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Growing Hunger for More Cafes on 24th Street
By Liz Highleyman
The San Francisco Planning Department is in the process of drafting an amendment to the zoning code that could allow new restaurants to locate on Noe Valley's main commercial strip for the first time in nearly 20 years.
The proposed change would loosen a 1987 moratorium barring new full-service restaurants, fast-food outlets, coffee shops, and bars on 24th Street between Chattanooga and Diamond streets. Currently, the only way a new food operation can come in is if an existing eating establishment leaves.
The move was spurred in part by a survey of neighborhood residents conducted last spring by the Friends of Noe Valley. Results of the survey--and discussion at a subsequent community meeting last June--revealed that many residents wanted more high-quality local eateries offering a wider range of culinary choices. After that meeting, the Friends formed a subcommittee to look at ways to bring about such a change.
"It's been 20 years [since the moratorium was put in place], and the neighborhood has changed quite a bit," said subcommittee member Clark Moscrip, a 30-
year Noe Valley resident. "This is simply a question of exploring whether the community would like to have the opportunity to bring in new restaurants. The community will have a chance to discuss it."
In the late 1980s, some residents feared Noe Valley was in danger of losing basic services and turning into another Union Street--a concern that has not entirely disappeared. Former Friends president Jean Amos told the Noe Valley Voice last year that a more upscale 24th Street could drive out families and reduce the neighborhood's economic diversity. East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club President Paul Kantus expressed concern that with more restaurants, people from all over the city would come here to eat, making the parking situation even worse.
But the neighborhood has seen a lot of changes in the past two decades, including the dot-com boom and bust and an influx of younger, busier, more affluent residents who hanker for expanded local dining options. More recently, the closure of the Real Food Company grocery store (now in its 21st month), and the subsequent turnover of several businesses, has left many residents and merchants more worried about too little--rather than too much--vitality on 24th Street.
The restaurant moratorium "certainly does limit the choices neighborhood residents have for eating places within walking distance of their homes," said Elizabeth Willey of Alvarado Street. "I expect a lot of them are driving to other areas to eat, and if you're going to do that, you may as well live in the suburbs."
Looking for Three Good Eateries
City Planner Dan Sider says his department has been working with Supervisor Bevan Dufty's office and neighborhood groups (including the Friends and the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association) for several months, and completed a draft of the amended code language in March. "We've gotten a lot of comments that have been helpful in figuring out where we're heading," he told the Voice.
The proposed change would allow three new full-service restaurants or cafes to locate on 24th Street within the next three years--although both the exact number of eateries and the time frame remain flexible. (At present, the six -block stretch has 31 restaurants, bars, and coffee shops; see sidebar.) Food establishments would not be allowed to take over a space formerly occupied by a "basic neighborhood service," but there is some disagreement about what falls into that category.
Liquor licenses are another unresolved issue. As it stands now, only one 24th Street restaurant (Fresca, formerly Tien Fu) has a full liquor license, though several others are permitted to serve beer and wine. Some residents worry that once a restaurant has a liquor license--which is attached to the property, not a specific owner--it could be replaced by a bar in the future.
Looking over the draft last month, Merchants Association President Carol Yenne said she was "thrilled and excited" about the proposed change. "Most business owners don't like zoning restrictions that create an artificial environment," she said. "There's been concern [from some residents] that certain services would be replaced, but needs change with the times. Some people might find a restaurant more essential than a hardware store. The market takes care of establishing the right mix.
"Most of the retail spaces on 24th Street are small," Yenne continued. "Anyone who wanted to open a restaurant would have to look high and low to find a space. There's not going to be a big flood."
New Food Won't Come Fast
Loosening of the restaurant moratorium is by no means a done deal.
Dufty--who has long supported such a change--will present the draft amendment to the Board of Supervisors. It will then go to the Planning Commission, which has 90 days to approve or deny it. If approved, the amendment will go before the supervisors' Land Use Committee. Both the Planning Commission and the Land Use Committee will hold public hearings. If the proposal runs into opposition at this stage, it must go before the full Board of Supervisors, which will conduct additional hearings and must vote twice in favor of the measure before sending it on to Mayor Gavin Newsom for his signature.
Cafes Should Be Complementary
An informal Voice survey of about a dozen Noe Valley residents suggests that allowing a few more restaurants is a popular idea. None flat-out opposed the plan, although they differed in what, exactly, they wanted.
"I agree it's good to have some limits," said Bruce Ghent, who moved to the neighborhood three months ago. "I don't see a problem [with the amendment], as long as there are provisions not to infringe on living space and [new eateries] are accessible to people of different income levels."
"I'd especially like to see more quiet places where one can loiter and have a conversation or work for a few hours," said Willey, a writer. "Something like Samovar [at 18th and Sanchez] would be wonderful. A bakery-cafe like Tartine or Citizen Cake would be a great addition."
Megan Smith, shopping with her child at Bell Market, said she hopes for "more restaurants like Firefly and Incanto."
Mark, a 25-year Noe Valley resident who declined to give his last name, thought "good ethnic restaurants, maybe a nice bistro" sounded appealing, but he was more adamant about what he doesn't want: "No chains."
"I'd like more ethnic variety, more vegetarian options, and eateries complementary to the ones we have now," said Chattanooga Street resident Jan Brittenson. "A little more choice would be nice."
According to Sider, the soonest any change is likely to take effect would be this coming fall--assuming, that is, that a general consensus can be reached in the early stages of the process.
How Many Cafés and Bars Do We Have Already?
In late April, the Voice counted heads and came up with 31 restaurants, bars, and coffee shops along the six blocks that comprise the 24th Street Noe Valley Neighborhood Commercial District.
Choices on 24th Street
Here are the places you can stop for a bite or a beer as you stroll up 24th Street from Chattanooga to Diamond:
Happy Donuts--pastries, sandwiches
24th Street Cafe--California/Middle-Eastern
Martha and Brothers--coffee shop
Holey Bagel--bagels, sandwiches
Noe Valley Restaurant--pizza/Italian
Noe Bagel--bagels, sandwiches
Fresca--Peruvian (coming soon)
Herb's Fine Foods American diner
Noe Valley Deli--American/
Mi Lindo Yucatan--Yucatecan Mexican
Tom's Peasant Pies--pies
Miss Millie's-- "Creative American"
Diamond Corner Café--salads, sandwiches
And There Are More on Castro...
If you're still hungry, two additional restaurants and one bar are located in the 1300 block of Castro Street between 24th and Jersey:
(Sorry, we were too full to walk down Church Street.)