Van Ness Avenue businesses say they need city help to survive Muni construction

Halloween will be Bootleg Bar and Kitchen’s last open night, says co-owner Masaye Waugh, and she pins the bar’s closure squarely on the shoulders of ongoing construction work on Van Ness Avenue.

The Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit system will whisk thousands of riders down that busy avenue when it is completed some time in 2021, but until then, businesses like Bootleg said they are suffering and need city help.

Waugh and other merchants along Van Ness told the San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday that The City helped Chinatown during a similarly tough time, when Central Subway construction led Chinatown shops to shutter. The late Mayor Ed Lee came to Chinatown’s rescue in late 2017, as did Supervisor Aaron Peskin, to the tune of $450,000 in aid.

“I don’t understand what’s different this time around,” Waugh said while standing on the steps of City Hall. “The thing that is baffling is the lack of response from supervisors and the mayor.”

Businesses buckling under the construction were organized by District 2 supervisor candidate Nick Josefowitz, whose opponent, Supervisor Catherine Stefani, was called out by Waugh for letting city construction block potential customers from entering her business. “I emailed them, gosh, so many times,” said Waugh.

Stefani’s office said they referred Waugh to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni, and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which has offered roughly $45,000 worth of aid to businesses in the form of signage and advertising to all Van Ness businesses.

Yet despite the signs, Brian Bruckner’s bike shop, Big Swingin’ Bicycles, still gets customers who say they thought the store was closed, due to the thick fencing and dirt sidewalks outside the business. Haytham Hassan’s restaurant, Helmand Palace, has been blocked by trucks and portable toilets used by construction teams.

“I’m making zero money,” Hassan said.

Hassan, ironically, is working as a Muni operator to keep his restaurant on Van Ness afloat during the Muni-related construction.

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

While he didn’t specifically speak to Van Ness Avenue’s woes, Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of programs at the Chinatown Community Development Center, said Chinatown survived Central Subway construction because it was organized from the outset.

His organization in particular, CCDC, along with a coalition of groups, met with SFMTA over construction methods and called for boring underground, which would be less disruptive to businesses than topside construction methods.

“We really got out ahead of it,” Yeung said. “We were involved in the design process and every single one of the approval processes.”

A similar process played out a stone’s throw from the Bootleg bar, he said.

Four years ago Notre Dame Senior Housing, only two blocks away from Bootleg, was set to lose a prized bus stop. The seniors, Yeung said, were concerned they’d have to walk farther to ride Muni. They met with city officials and got out ahead of the approvals process with organizing help from CCDC. In the end, they saved their bus stop.

“I think this really highlights the importance of neighborhood-level representation and activism,” Yeung said. “It’s the people or entities who are going to monitor the welfare of the neighborhood.”

Those entities exist in different forms across The City: The Mission Economic Development Agency, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, many neighborhoods play host to groups that advocate for their needs.

Now Waugh, Buckner, Hassan and other Van Ness merchants are also organizing, with an urgent demand for help before it’s too late.

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