In an unanimous decision Wednesday night, San Francisco’s Board of Appeals gave the green light to an Outer Sunset restaurant that was in danger of failing before it began, a quagmire that started when members of the city’s Planning Department disagreed over the interpretation of a new law.
Here’s the recap of the complicated tale: Sunset residents Dennis Cantwell and Monica Wong signed a lease on a shuttered corner store at 4055 Irving Street, and confirmed that the location qualified for the city’s new Small Business Attraction Program, allowing small businesses to change the use of a space without the oft-lengthy neighborhood approval processed. But six months after Cantwell and Wong moved forward, pooling their life savings and investing tens of thousands of dollars in loans and permits, a different planner at the Planning department decided that they’d misinterpreted the new law. They revoked the permits.
Cantwell and Wong were aghast. “We did everything right,” they said to Eater SF, a sentiment echoed by a representative of the city’s Planning Department Wednesday night. “They tried to do everything right,” Planning’s acting deputy zoning administrator, Scott Sanchez, told the Board of Appeals. “This is horrible. This sucks.”
As Sanchez outlined to the Board: after a neighbor sent a letter to Planning disputing the rights of Cantwell and Wong to continue work under the Small Business Attraction Program legislation, another planner overruled the planner that had approved the project, and revoked Cantwell and Wong’s permits (which are non-refundable). Now they would have to start the permitting process from scratch, including a process called neighborhood notification in which Planning sends postcards to residents within a nearby radius, notifying them that new owners want to turn the vacant space into a restaurant. If neighbors objected to the change in the spot’s use, they could appeal it. But unless city officials agreed that their complaints were reasonable, the project would still go ahead — just six or more months later than before.
(It’s worth nothing here that former Supervisor Katy Tang, who co-authored the Small Business Attraction Program legislation, told Eater SF that in her entire career in politics, she had never seen any business other than those dealing in cannabis be denied following a neighborhood notification process.)
This sent Cantwell and Wong, as well as a host of supporters and opponents, to City Hall Wednesday night. According to Board Commissioner Darryl Honda, the group had received “hundreds” of emails of support and in opposition to the project (many of which can be viewed in this legislative packet), and the room was full of folks eager to give comment on both sides of the issue. After Wong read an abbreviated version of the brief she and Cantwell had earlier submitted to the board explaining the snafu and the financial challenges they’d face in beginning again (it begins on page six), Sanchez was called to the podium to explain Planning’s position in the matter.
As Sanchez spoke (video of the entire meeting is here), it quickly became clear that Planning was not going to defend its position with much vigor. Speaking sympathetically about Cantwell and Wong’s position, Sanchez said that the issue was an ambiguity in the new legislation that might suggest that 4055 Irving Street was not zoned to be covered by the small business streamlining program. The planner, Cantwell, and Wong saw it one way, but when neighbors complained, another planner interpreted it another way, reversing the first decision. “If we decide in favor of [Cantwell and Wong] today, will Planning go back to the Board of Supervisors and tell them to clarify the law?” Board president Rick Swig asked Sanchez, who agreed.
A lengthy period of public comment followed. While the purpose of the hearing was to decide if neighborhood notification was legally necessary, speakers on both sides addressed other issues. The first speaker said he was in opposition to a restaurant in the space because Thanh Long — a restaurant that has been located at 4101 Judah Street since 1971 — attracted guests “from the East Bay,” that he believed another restaurant would make it harder to park, and that he also opposed other residential developments proposed for the Sunset. Another opponent said that Cantwell and Wong’s potential financial hardship shouldn’t be considered by the board, as her husband and she also paid money to the city when they owned a business here. Another said that the lot on which the building stands could instead be used to build housing, so she opposed the space’s use as a restaurant, instead.
Nearly as many spoke in favor of Cantwell and Wong, some from the neighborhood, some people from across the city who said that this was another example of dysfunction within the city’s planning process. One speaker in support, Zach Lipton, said that it was only after he read the letters in opposition to the project (pages 25-61) that he came forward.
“There are letters in the public record from those who want to ‘live out their lives in quiet retirement,’ as if retirement and restaurants are inherently incompatible,” Lipton said. “One letter contends it would be unsafe to have a restaurant a block away from a playground, nevermind the existing restaurants already near the very same playground. One letter objects to the presence of any business near a residence, despite the NC-1 commercial district just feet away.”
“To these complaints, I note that we live in one of the densest cities in the country. There will be, and already are, many homes next to shops and restaurants; they often even share the same building. That is simply part of what makes us a city. The authors of these letters expect all the benefits, and property values, of living in a rich and vibrant city, while demanding the isolation of a distant cul-de-sac suburb. This is untenable.”
After some more back-and-forth with Cantwell, Wong, and Sanchez, all four of the members of the Board present Wednesday night approved their appeal, prompting applause from Palm City supporters. The planner who revoked the approvals acted “arbitrarily and with an abuse of discretion,” Commissioner Eduardo Santacana said, and a neighborhood notification period wasn’t necessary. His colleagues agreed. Wong said after the meeting that she “couldn’t believe all the support we got,” and that they were “just so grateful that so many people came out for us.”
While the Board’s decision is a milestone for Palm City Wines, things aren’t quite over. Typically, in a case like this, the Planning Department will appeal the appeal — but this time, Sanchez says, they’ll waive that right. After ten days, if all goes well, it’s like Planning’s decision to pull the permits never happened.
Speaking to Eater SF the following day, Cantwell still sounded stunned, but with a firm view of the future. “We’re going to do everything we can to win over the neighbors who are opposed us,” he said. “We just want to open our little corner restaurant, serve our community, and prove everyone who’s worried about us wrong.”