SAN FRANCISCO — One of the biggest challenges San Francisco faces is how to make the city more friendly for businesses. One small business owner recently went in front of the SF planning commissioner to talk about the challenges she faced opening a plant store and wine bar in the Mission District.
"I encourage the planning commission to find reasonable and official ways to protect and preserve what needs to be protected but still allow for a breath of fresh air in this particular corridor, without needing for normal citizens to be victims of political power plays," Naz Khorram told the San Francisco Planning Commission earlier this month.
Her complaint is that strict sets of rules for certain areas can make things very difficult for potential business owners. In her case, it's Mission Street, where for years now rules have been put in place to preserve the character of the neighborhood.
Khorram, however, thinks those rules need a second look.
"We looked around," Khorram said of her location for Arcana. "It was really important for me not to step on anyone's toes, make sure that we get a place that doesn't displace anyone. And it was the right place for me. I liked the location."
Opening the restaurant, wine bar, plant store and event space was never going to be easy. Then came the pandemic, the delays, the mounting bills, and Khorram's journey through San Francisco's permit approval process.
"I had a great relationship with a couple of my local neighborhood nonprofits," Khorram said. "They supported me and gave me power. But then on the other side, I had people who didn't support me and told me I don't belong."
Replacing a departing shoe store on Mission Street would mean having to do outreach with various neighborhood organizations, a process Khorram said went largely well, before finding herself lost between what is actually required by the planning guidelines and what may be desired by any one neighborhood group.
"And they were pushing me to close at 10 p.m.," she explained. "I have been told I'm not allowed to be a vegan and vegetarian restaurant. If I want to have a mural on my parklet or if I want to have any art inside my business, they're gonna provide, like, a list of artists for me that I should pick from that list."
Asked to sign an agreement to some of those terms, she refused, even though she feared it may jeopardize her application with the city.
"Nowhere in the planning department or anywhere in official city documents does it say you need to sign a memorandum of understanding with people," she said. "It makes no sense."
That, she says, was her real frustration — that the process left her feeling like she had to play by a set of rules that weren't entirely written down. It is not the first time this concern has been raised, but it is rarely raised so publicly.
"I am not the only person," Khorram said of her discomfort with the process. "I know so many people, just no one wants to come out because everybody has a business here. Everybody wants to have another business here or whatever the reason is, like no one wants to just deal with this."
Erick Arguello, founder and president of Calle 24, however, credits that same process with helping to protect the 24th Street corridor as a Latino cultural district. His group did not make the specific requests of Khorram's business, but he supports the community input process.
"The numbers tell a story," explained Arguello. "From 2000 to 2022 we lost over 14,000 Latinx individuals in the neighborhood because of gentrification and displacement. We went through the dot com boom, which was big. But the tech boom was much bigger, and had a much bigger effect, negative effect, on the community."
He credits the community input process with helping his district manage inevitable change.
"Basically they're really set to integrate those businesses into the community and actually it serves them better as businesses when you're integrated and know the community, and know the issues of the community," Arguello explained. "And so you build a relationship from that. I think the history is important. The context of things, you know, people really understanding the bigger picture. Because if people don't understand the bigger picture, they think it's some mysterious thing that's managing things. But it is very intentional, very open."
Khorram said she understands it can help protect and preserve the neighborhood but feels the "processes are getting abused." She explained she speaking out in hopes of filling some of Mission Street's vacant storefronts. She thinks the complexity of the permit process is a deterrent.
"I became political almost because I was forced," she said. "When all I wanted to do was open a business and have it run and do exactly what I'm doing today."
The Mission is not unique with its own set of procedures. Districts around the city have different conditional use rules, limits on chain retail, etc. But San Francisco is also trying to cut back on some of the bureaucracy long considered small-business-unfriendly.
One discussion at city hall right now is how to balance these ideas, less red tape, while still having local inputs and protections. The Mission has been at the center of that discussion for decades now, and in that respect, it shows no signs of changing.
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