Noe Valley Voice June 2004

Rumors Behind the News

By Mazook

NAIL-BITERS, UNITE: The longer 24th Street remains in the economic doldrums, the shorter our nails are becoming. And that's not good for local manicurists.

So, some neighborhood groups are looking for ways to help perk up Downtown Noe Valley. At the forefront of this movement are the 240-member Friends of Noe Valley and the 100-member Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. The two groups are holding a joint meeting on the revitalization of 24th Street on Wednesday, June 9, 7 p.m., in the community room at the Noe Valley Library. They've arranged to have S.F. Planning Director Larry Badiner there to speak about those pesky zoning laws, which limit the number of restaurants and bars on 24th Street.

The Friends shared some of its worries in the group's June newsletter. Under the headline "Vibrancy or Stagnation for 24th Street?" the newsletter painted a pretty bleak picture. "Currently, one of our biggest challenges is the health of the 24th Street commercial district. We are losing stores, losing jobs, losing options for people who don't drive or don't own a car.... Each time a store closes, foot traffic for the other stores drops, and we may soon hit a tipping point where the problems get very serious."

These issues were also touched on in a story on the front page of last month's Voice. By reporting on a Friends survey whose results suggested Noe Valleons wanted more and better restaurants, the story caused ripples not only among merchants, but among the Friends' longtime members, who had helped put the lid on restaurants in the 1980s.

In an effort to calm the waters, Friends President Debra Niemann wrote a letter to the editor, published in this month's issue (see page 6). "Let's all join together and 'breathe a larger air' so we can understand and address the challenges facing Noe Valley," she wrote, quoting a poem by May Sarton.

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LARGER AIR COULD BECOME HOT AIR at the June 9 meeting because, for many in the neighborhood, tinkering with Downtown Noe Valley's commercial zoning rules might bring in the chains and destroy the sleepy, small-town character of the neighborhood.

East & West of Castro Improvement Club President Paul Kantus told me, "Our club wants to preserve the character and uniqueness of our 24th Street residential/ commercial strip, so we are very interested in hearing about any modifications that might be proposed. One thing we're against, however, is any modification that would allow more restaurants or bars on 24th Street, which could turn it into another Union Street."

Upper Noe Neighbors' newly-elected president, Vicki Rosen, says she is looking forward to the meeting with an open mind because "I understand that things do evolve." (Rosen, who has been evolving with the UNN for over 15 years, was elected at the Neighbors' April 29 meeting. She had taken a one-year sabbatical from the group's presidency, and returned at the request of many UNN members. "I needed some time off, and it went fast.")

Like everybody else, Rosen attributes the decline of 24th Street in large part to the departure of Real Food Co. "Real Food brought me to 24th Street almost every day, and since they closed I'm lucky if I get up there once a week. I go down to Rainbow Foods on Folsom instead."

The same thing happened a few months earlier on Church Street, she says. "When Mikeytom closed, Upper Noe Valley's commercial district lost an anchor store, and that has hurt all the other merchants," says Rosen.

Rosen suggests that the best way to revitalize 24th Street is to bring the commercial rents down. She also puts in her two cents about other neighborhood controversies. The way to preserve Noe Valley's residential character, she says, "is to get legal controls that will stop the demolition of our residences and the building of monster homes."

The next Neighbors' meeting will be July 29, the last Thursday of the month, at 7:30 p.m., at the Upper Noe Rec Center at Day and Sanchez.

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MAPPING OUT 24TH STREET: Merchants Association President Carol Yenne says her members don't see revitalization of Downtown Noe Valley in terms of more restaurants, although she supports the idea. Instead, they want to deal with the basics. They're tired of "off-leash dogs and the dog waste on 24th Street, dirty garbage cans, newspaper racks in disarray, street people panhandling shoppers, shoplifters, and our own merchants who don't clean the sidewalks in front of their businesses or remove the graffiti from their store windows," says Yenne. They'd also like a bit more police presence, thank you.

Meanwhile, the association has put together a spiffy map and shopper's guide to Noe Valley, showing all the local stores and businesses. "The Official Noe Valley Neighborhood Guide," with an initial printing of 5,000, will be available soon for shops to purchase at cost, then distribute to their customers or use for other promotional purposes.

"This is the first merchant guide we've had in years," says Yenne. "We've worked really hard on this one, and we're very pleased with the result."

Of course, the way stores are changing hands around here, the guide may need monthly updates.

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UPDATING THE UPDATES: Everyone wants to know when the chains will be removed from the entrance to the Noe Valley Ministry's new 24th Street parking lot. Well, I wish I could tell you.

Last month, Luke Aquilera of American Parking Management indicated that he was set to open by the middle of May. When I gave Aquilera a "Whassup?" all he could say was that as soon as he got the go-ahead from all the parties involved, his firm would be up and running in about 10 days. His best guess: "Sometime this month, hopefully."

Meanwhile, it appears from the permit application it filed mid-May with City Planning that the Saturday-morning Noe Valley Farmers' Market has gotten the green light from the Ministry to "establish a permanent farmers' market to operate between the hours of 8 a.m. and noon every Saturday in the existing parking lot." Residents living within 150 feet of the parking lot were notified, and with any luck the market should get its permit by the end of this month.

Although the "For Rent" sign is still up in the front window of Colorcrane, Bill Talmage of DeWolf Realty says he is very close to inking a lease with a knitting emporium. "We've had a bit of a problem obtaining possession of the premises, but that has all been worked out now, and we should be able to proceed," he says.

Chatterbox, the cozy gift and art gallery near the corner of Church and 24th streets, closed its doors on May 31. Owner and Noe Valleon Julie Andersen is taking some time off, she says, "to give birth to a baby boy," due in the middle of June.

Andersen says Chatterbox may not be gone for long. "I'll be back in some capacity in the fall, and just might reopen my store if I can find a new location. If this spot is still available, then I might be back here."

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THE TIDE TURNS: There will be changes at Launderland, a sudsy landmark that's been on the corner of 24th and Church for ages. The owner/operator of the popular laundromat, which offers customer parking out back, has applied for a permit to divide the building into two retail stores. These would extend further back into the parking lot, and halve the current 10 spaces.

Owner Dominic Maionchi says that although he definitely plans to create two storefront spaces, there's a chance he will be renting out one side and condensing his laundromat into the other side, which would require investing in all new washers and dryers. "I haven't made up my mind yet and still want to explore all the possibilities, including renting out the whole space as is," he says.

Last month, he put a "For Lease" sign on the building, and already he has received a bunch of calls from prospective renters. "One is interested in opening a preschool, another in a beauty supply, others in a grocery store, a yoga studio, a bookstore, a party supply outlet, a women's clothing store, and a health food store. I'm kind of surprised that I've heard nothing from anyone who wants to open a restaurant."

The most curious inquiry, according to Maionchi, was the one from an agent of "the people who run Real Foods up the street."

As to when he will begin building out the two stores, Maionchi says, "I am in no hurry."

The "For Rent" signs have been taken off the front window of the former Mikeytom Market on the corner of Church and Day. This could signal a new business on the horizon. However, leasing agent Steve Brown of Better Property Management is remaining tight-lipped about the store's prospects, a sure sign current negotiations are pending. The neighborhood is waiting with keen anticipation.

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EXTREME MAKEOVER: There will also be big changes at Bell Market.

According to Cala/Bell's Northern California district manager, Reggie Owen, parent company Ralph's is scheduling a major remodel of the 24th Street supermarket in 2005.

Owen, who supervises the 42 Northern California Ralph's affiliates, says, "We were on track to start the remodel this year, but we've had to move our schedules back because of the five-month clerks' strike in Southern California." The remodeling could close our 24th Street store for several weeks, he says.

But the good news is the new, improved Bell will look like the chain's recently remodeled Cala in the Castro, at 18th and Collingwood. "We are going to expand, and focus on our perishable goods and produce departments, redo the interior of the store, and put in all new fixtures." That means they'll have lots of prepared foods and more organic produce.

Until the renovation starts, says Owen, Bell is making every effort "to have the cleanest store possible. We are regularly power-washing the store," inside and out. The store is also considering an immediate revamp of its salad bar to include organic greens in the mix.

So next year there may be a race between Real Food and Bell to see who can complete their remodel first. At this point, I'm betting on Bell.

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PAPER FOLDING: So long to Paper Plus, closing this month after an eight-year run on Castro Street. Owner Phillip Schurman says he is consolidating his greeting card outlet to his Berkeley store, on San Pablo Avenue near University.

The primary reason he's closing, he says, is high rent (in a tepid economy). "I have basically been on a month-to-month lease for the last two years, and the rent my landlord is now asking [for an annual increase] is double, and my sales at the store won't pay for such a large increase, so I have no choice but to leave," he says.

Schurman says he has tried to find an affordable spot in Downtown Noe Valley suitable for his business, "but I cannot get the space I need and still be able to afford the rents in the neighborhood, which I am finding are around four dollars a square foot per month."

It's weird, he says, that the rent at his Berkeley store is so much more affordable than rents in Noe Valley.

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SORRY TO END on a sour note. Things'll be better next month. See you at the meeting June 9.