Noe Valley Voice July-August 2004

Moratorium on Restaurants on the Front Burner at June 9 Meeting

By Liz Highleyman

Some 80 Noe Valley residents and merchants packed a meeting room at the Noe Valley­Sally Brunn Library on June 9 for a sometimes heated discussion of the neighborhood's rocky business climate.

The meeting, cosponsored by the Friends of Noe Valley and the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, was prompted by a recent Friends survey that revealed, among other things, that residents wanted more high-quality restaurants and a broader selection of stores on 24th Street.

Larry Badiner, director of the city's Planning Department, was on hand to clarify the ins and outs of the zoning law.

In the mid-1980s, fearing that 24th Street would turn into the next Union Street, Noe Valley residents pushed through a moratorium on new eating and drinking establishments, Badiner explained. The current code prohibits any new full-service restaurants, fast-food operations, cafes, or bars along 24th Street from Chattanooga to Diamond. The only way a new restaurant can come in on those blocks is if a current food-serving establishment vacates its location.

Badiner emphasized that while residents can overturn the moratorium, the planning code cannot impose restrictions on quality or variety. "It's very hard to put in a criteria that it should be a good restaurant," he said.

Likewise, it's tough to ban a specific type of retail store. The planning code cannot, for example, allow new bookstores while prohibiting new clothing boutiques.

Badiner noted that the city classifies most businesses, other than restaurants, within the "general retail" category. Interestingly, under the existing code, a butcher can open on 24th Street as a general retailer, but cannot make sandwiches to order. That would label it a fast-food operation.

According to Badiner, residents can change the code by appealing directly to the city or by making a request through their supervisor.

District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who was present at the meeting, appeared happy to facilitate such a change. Dufty said he recently had a discussion with the owners of Samovar Tea Lounge about opening a Noe Valley location, but the moratorium currently made that impossible.

Upon receiving a request to revise the moratorium, Badiner said, the Planning Department would analyze the proposed change, a public hearing would be held, and the full Board of Supervisors would vote the proposal up or down. The process could take as little as six months, he said, if a neighborhood consensus had been achieved.

But such a consensus might not come easily, judging from the sentiments expressed at last month's meeting.

Some merchants and residents welcomed the vibrancy that relaxed zoning restrictions on 24th Street might bring, but others wished to retain the neighborhood's village-like ambience. Indeed, one 10-year resident pointed out that the neighborhood "has the reputation of being contentious," while others expressed concern over what they see as the "dictatorship of the minority."

Real Food in the Hot Seat

After Badiner spoke, meeting attendees were allotted two minutes each to express their opinions. Among the concerns most frequently cited were the lack of parking, dirty streets, panhandling, and the need for a high-quality organic grocery store.

Several people shared the view that the real problem with Noe Valley was Real Food. Since the anchor retailer closed its doors in August 2003--ostensibly for renovations that have yet to begin--24th Street has seen a decrease in foot traffic. That, combined with the depressed economy, has contributed to the closure or turnover of several businesses along the stretch in recent months.

David Eiland of Just for Fun said his sales had been down every month since the Real Food closure. "There are just no people on the street," he lamented. Former customers have complained that it's a hassle to come to the neighborhood, he said, and they'd just as soon order over the Internet.

"Customers who used to come from Bernal Heights and elsewhere in the city now go to Berkeley," said Pam Byars, who runs the Ark toy store. "People who used to come to Noe Valley because it was a fun neighborhood don't do so anymore."

But not everyone blames Real Food.

"The neighborhood has been stagnant for years," said Vince Hogan of the Valley Tavern. "New people in Noe Valley should have a say. At 10 at night, Noe Valley is dead."

An audience member who identified herself as a new resident concurred, saying the neighborhood has "a lot of young people who would love a wine bar or a microbrewery, would love to stay up past 10."

But as they spoke, others in the audience could be heard murmuring that they liked the neighborhood's sleepy character.

One resident with a toddler complained that the streets were filthy. Dufty reminded merchants and residents that the sidewalks in front of their businesses and homes are their responsibility. However, he added, merchants and commercial landlords could institute an assessment for street cleaning and maintenance, as exists in the Castro commercial district around 18th Street.

But not everyone was brimming over with complaints.

"Only three stores are closed. I personally do not see that much difference," said 43-year Noe Valley resident Claire Pilcher. Cyclical business downturns are to be expected, she continued, and "it's too easy to get all alarmed over something that may not be that alarming."