Noe Valley Voice November 2005

City May Allow Three More Restaurants on 24th Street

By Liz Highleyman

The promise of new restaurants on 24th Street took another step toward reality last month, when District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty introduced before the Board of Supervisors a small tweak to the zoning rules governing Noe Valley's main commercial strip.

The legislation--drafted over the summer by Dufty's office with input from the Friends of Noe Valley and the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association--would allow three new full-service restaurants or cafes to open on 24th Street within the next five years.

"I think it's a great compromise," says Merchants Association President Carol Yenne. "It works for people who want more restaurants, and it doesn't open the door for Taco Bell."

The proposed amendment to the zoning code--the first in nearly 20 years--loosens a moratorium barring new restaurants, fast-food outlets, coffee shops, and bars along 24th Street between Diamond and Chattanooga streets. Under the current rules, a new eating establishment may open only after an existing one closes.

Neighborhood resident and business owner Joanie Basso-Ginsberg, who operates PastaGina, a prepared food and specialty grocery shop on Diamond Street, favors the change and would love to expand and move to Noe Valley's Main Street. "We figure we'd have four to five times the amount of walk-by traffic on 24th Street," she told the Voice. "Now [at the Diamond Street location], people have to know we're here and come to us. Walk-by traffic makes a huge difference."

Appetites Grow in '90s

The moratorium was imposed in 1987 in response to fears that Noe Valley was becoming a magnet for chi-chi restaurants and bars that would push up rents and attract patrons from all over the city, thereby cutting into basic services and, of course, parking.

But as the character and demographics of Noe Valley shifted over the next two decades, more and more residents began expressing their desire for an expanded range of local dining options.

An informal poll by the Noe Valley Voice last spring revealed a desire for high-quality takeout food, a wider variety of ethnic choices, cafes conducive to working, and more upscale sit-down restaurants--the last confirmed by the overwhelming popularity of the recently opened Fresca.

After a member survey in 2004 showed a strong appetite for more eateries, the Friends of Noe Valley formed a subcommittee to explore the issue and approached Dufty's office for help. The city's Planning Department drafted an amendment this past March, and after neighborhood input was incorporated, the proposed final version went before the supervisors on Oct. 11.

"This has really been a neighborhood-driven effort," said Boe Hayward, an aide to Supervisor Dufty.

New Rules a Compromise

Yenne told the Voice that the amendment "walks the line" between neighbors who wish to keep the old restrictions, and residents and merchants who don't think there should be any limits at all.

"Three restaurants in five years that don't interfere with essential services is as good as it gets," agreed Friends member and past president Debra Niemann, who also championed the ordinance. "It's best to modify things slowly and carefully."

To allay worries about 24th Street becoming the next Union Street, the ordinance states that new restaurants may not take over a space that is currently home to a "basic neighborhood service," such as a hardware store, shoe repair facility, bookstore, or grocery store.

The proposal also allows new eateries to apply for a liquor license, as long as the bar is to be "operated as an integral element" of a bona fide full-service restaurant. Currently, only Fresca holds a full liquor license, though many other Noe Valley restaurants have permits to serve beer and wine.

"People don't want more bars, they want more restaurants," said Yenne. "But part of what makes a restaurant succeed is the opportunity to have a drink in a nice sit-down establishment."

A Nine-Course Planning Process

Don't start licking your chops just yet.

According to Hayward, the ordinance must undergo a 30-day hold period, after which it will be sent to the Planning Commission. City Planner Dan Sider said his department has 90 days, once it receives the bill, to issue a positive or negative recommendation. During that time, the proposal will undergo environmental review and at least one community hearing. After Planning makes its recommendation, the proposal will go to the supervisors' Land Use Committee (made up of Sophie Maxwell, Jake McGoldrick, and Gerardo Sandoval). Finally, it must be voted on and passed by the full Board of Supervisors at two consecutive meetings, and then signed by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

The public will have several opportunities to offer comments on the measure, Hayward said, at hearings before the Planning Commission, the Land Use Committee, and the full board.

Sider estimated that the Planning hearing would take place in December or January.

Where Will New Cafes Go?

Even if the ordinance passes, aspiring restaurateurs will face a big hurdle: the shortage of available space.

Both Yenne and Niemann said they have heard expressions of interest over the years, but most of the few unused storefronts along 24th Street are too small to accommodate a full-service eatery, especially considering the expense of outfitting a building with a commercial kitchen from scratch.

A possible exception is the Real Food Company grocery store at the heart of the commercial strip, which has stood empty for more than two years. As reported in last month's Voice, the owners of the property, Jane and Kimball Allen, and Real Food's parent company, Nutraceutical, are currently engaged in a legal battle over who will pay for extensive renovations to the space.

"There's nothing right now on the street that's available and appropriate," said Yenne. "It's a matter of waiting for the right space to become available that would work. But once word is out that you can do it [open a new restaurant], someone will."