Noe Valley Voice May 2004

Is It Time to Revisit the Ban on New Restaurants on 24th Street?

By Corrie M. Anders

Twenty years ago, "No Union-ization!" was the rallying cry among Noe Valley residents, who feared that laid-back 24th Street was on the verge of being overrun by trendy restaurants and bars like those across town on upscale Union Street. Their anxiety was so strong that they successfully lobbied the city for a zoning law that prevented any additional eating establishments or bars from setting up shop on 24th Street.

That view is changing, according to the results of a survey conducted this spring by the neighborhood group Friends of Noe Valley. With the arrival of a new generation of more affluent residents, there has come a growing sentiment for lifting the rigid prohibition on new restaurants.

"There are a number of food establishments that no longer meet the tastes and the eating-out habits of the current population of Noe Valley," says Friends Vice President Debra Niemann, who compiled the answers given by the questionnaire's 71 respondents. "They want more hip restaurants."

While Noe Valley has an abundance of Italian and Asian restaurants, she says, it may be lacking in other food categories.

"People keep saying, 'I'm tired of having to go out of the neighborhood,'" says Niemann, a 15-year resident of 23rd Street. "They walk down to Valencia Street or get in their car and go out of the neighborhood."

But allowing additional restaurants to offer their cuisine in Noe Valley would require changes to the city's planning code, and would be, so to speak, a fly in the soup for supporters of the current code.

Still, the survey has started a dialogue, and the restaurant ban will be one of the issues on the table June 9, when Friends of Noe Valley and the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association co-host a meeting at the Noe Valley­Sally Brunn Library. Their special guest will be Larry Badiner, acting director of the San Francisco Planning Department.

The Friends' informal survey touched on a variety of topics dear to local residents. Asked what the chief challenges facing Noe Valley were, the respondents, most of whom were homeowners, listed crime first, followed by 24th Street's diminished vibrancy and displeasure over "monster" homes.

But a clear focal point of the survey was 24th Street, the heart and soul of Noe Valley's commercial district, whose luster has been tarnished in recent months by boarded-up storefronts along a couple of key blocks.

Several survey participants complained that "24th Street is filthy [and] not as attractive as it used to be," that there is "too much dog doo," "not enough garbage cans," and "way too much panhandling."

They also were displeased about the limited range of merchants on the strip. Many respondents said they'd like to see a men's clothing store, as well as a sporting goods store, a movie theater, or a variety store similar to Cliff's in the Castro or Mendel's in the Haight.

Yearning for High-Quality Takeout

On two different fronts, food elicited some of the most passionate responses. Residents said a natural food store or an organic market would be welcome additions to the street--and would help fill the void left by last year's closure of the Real Food Company.

But residents were most enthusiastic in their desire for more ethnically diverse dining choices, qood-quality fast foods, California Crisp­style salad bars, and cafes with healthy and organic cuisine.

That's the kind of dining that Carla Wike and Deborah Schneider, for example, say they now have to go out of the neighborhood to enjoy.

"I'd love to be able to walk to a nice restaurant," said Wike, 36, a Church Street resident who works as a marketing executive. "But I generally go to the Mission, which has a lot of very trendy restaurants, and I love Clement Street."

Wike also has a preference for Indian and Thai restaurants. And every once in a while, "it's nice to have a treat," she says, at an upscale restaurant on Nob Hill.

Schneider, 32, an attorney and author, says inexpensive, but excellent restaurants, with quality fare in the $10 range, would quickly put a menu in her hand. She ticked off examples such as Pluto's Fresh Food, a sandwich and salad-bar diner in the Inner Sunset, and the Citrus Club, a noodle house on Haight Street.

"I'm usually pressed for time," says Schneider. "I'd like to see a number of different places to go to where you don't have to spend a lot of money, but you can get a good meal."

Ban Covers Eats of All Kinds

Restaurant life along 24th Street has been more or less static since the moratorium was enacted in the spring of 1987. The planning code prohibits any new full-scale restaurants, large fast-food operations, or small self-serve eating facilities in the six blocks of 24th Street from Chattanooga to Diamond. The ban covers any place with table and chair service, and includes coffee shops and juice bars.

"People were afraid that Noe Valley and other neighborhoods would be overrun by restaurants," explains city planner Badiner, who also lives in Noe Valley. "The cry was 'Sure, you can get a latte, but you won't be able to get your shoes fixed.'"

The code does permit a new restaurant to replace one that has closed, Badiner says. That's how Firefly Restaurant was able to move into the old home of La Roca; the Pasta Pomodoro chain was able to start serving Italian food at Panos' former location; and Fresca, a Peruvian restaurant, will be allowed to open soon at the shuttered Tien Fu Restaurant.

The tough measure was "a good thing at the time," agrees Niemann. "There was a real threat of coffee shops on every corner and restaurants in every storefront."

But Niemann thinks the restrictions might currently be too severe, given the demographic and sociological changes in Noe Valley during the past decade. Noe Valley, she notes, is now a neighborhood where a family's median annual income is well above $100,000 and the average home costs $1 million.

"People who can afford million-dollar houses also have higher-end tastes," she says, "so Joe's Pizza just doesn't do it."

'Modify' Is the Operative Word

Niemann says she favors a modification to the code that would allow some additional restaurants on 24th Street. "I don't think the survey results are saying get rid of the code.... I think [people] are saying modify it.

"No one is going to let the neighborhood be overrun," she says. "But you can modify the code so that people who want to can walk to 24th Street and can get whatever they need."

Carol Yenne, current president of the Merchants Association and proprietor of Small Frys, a children's clothing store on 24th Street, agrees that it may be time to take another look at the restaurant ban.

"I think we should listen to what the people are saying and see if we can either temporarily or in some way change the restrictions on neighborhood use," Yenne says. "I don't want to see Noe Valley lose its charm. I don't want to see it lose its style," she says. "But the neighborhood is changing, and we should change with it, and I don't think there is anything wrong with looking at making changes."

Worries About Restaurant Row

But changing the code may be a sour subject for early supporters of the restaurant ban, including landscaper Jean Amos, who as a Friends president in the early 1980s led the fight.

"My problem is that it's going to be the Union Street example that we used [in the '80s]," says Amos, who lives on Elizabeth Street.

A more upscale 24th Street, she fears, may in the long run drive out families and economic diversity in the neighborhood.

"As soon as we start increasing the number of restaurants, what are we going to give up?" Amos asks. "We'll lose the stationary store, the post office, the shoe repair store, the guitar shop, and the things that can't compete because the overhead is so high.

"It's going to become restaurant row," she says, "and we'll lose the factors that make Noe Valley a nice sweet little neighborhood to live in."

Paul Kantus, president of the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club, one of the oldest neighborhood institutions (since 1904), is even more adamant.

"More restaurants, and 24th Street would become another Union Street, where everyone from all over town would come here, and parking would be worse than it is now," says Kantus, a Douglass Street resident.

"We want to keep it a village, and a proliferation of restaurants and small food places would change the character of the neighborhood," he says. "We're against that."

Niemann concedes that there will be many obstacles to overcome, should Friends decide to pursue an end to the restaurant ban.

Neighborhood activists who proposed the moratorium some 20 years ago had "the right intentions," says Niemann. But the character of the neighborhood has shifted since then and now demands something different.

"There are a lot of elderly people in Noe Valley who don't want any change. But change is good. Not all change is bad," she says. "The farmers' market [on Saturdays at 24th and Vicksburg] is new and different, and it's a good thing."

Friends' Survey Profile

Friends of Noe Valley received 71 responses to its survey on neighborhood issues, conducted in February and March among the group's membership and on three Saturdays at the Noe Valley Farmers' Market.

The main questions in the survey were: "What kinds of stores would you like to see recruited to 24th Street?" and "What are the top three challenges facing Noe Valley?" The questionnaire also asked to what degree, if any, 19 issues posed a problem. In addition to local commerce, the issues ranged from crime and graffiti to parks and affordable housing.

Survey participants were split nearly 50-50 among men and women. Most of those who responded were between 36 and 50 years old, and about one-third had children. The demographic profile also showed that 78 percent of the participants owned their own homes and 58 percent had post-college degrees.

Get in on the Ground Floor of Neighborhood Planning

Want to voice your opinion about what kind of shops and restaurants should be allowed on 24th Street? Want to sound off about "monster" homes or legislation to ban chain stores in the neighborhood?

You can do so next month at a joint meeting of Friends of Noe Valley and the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. The meeting, June 9, will start at 7 p.m. at the Noe Valley­Sally Brunn Library, 451 Jersey Street.

Larry Badiner, the city's acting planning director and a Noe Valley resident, will be the featured speaker. Planning code measures that limit additional restaurants on 24th Street will be a principal topic.