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When Dennis Cantwell and Monica Wong decided to open a restaurant in San Francisco, their neighborhood of the Outer Sunset was their first and only choice. “We didn’t want to open anywhere else,” Cantwell says. “The Sunset is one of the only real communities left in the city.”
The pair thought they’d found the perfect spot in a shuttered store at the corner of Irving Street and 42nd Avenue, and — as Cantwell put it — “did everything right,” confirming with San Francisco’s Planning Commission, the district supervisor, and other local small business agencies that there were no barriers to their project before they signed a lease. The city issued building permits for the project, and construction began.
“We were ahead of schedule,” Cantwell says, when the unexpected occurred: a dispute over the meaning of a newish piece of legislation — ironically, intended to help small businesses — caused the city to revoke the business’s building permits after issuing them. Construction, legally, had to stop, and now it’s up to the city’s Board of Appeals to decide if Cantwell and Wong can move forward, or if they need to start the entire process over again — something that Cantwell says they might not be able to afford.
The building at 4055 Irving has been a market or a corner store since the 1940s (here’s a photo), with many names over the years. In 2017, the store’s current owners put it up for sale. Eventually, it shuttered completely. According to an email from the broker representing the store, at least four known quantities in San Francisco’s nightlife world inquired about the space, with one confirming to Eater SF that expected costs for renovation dissuaded them from making an offer.
But to Cantwell and Wong, it was perfect. Between the two of them, the married couple have worked in spots including Zuni Cafe, A16, and Nopa (where Cantwell was wine director for seven years), and had long fantasized about opening their own place. Speaking with Eater SF, Cantwell said that the plan was to operate from noon to 9 p.m. on weeknights, maybe staying open until 10 p.m. on weekends. (Area laws would prohibit the business from operating later than that.)
Deciding on the name of Palm City Wines (“Palm City” was, for a brief time in the late 1800s, the nickname for the area, according to the Western Neighborhoods Project), Cantwell and Wong began to plot a menu he calls “grandma food.” “Really simple, old-school braises, stews, and home-y dishes,” Cantwell says. They hoped to transform the space into a “neighborhood corner spot.” But that was before they realized that some folks in the neighborhood might not want them.
When Cantwell and Wong started investigating the work it would take to transform a shuttered corner store into a restaurant, city officials told them about some legislation that the Board of Supervisors had recently passed. Introduced in 2018 by then-District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang and District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai, the two-year pilot program sought to shorten the permitting process for small businesses by eliminating the requirement to notify neighborhood residents if certain types of use changes were planned — as Hoodline reported at the time, “such as those for businesses seeking to convert a space...from a retail establishment to a restaurant.”
Tang’s office told Cantwell and Wong that the legislation applied to a business like theirs, and other than the neighborhood notification required by the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for a license to serve and sell beer and wine (a notification that Cantwell and Wong indeed sent), they were good to move forward. (Tang, who is no longer in office, confirmed that discussion with Eater SF.)
This is an important thing to note: The Planning Department agreed, approving a change of use for the space in June. Cantwell and Wong successfully applied for a Small Business Administration loan, spent over $7,000 on building permits for the space, and “pooled our life savings” to put down a deposit with a contractor well known for the renovation of restaurant spaces like Dear Inga. Wong cut back her hours at her teaching job, and Cantwell quit his job completely.
Cantwell and Wong began work as soon as the permits were issued on June 18. Then, an area resident sent a letter to city officials questioning the permits’ validity, and on October 15, the city suspended their permits, and construction ceased.
The original permits were issued in error, Planning said in a postcard sent to area residents. According to Planning, the new legislation — which is known as the Small Business Attraction Ordinance Program — doesn’t apply to 4055 Irving Street after all. They are now saying that Cantwell and Wong need to go through the process of neighborhood notification, which could take an additional four to six months. After that, assuming the neighborhood approves, they have to start from the beginning, including paying for all-new building permits. The city’s policy is not to refund revoked permits, so they won’t regain their initial investment of around $7,000.
The issue is apparently the zoning on that stretch of Irving Street, which is considered by the city to be a residential district. Nearby residents argue that the legislation applies only to districts that are specifically designated as commercial, and the Planning Department agrees, admitting that the original approval was done “in error.” Tang, for her part, has said repeatedly that the law was intended for all businesses in her then-district, including the one at 4055 Irving Street. However, the city’s lobbying laws prohibit Tang from intervening on Palm City’s behalf. In an email sent to Planning on November 4, Supervisor Safai said that Palm City “is clearly a case that is meant to be impacted by our legislation.” (Neither Safai nor Supervisor Gordon Mar, who currently represents D4, responded to Eater SF’s request for comment.)
That’s why Cantwell and Wong are appealing Planning’s decision, which they must do through the city’s Board of Appeals, the agency that “hears and decides appeals involving the granting, denial, suspension, or revocation of permits, licenses, and other use entitlements by various City commissions and department.”
“We never objected to doing a neighborhood notification,” Cantwell says. “We would have totally done that! We weren’t trying to hide anything,” he says. But since the couple was told they didn’t need to take that step by multiple city agencies, they didn’t. The revocation of the building permits means that their SBA loan has been suspended, and “we’ve spent all our working capital,” Cantwell says. So convincing the Board of Appeals that the legislation does indeed apply to Palm City seems like their only way out.
It’s worth reading this case’s packet (Eater SF has placed it online here), which contains the statement from Planning, Cantwell and Wong’s brief explanation of the situation, and comments of support for and opposition to Planning’s revised decision that a neighborhood notification process is necessary, with many saying kind things about the pair and what the business could add to the area. “We are so thrilled to hear about Dennis and Monica’s vision for a family-friendly community gathering space,” reads one comment from a six-year resident of the area. “I strongly encourage the city to support their efforts.
There are also a number from area residents who express concerns over “an alcohol business” in the neighborhood, fears over drunk drivers leaving the spot, and worries that the “quiet, family-oriented” street will be disrupted. (Eater SF contacted a number of the opponents of Palm City Wine’s appeal with publicly available contact information, but none of those who responded agreed to speak on the record.)
While none of the complaints shared by the board mention things like gentrification, it’s hard not to imagine that’s also on the minds of some folks. If you squint, the Sunset — especially Irving Street — can appear untouched by the wave of change that’s hit the rest of the city (though the area’s million-dollar teardowns suggest that the Sunset is growing more and more attractive to the city’s newer residents). Both in person and on online platforms like NextDoor, locals frequently express frustration about new restaurants in which they feel unwelcome, or that they can’t afford. Others complain about increased noise and activity as alcohol-focused businesses opening on neighboring streets. There’s something unmooring about living in an area for decades, then feeling it move beneath your feet, and it’s hard not to feel angry and powerless when it happens. Ask anyone whose lived in the Mission for more than a couple years. They’ll tell you.
According to Cantwell, however, that’s exactly what Wong and he are trying to avoid. “I want Palm City to be an extension of every Sunset resident’s living room,” he tells Eater SF, noting that Wong’s family is from the Sunset and that they’ve lived in the area for the past five years. “It’s our goal to make sure that everyone who comes in here feels welcome and at home.” There lies the rub, it seems, as now Cantwell and Wong have to — in a certain sense — go up against the very people they were hoping to serve. “But it’s that,” Cantwell says, ”or we lose everything.”
San Francisco’s Board of Appeals will meet to hear both sides at 5 p.m. on November 13, in San Francisco City Hall’s Room 416. The meeting is open to the public, and both sides’ arguments can be read here.