Noe Valley Voice July-August 1998

Should We Seal The Lid on Coffee Shops On 24th Street?

By Erin O'Briant

The main meeting room in the Noe Valley branch library was packed full the evening of June 11, when many residents and merchants turned out for a neighborhood forum on coffee shops, takeouts, and chain stores on 24th Street.

The Friends of Noe Valley and the Noe Valley Democratic Club sponsored the panel discussion to talk about a Friends-backed proposal that would permanently ban new specialty grocery and coffee retail stores on 24th Street. A temporary mor-atorium on such shops had been in place for 18 months (it expired last October).

The neighborhood groups also wanted to check the community's pulse on the influx of franchise businesses in Noe Valley.

The panel included Friends founder and land-use attorney Claire Pilcher; Dave Monks, president of the Noe Valley Democratic Club; Diane Barrett representing the Noe Valley Merchants Association; and Grace Hing, a planner with the San Francisco Planning Department. They took turns presenting opinions and listening to views from the audience on the proposed ban.

Many Noe Valley residents are eager to limit 24th Street cafes and takeouts because of the traffic, noise, odors, and litter they may bring to the neighborhood -- and because they may contribute to making Noe Valley a hot spot for tourists. Some neighborhood groups, including the Friends of Noe Valley, are also concerned about the growing presence of chain stores on 24th Street. They fear these larger businesses will push out the older, family-run stores and destroy the distinctive flavor of the commercial strip.

In 1989, the City Planning Department officially designated 24th Street from Chattanooga to Diamond -- plus parts of Castro and Church -- the Noe Valley Neighborhood Commercial District (NCD). The Noe Valley NCD set limits on the number of eating and drinking establishments on 24th Street, and prohibited any new bars and restaurants. But in 1993, Starbucks Coffee -- wanting a piece of the lucrative Noe Valley pie -- successfully lobbied the Board of Supervisors to pass an amendment to the planning code, allowing coffee and juice stores to sell "accessory takeout" food in neighborhood commercial districts.

According to attorney Pilcher, the "Starbucks Amendment" has enabled stores such as Lovejoy's Antiques and Tea Room on Church Street to operate a full-service restaurant under the guise of being a retail store. That's why she and the Friends of Noe Valley asked Supervisor Sue Bierman to sponsor the moratorium in 1996, and now the permanent legislation. In addition to banning new coffee and juice stores on 24th Street, Bierman's current proposal would nullify the Starbucks Amendment in Noe Valley by also prohibiting existing retail stores from adding food takeout service.

"We have 51 places to eat or drink on 24th Street," said Pilcher, "and that's enough."

Pilcher believes that as long as the Starbucks Amendment is in place, there is no other way -- besides the proposed ban --to effectively limit the number of cafes and restaurants in Noe Valley.

Others aren't so sure a food ban is the best way to keep the neighborhood from becoming too crowded and impersonal, or to protect the area's small merchants.

"We don't know if the ban is going to do what it is supposed to do," said Barrett, who owns the Indigo V flower shop on Castro Street. "The [temporary] moratorium was supposed to be for the city to conduct a study, but that was never done. I think the city should fund a full study before passing permanent legislation."

Small Frys owner Carol Yenne also opposes the ban. "You lose your diversity when you put up restrictions. Part of the problem is the economics you've created with these restrictions," she said. "[A new merchant] has to buy out an existing restaurant to be in business here, and that's a big-ticket item."

If the ban is made permanent, she continued, the only retailers who will be able to afford to operate restaurants in Noe Valley are big chains and franchises. Is this the way to protect our cherished "mom-and-pop" stores? she asked.

Several meeting attendees also pointed out that whether people say they like the chains or not, there is always a line out the door at the 24th Street Starbucks -- so apparently some locals are pleased it's in the neighborhood.

Noe Valley resident Laurie Hampton suggested putting a review board in place for all new businesses in the neighborhood, so residents and merchants could decide on a case-by-case basis which retailers would be good for Noe Valley.

Hampton also agreed with Yenne that it might be better to focus on the size of the proposed store than on what the business sells. "If we can keep businesses small," said Yenne, "nothing they can do is going to hurt the other retailers."

Most local residents and merchants agreed that new restrictions of any kind would only work if they were properly enforced by the city. They also argued that City Planning hadn't done much to make sure 24th Street businesses comply with the laws already on the books.

Grace Hing defended the Planning Department, saying that it often pursued businesses referred to the city by neighborhood groups. When the department gets a complaint, she said, it cites the store if it is in violation of the planning code, and then hands the case over to the proper legal authorities.

Forum attendees generally agreed that the important issue was to take action to preserve Noe Valley's character.

"We all basically know what it is we like about the neighborhood," said Dave Monks of the Democratic Club, who lives on Dolores Street. "It's the small-town charm, plus the fact that immigrants have been able to come here and open their own stores and raise their families. But as corporate America comes in, we're starting to look like everywhere else."

To avoid being just another mini-mall, said Monks, "our neighborhood needs to be organized and vigilant. We need to pay attention to decisions made down at City Hall and stay on top of things like signage and code enforcement."

Noe Valley also needs to find a consensus on growth. "The neighbors and the merchants in Noe Valley have a lot in common," Monks said, "and I think we really need to start working together when we plan these changes."

Editor's Note: At press time, Supervisor Sue Bierman said her proposed ban on new coffee and specialty grocery stores on 24th Street was scheduled to be heard July 16, at a meeting of the city's Housing and Neighborhood Services Committee. She expected it would go before the Board of Supervisors in late July. For an update, call Bierman's office at 554-6661.