Pedestrians walk near a construction zone outside CrossFit Golden Gate at 1940 Van Ness Ave. on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. Owner Danielle Rabkin says the ongoing construction of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project has impacted the business. (Lola Chase/Special to S.F. Examiner)

No-interest loans or cash grants? SF weighs how to help merchants during lengthy construction

San Francisco’s myriad government branches are in agreement that businesses on Van Ness Avenue need financial help to deal with the impact of years of construction. They’re just in disagreement on “how.”

While The City currently provides zero-interest loans to businesses facing construction impacts, they are weighing a change to cash grants instead.

That decision could reverberate far beyond Van Ness, and may have an impact on small businesses on Geary Boulevard gearing up for construction for 38-Geary bus line improvements.

No matter how long San Francisco merchants are given to repay the loans, some supervisors said, they’ll still be fiscally in-the-hole because of city-led projects.

“These people are being put out of their business through no fault of their own,” said Supervisor Shamann Walton at a Tuesday meeting of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board.

Walton added, “How are we going to ask them to pay back money from a loss of revenue that they did not cause?”

Construction projects such as the Central Subway and the Van Ness Improvement Project all have one thing in common: delays. The Van Ness project, which will bring bus rapid transit to the 47-Van Ness and 49-Van Ness/Mission Muni lines, has suffered delays due to sewer pipework performed by SFPUC, which encountered pipes that weren’t on city maps, and is not expected to be completed now until Fall of 2021.

While those projects drag on, businesses feel the brunt.

During Central Subway construction in Chinatown, for instance, some businesses along Stockton Street shuttered. Merchants told the San Francisco Examiner that business plummeted due to nearby construction for the subway, which removed parking, equipment blocking business signage, and pedestrian traffic decrease significantly.

And last year, Bootleg Bar and Kitchen closed on Van Ness Avenue, which also attributed their woes to city-led Van Ness construction.

Transit officials first tried helping by providing marketing help to merchants, and other in-kind efforts. Mom-and-pop shop owners complained that that solved little.

So in March, local officials directed $5 million in a state tax windfall funds to businesses for zero-interest loans and other support. That funding is aimed at merchants near construction projects that run for at least two years.

The program may be finalized in September this year, before the SFMTA Board of Directors.

But before then, city supervisors want staff to tweak it to provide direct grant funding — money that will never need to be repaid to The City.

That cash may be built into the cost of subway projects or bus projects themselves, causing the cost of such projects rise.

“If we want to do that, projects will get more expensive, but we won’t have to worry about loans versus grants,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who also chairs the Transportation Authority board.

Supervisor Ahsha Safai and Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee joined Walton in calling for grants over loans. “If we’re going to do this, yes, let’s budget it into our projects. Yes, it will increase the cost of our projects, but at the same time, these projects are doing damage to our small businesses,” Yee said.

Help can’t come soon enough for affected merchants like Danielle Rabkin, whose gym, the seven-year-old Crossfit Golden Gate, has seen a drop in customers since Van Ness construction began.

“The decreased lack of visibility and foot traffic has demolished my income,” she told the Transportation Authority board Tuesday.

In April her business was down by 12 percent, and in May it decreased another 8 percent. She told the supervisors “I haven’t even looked at my June numbers because I am too scared,” and began to cry at the podium. She’s frustrated, she told the Examiner, as transit officials have “dodged” her emails as she seeks help for impacts she cannot prevent.

To add insult to injury, construction-related dust has quadrupled her gym’s cleaning costs, she said. And her rent just went up.

“I won’t be able to pay back a loan to make up the income I have lost when I’m catching up,” she told the supervisors. “I can’t survive a delay.”

Hearing her plight, Peskin told SFMTA staff that Rabkin is “Exhibit A.”

If SFMTA does not develop a grant program, Peskin threatened, “Don’t be surprised if we stop funding transportation projects.”

He added, “I will give you Ms. Rabkin’s number. Take care of her.”

A typo led to Danielle Rabkin’s name being misspelled near the end of this article, and has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling.

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Signs point to businesses along Van Ness Avenue, including CrossFit Golden Gate, on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The ongoing construction of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project has impacted the gym, according to owner Danielle Rabkin. (Lola Chase/Special to S.F. Examiner)

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