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By Corrie M. Anders
Noe Valley diners may soon get to fill their plates with as many restaurants on 24th Street as they want.
That prospect came after the city's Planning Commission last month voted unanimously to repeal an ordinance that for 23 years has placed strict constraints on new eateries along the commercial strip.
The commission sent the measure to the Board of Supervisors. If approved, the proposal would allow an unlimited number of cafes to open in Downtown Noe Valley, as long as they survived a sticky permit process at City Hall.
Before the board acts, however, local residents will have a chance to relish or reject the idea at a Feb. 25 community meeting at St. Philip's Church. Supervisor Bevan Dufty and five neighborhood groups will host the restaurant forum.
On 24th Street in late January, there were many who said they'd welcome an increase in restaurants in Noe Valley--especially if they contributed to the ethnic variety of local cuisine.
"Anything that's good" was what 25th Street resident Wendy Slaug hter would like to see: "Burmese, Afghani, or another restaurant that has California cuisine. I think it will be great to bring new businesses into Noe Valley, especially when you're got seven or eight empty storefronts here," said Slaughter.
"Sushi," said Liesl Brown, a Mission Dolores area resident who was shopping with her husband, Andy. "We'd love a good sushi restaurant in the neighborhood." While they occasionally dine in Noe Valley, the couple said they mostly go out to eat at bistros and cafés on Valencia Street a few blocks away. "Some of the best restaurants in the city are down there," said Andy Brown.
Famished on 24th Street?
Carol Yenne, who owns Small Frys children's clothing store on 24th Street, said that's exactly why she and other merchants have been lobbying the city to loosen the restaurant restrictions. "Why don't we have more nice restaurants on 24th Street? Why are they all opening on Valencia Street?"
Yenne said that over the years she had watched new cafes gravitate to the Mission while 24th Street storefronts stood empty in a tough economy.
"We've lost seven restaurants" since the city imposed restrictions in the late 1980s, said Yenne, a former president and longtime member of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association.
The original zoning law, passed in 1987, put a fixed limit on the number of bars and restaurants on 24th Street from Chattanooga to Diamond (and several surrounding blocks). Since the limit was reached long ago, the effect has been a ban on new cafes--unless an existing food-serving establishment happens to vacate its storefront.
Neighborhood activists at the time championed the tough measure because of fears that trendy restaurants and nightclubs would supplant shoe repair, cleaners, locksmiths, and other small businesses on 24th Street, just as they had on Union Street and other strips in the city.
When the ordinance first took effect, diners in Noe Valley could choose among 29 restaurants and four takeouts. A ccording to city planner Tara Sullivan, just over two decades later, the number of restaurants on 24th Street has dwindled to 22, though there are currently 13 takeout locations.
In the meantime, the number of vacant storefronts has jumped from one in 1987 to 15 today, she said.
Sullivan noted that "the character of Noe Valley has changed" over the past 20 years, as a new generation of younger and wealthier residents has flocked to the neighborhood.
Slow Food Only
Under the proposed changes for 24th Street, a new restaurant would still have to obtain a conditional use permit and undergo public hearings. The city would approve or deny restaurant applications on a case-by-case basis.
In addition, large fast food franchises like In-N-Out Burger, Taco Bell, and KFC would be expressly forbidden.
The safeguards in the legislation, coupled with a competitive marketplace, would prevent Noe Valley from being overrun by restaurants, promised Boe Hayward, a legislative aide to Supervi sor Bevan Dufty. The supervisor initiated the push for additional restaurants last October at the request of local merchants.
"Even if you have a rush to fill seven restaurants, we're back to where we were 15 to 20 years ago," Hayward said. And because it's so expensive to open a restaurant in San Francisco, "this is not just something people are going to jump into willy-nilly," he said.
Diamond Street resident Pat Buscovich agreed when he testified at a meeting of the Planning Commission on Jan. 14. "You are not going to see any great sea change on 24th Street as a result. These are things that will allow 24th Street to grow and progress. I think it's a really good idea."
Some Warn of Congestion
But Eleanore Gerhardt and Jean Amos told the commission that the plan did not sit well with them. In the mid-1980s, both Gerhardt and Amos were actively involved in Friends of Noe Valley, the civic group that fought for the restrictions.
"We have over 50 places where we can buy food, drink, either prepared or to take home," Gerhardt said. "And allowing for more restaurants literally increases the parking problems, and with the daily delivery of materials to the restaurants, it would increase traffic."
She acknowledged that the economic downturn, with its emblematic empty storefronts, had hurt the neighborhood. "As the economy improves, so will 24th Street," she said. "I really do not think you can eat your way out of a recession."
Amos argued that the effort to repeal the legislation was a "movement" pushed by merchants who "would directly benefit from having tourists coming through. Their business obviously would increase, but this is not a good use for a neighborhood," Amos said.
City planner Sullivan contended otherwise. She said that last fall's advent of Whole Foods, the popular gourmet and natural grocery store, had increased vitality on 24th Street, and "certainly some new restaurants have wanted to come in."
Two Permits Unused
The clamor for addit ional restaurants prompted the city four years ago to grant exemptions for three new full-service establishments. But only one of the three is serving meals today--and the grace period to open closed in March 2009.
"[The other] two have taken out permits, but because of the economy or other reasons, they have not opened their restaurants and [have] essentially locked out any new restaurants from coming in," Sullivan said.
The one success story is Contigo, a tapas bar at 1320 Castro Street near 24th Street. It opened last March and has drawn rave reviews for its Spanish and Catalan cuisine.
However, a defunct barbershop at 1298 Church Street (at 25th Street), where plans called for a Vietnamese fusion restaurant, remains boarded up. Also, the owners of a permit to open a diner specializing in soups never got their operation running at 4128 24th Street, a former real estate office between Diamond and Castro streets.
"They took the applications and permits and used up the two spots and haven't opened," said Robert Roddick, current president of the Noe Valley Merchants Association. "They've created a real problem."
A community forum on a City Planning decision to lift the limit on new restaurants on 24th Street will be held Thursday, Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m., at St. Philip's Church, 665 Elizabeth Street between Castro and Diamond streets. Participants will include Supervisor Bevan Dufty, the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, the Noe Valley Association, Friends of Noe Valley, the Noe Valley Democratic Club, and Upper Noe Neighbors. Officials from the Planning Department will be available to discuss and answer questions about the code.