With 34 locations from Hayes Valley to Tokyo, Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee has grown from Bay Area upstart to corporate outsider in its own backyard. At least that’s the opinion of some San Franciscans who campaigned against a proposed Lower Haight branch of the coffee chain. After months of organizing and petitioning, those opponents appear to have succeeded: Blue Bottle won’t be their neighbor after all.
Since Blue Bottle surpasses the local “formula retail” threshold of 11 locations, the company needed Conditional Use Authorization to open its proposed shop at 201 Steiner Street. That space (at the corner of Waller) was home to longtime neighborhood coffee shop Bean There. After 21 years of business, a murky landlord dispute closed Bean There last year and the space has been vacant ever since.
Replacing a coffee shop with another coffee shop might not sound controversial, but Blue Bottle was no substitute for Bean There in the eyes of neighbors like Jen Snyder, representative of the local organizing group Neighbors United. “We are fighting for the soul of San Francisco,” Snyder told SF Weekly. “When we turn out in large numbers to make our voices heard, our community wins.”
The numbers were sizable: According to Planning Commission documents, a petition in opposition gathered hundreds of signatures. At least 26 letters in support of the project were also counted. But after hearing the often loud voices for and against Blue Bottle at a meeting last Thursday, Planning commissioners voted 4 to 2 to reject the business. A Motion for Intent to Disapprove a permit is up for a vote on June 1. While the motion could hypothetically be overturned, it’s more likely that Blue Bottle’s fate is sealed.
Planning’s decision was a reversal of a previous recommendation to grant the permit and allow the Lower Haight location — but neighbors’ voices were heard and Planning’s decision reflected that, according to Dean Preston, the founder of Neighbors United who ran an unsuccessful campaign for District 5 Supervisor last year.
“We’re fortunate that we have a law that applies citywide and requires chain stores that are moving into neighborhoods to appear before the Planning Commission,” Preston said. At the meeting last week, Preston claims the speakers against the Blue Bottle outnumbered those in favor of it 2-to-1. “This is how the Formula Retail law is supposed to work,” Preston said.
So, no Blue Bottle for you, Lower Haight. It’s interesting that, at least locally, the company can be seen as a victim of its own success. No word on what will take Bean There’s place, but local chains beware: This space is off limits. Don’t even think about it, Philz.