Longtime Mission Street restaurant Foreign Cinema has paused its plans to build a wine bar in the vacant space next door. The decision comes after sudden pushback from the SF Planning Commission and vocal opposition from a neighborhood group called United to Save the Mission, which has characterized the 18-year-old restaurant’s expansion as gentrification.
Foreign Cinema announced its plans to merge the 5,633 square-foot space with their restaurant this spring, making use of what was most recently used by the Vida condo development as a sales center. Technically under the same roof, Foreign Cinema already pays rent on it and uses it for temporary storage.
The wine bar would be “an elegant expansion that can enhance the [wine] program that’s going on now,” Pirie told Eater SF in February. To use the space as part of their restaurant, Foreign Cinema sought a change of use permit to convert it from “non‐retail professional service” to “full‐service restaurant.”
But, just before yesterday’s planning commission hearing — which United to Save the Mission members had planned to attend to voice opposition — Foreign Cinema chef/owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark requested an indefinite continuance of their application hearing. They’ll reexamine their plans for the wine bar, discuss them with the planning department and established neighborhood advocacy groups like the Mission Economic Development Agency. After that, they’ll call for another hearing.
“For the past year that we’ve been working on this, planning has had no problem with our expansion,” Clark claims. That changed suddenly in October. “We don’t know what changed for them, they just told us that we were too big for the neighborhood.”
Then, on November 9th, the department wrote a recommendation against granting a conditional use authorization permit to the project, citing concerns that included its size. When combined with Foreign Cinema’s existing 12,563 square feet, the result would be a business greater than 6,000 square feet; local zoning limits put in place to deter big box retail stores limit non-residential use spaces to 6,000 feet.
Another concern of the committee, and perhaps more central: “The proposed expanded restaurant is not a neighborhood‐serving business,” as defined by the planning code. They wrote:
“[The] aforementioned use does not provide goods and/or services which are needed by residents and workers in the immediate neighborhood to satisfy basic personal and household needs on a frequent and recurring basis, and which if not available require trips outside of the neighborhood.”
Those are, roughly, the concerns of United to Save the Mission, an anti-gentrification Facebook group that has opposed the placement of bike sharing stations in the Mission. “Tell the Planning Commission: NO VALENCIA ON MISSION ST,” a representative from the group wrote on Facebook regarding the wine bar. “No allowing Foreign Cinema to convert the retail space next door into a wine bar! We need our retail space to continue to support our local community!”
In its planning application, Foreign Cinema included endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Mission Graduates, Lyric‐Center for LGBTQ Youth, and Noe Valley Nursery School. “Foreign Cinema has, time and time again, proven to be a strong ally to the Mission Community,” wrote the director of Mission Graduates, a local education nonprofit. “As one of many community partners that Foreign cinema supports, we have seen first-hand the positive impact that the staff of Foreign Cinema have in our community, and would welcome any expansion of their service.”
By contrast, the planning commission references only one email of opposition to the project and one member of the public who addressed concern specific to the wine bar. But citing a general policy, the commission wrote that “one of the chief concerns of the community is the loss of neighborhood‐serving retail establishments to destination venues, and in particular those serving alcohol.”
“The biggest opposition is United to Save the Mission,” Clark says. “It’s a very tiny group of very vocal, very avid proponents of no change on Mission Street... I understand their perspective, but I think they’re mistaken on our project. It’s fascinating: In San Francisco, maybe in all the governments in America, the loudest voice gets attention, whether it’s a reasonable voice or not.”
Clark and Pirie will get through the busy holiday season and return to the wine bar project at a later date. “We’ve been in business for 18 years, we can weather some storms,” Clark says. “We’re an extremely stable element to the block.” They’re also one of its larger employers, with 135 staff members, more than half of whom live in the community. If they expand, they’ll hire more.