Voters speed up permit process for struggling small businesses

Merchants say newly approved Prop. H helps them avoid exorbitant costs

Ben Bleiman opened Dr. Teeth on Mission Street in July 2011. The back patio quickly became a favorite drinking hole in a neighborhood known, in part, for its readily available revelry in the form of good food and perhaps even better booze.

Though the patio on the property preceded this new bar, Bleiman, a partner at Tonic Nightlife Group, soon received a letter from a disgruntled neighbor. It said Dr. Teeth’s outdoor space violated its zoning permit, and that she would report it to authorities unless the bar provided her with unlimited free tater tots and a choice selection of alcohol including Jameson and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

When the ownership didn’t respond, this neighbor made good on her promise, and Bleiman said he spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars to get our back patio ‘zoned,’” much of which he still owes in debt.

Proposition H, a ballot measure passed by San Francisco voters Tuesday, could help local merchants avoid situations like this.

The measure streamlines the permit and zoning process, provides flexibility for existing storefronts and limits the public’s ability to hold up permit approvals for many business types in commercial districts.

San Francisco’s local planning and business regulations are anathema to local merchants. They’re known to be time-consuming, bureaucratic and expensive, often taking months and thousands of dollars to secure approval for even minor changes.

“Just getting a business open in San Francisco takes way too long and is way too expensive,” said Bleiman, who has run nearly a dozen restaurants, bars and dispensaries in The City.

Prop. H amends the local codes to require a 30-day limit on the review and inspection process. It also greenlights art, philanthropic and social service providers to operate in commercial districts in an effort to fill vacancies.

Gini Simi, spokesperson for the Planning Department, said the changes will benefit a variety of new businesses, but restaurants in particular. Many will more readily enjoy access to a permanent-use permit, saving six months and a minimum of $3,000 in costs.

Bleiman puts the savings even higher. From firsthand experience, he said it’s not uncommon for a storefront to pay $4,000 in monthly rent while having to wait more than one year for permits to open. That racks up tens of thousands of dollars down the drain that will now be largely avoided with Prop. H.

Critics of the measure said it didn’t go far enough to support existing businesses and raised concerns that it might reduce the say neighborhood residents have on what happens to their commercial districts. Those critics included the League of Pissed Off Voters and the San Francisco Green Party.

Sharky Laguana, president of the San Francisco Small Business Commission and a Prop. H campaign advocate, said he finds allegations that it doesn’t help current merchants a bit “silly,” because it discounts the regularity with which they apply for permits to modify their physical space or operations.

Supporters say the ballot measure language also affords huge flexibility to existing businesses and corridors to creatively expand their revenue sources.

For example, it permits pop-ups to open in vacant storefronts; certifies food and drink establishments to have co-working spaces and kitchen catering leases during business hours; and makes it easier to take advantage of outdoor seating.

The 30-day mandate also applies to open storefronts applying for these permits, which means they can count on officials to support them as they try to adapt deftly to changing pandemic conditions.

Running a business in San Francisco has long been difficult due to ballooning rents, the rise of the internet economy and a number of “self-inflicted” wounds from city government such as permits, fees and high employee costs extraordinarily difficult for mom-and-pop shops to pay, according to Bleiman.

But nothing compares to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prop. H targets just one part of the problem — the Planning Code — but supporters still called it a “big win” for small business.

The measure’s passage gives them some hope The City appreciates local businesses as more than faceless purveyors of goods or services.

“People are finally realizing that we need help and should be treated as a special group because we give so much back to our community,” Bleiman said. “They live here. They send their kids to school here. They get lunch here.”

Simi said changes will go into effect 10 days after the Board of Supervisors certifies local election results, expected to take place on Dec. 8 or Dec. 15, followed by the formal code amendment.

Changes are locked for three years, after which the Board of Supervisors can modify it.

Laguana said he’ll be spending the coming months creating a more direct pipeline between business owners and The City, a primary goal of his when he became chair of the Small Business Commission in Janaury, shortly before COVID-19 upended all his plans.

“We’re not there yet in terms of having an efficient way of communicating with business owners,” he said. “But it is my intention to get much better at communicating directly with them all over The City.”

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