Tenderloin” on the other. But they, too, were thwarted by zoning.
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To address these policy issues and restore the Tenderloin to its neon glory, Conry began working with Supervisor Matt Haney on a zoning change for the neighborhood. After Haney departed for the state Assembly and the Tenderloin was moved into District 5, Supervisor Dean Preston picked up the reins.
“When the neighborhood became part of our district due to redistricting a few months ago, we were asked to introduce legislation to update rules for neon signage to preserve and honor this history,” Preston said. “Working with a broad coalition of neighborhood advocates and nonprofit leaders, I’m proud to carry this legislation forward to make it easier to add new neon signs and restore the iconic signs that help shape the Tenderloin identity.”
The legislation approved by the Planning Commission would make several changes to the zoning code in an area roughly bounded by McAlister, Taylor, Post and Polk streets. Preston intends to bring the legislation before the Board of Supervisors when it reconvenes in September.
Echoing historical design patterns, residential hotels, or SROs, would be allowed to install vertical projecting signs no more than 25 feet high and 5 feet wide, under the proposed changes. Other businesses would be allowed to install facade signs no larger than 40 square feet. The zoning change would also enable historic neon signs to be removed for repair and then reinstalled.
Blinking lights, animated features and moving parts would not be permitted under the new rules. “It’s not going to turn into Las Vegas,” Homan said.
So far, the proposal hasn’t faced any organized opposition, according to Conry. These changes were included in the Tenderloin Community Action Plan, a strategic document generated with feedback from over 1,000 community members. Organizations including the Tenderloin Merchants’ Association, Tenderloin Housing Clinic, UC Hastings and the Tenderloin People’s Congress have all come out in support.
Should the legislation pass, one of the first businesses to take advantage of it could be La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, a food hall for immigrant women chefs, and one of the organizations in support of the change. Currently, La Cocina has a big neon sign on the inside of the food hall but nothing on the outside to draw people in.
Conry calls neon signs “literal beacons” that could help improve the safety and vitality of the Tenderloin. “Signs provide much needed street lighting that can deter crime, encourage foot traffic and draw in visitors.”