Noe Valley Voice May 2007

Light at End of Real Food Tunnel

By Liz Highleyman

Three and a half years after the 24th Street Real Food Company grocery store closed for renovations, Noe Valley residents may finally see some progress in the coming months.

As Voice readers will recall, Real Food's Utah-based parent company, Nutraceutical Corporation, shuttered the store and terminated 30 workers over Labor Day weekend in 2003, saying it intended to do a badly needed remodeling. Some ex-employees countered that they were fired for attempting to organize a union.

Work on the building started and stopped several times as Nutraceutical and the former property owners, Jane and Kimball Allen, argued over the cost of repairs. In November 2005, Nutraceutical purchased the building as part of a legal settlement with the Allens. That same month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the former employees in an unfair labor practices lawsuit; Nutraceutical filed an appeal that is still pending.

During the closure, local merchants and shoppers expressed growing frustration over the empty space at the center of the 24th Street commercial strip, while District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty and neighborhood activists repeatedly attempted to engage the company in negotiations to ensure a just settlement for the fired workers and community input into the store's future.

After Nutraceutical bought the building, neighbors hoped they might finally see some action, but the storefront remains shrouded in paper. The company attributed the long delay to planning for a more extensive renovation.

Now, according to Sergio Diaz, vice president of Fresh Organics, Inc., a Nutraceutical subsidiary, the company plans to demolish the existing building and start from scratch.

"We are anticipating filing for permits over the next few weeks, as well as meeting with different neighborhood representatives to discuss our proposal," Diaz told the Voice in late April.

Though he gave few specifics, Diaz described the proposed construction as "a mixed-use building with retail, commercial, and residential" elements.

Based on his own conversations with the company, Supervisor Dufty said the plans call for a grocery store on the first floor, a second-floor community space, and a public roof deck.

Merchants and Neighbors Weigh In

Such an extensive project will require a discretionary review process, which will give the community some leverage in its negotiations with the company. It remains to be seen whether the neighborhood will be able to reach a consensus, but most parties appear to have similar goals.

Local merchants--some of whom say their businesses have suffered due to decreased foot traffic since the store's closure--are eager to see something get under way as soon as possible.

"Obviously there's frustration, but even more anticipation," said Teresa Gay Morisco, co-president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. "The overall mood among the merchants is that we're ready for something to happen. We also want to work with [Nutraceutical] to rebuild relationships with the community and merchants, which have certainly deteriorated over the past three years."

"I think everyone agrees that it's been a totally negative effect, both to have lost a healthy food store and to have any store vacant in the middle of downtown Noe Valley for so many years, not to mention how they handled laying off their employees," added Richard May, president of the residents group Friends of Noe Valley. "If they're smart, they will admit they made a mistake and say what they'll do to make up for it. They have to be good community citizens."

Neighborhood activists--who at various points have discussed strategies such as boycotting the store when it reopens, purchasing the building to operate a natural food store as a public-private partnership, and even asking the city to take over the property as a "blight" under the health code--appear to have softened their stance.

"My position is, and always has been, that Nutraceutical must engage with the neighborhood if they intend to return here after having caused so much harm. If they remain indifferent to the negative effects of their closure, then we will not blithely embrace them when they return, simply because we have no choice," said Elizabeth Street resident Peter Gabel, who spearheaded the community response after the store's closure in 2003. "However, we also want to do everything possible to support our local merchants and a thriving 24th Street."

Gabel added that he and other activists plan to call a neighborhood meeting once Nutraceutical submits its plans and files for a permit.

Company Reluctant to Set Dates

As to when the store might reopen, Diaz--whose many previous estimates over the years have come to naught--declined to give a firm timeline.

"We cannot predict at this point the final time frame, since the permitting and construction processes usually take several months and frequently change," he said. "However, we will keep working diligently to reopen the store as quickly as possible."

Judging from past projects, the city's permitting process could take as long as six months--or longer if the neighborhood puts up resistance--and construction itself could add an additional year or more.

"I advised [the company] not to delay submitting their plans," Dufty told the Voice. "The permit process gives them an incentive to engage with the community in a way they have not done in the past. There's not a lot of community space in Noe Valley, so that's a reasonable offer. But a social justice component is also essential. They can't just substitute a space for addressing community concerns.

"I don't think anyone wants to push Nutraceutical away from the table," he added. "We're all eager to get them to the table and get something done."