At a meeting of the Lombard Business Merchants Association held Jan. 10, 2013, at Reed & Greenough, residents and business owners voiced their opinions about the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (RPD) plan to build a Woodhouse Fish Co. restaurant at the site of the old degaussing station on the Marina Green. Though several people supported the idea, the majority did not, citing a lack of trust in RPD management, opposition to alcohol service, and the fear it will set a precedent for other restaurants eager to take advantage of the spectacular views.
Speaking at the meeting, Woodhouse co-owner Dylan MacNiven pointed out that he had the support of the Marina Community Association (MCA), which voted unanimously in favor of the plan, but neighbors took issue with the MCA’s position and whether or not it truly represents the neighborhood’s wishes.
Built in 1943 by the U.S. Navy, the 720-square-foot building was at one time a “wiping station” for passing ships to lower detectability by magnetic nautical mines. It was remodeled in the mid-1980s, later deeded to RPD, and scheduled for demolition in the late 1990s. For more than a decade, the building has sat vacant behind a locked chain-link fence. In April 2011, RPD issued a request for proposals seeking “an operator to offer creative, healthy, and high-quality food and beverages to athletes, tourists, and park visitors,” and Woodhouse Fish Co. was selected unanimously.
The MacNiven family is no stranger to the Bay Area restaurant scene. Along with two Woodhouse locations on Market Street and Fillmore Street, and West of Pecos on Valencia Street (all three operated by sons Dylan, Rowan and Tyler), father Jamis has owned and operated the venerable Buck’s Restaurant in Woodside since 1991. Serving New England mainstays with a California twist, Woodhouse is known for its lobster rolls, fried Ipswich clams, and its popular $1 oyster Tuesdays. Beer and wine are available, but according to Dylan MacNiven, food makes up 80 percent of the business at the current locations.
Neighbors who oppose the restaurant are particularly concerned about alcohol, especially so close to kids. “This would violate the City’s prohibition of alcohol in playgrounds and parks where children play,” said resident Peter Fortune.
Fellow resident Tom Sinkovitz asked, “If you make 80 percent of your money on food, why not consider doing a restaurant without the alcohol?” But both MacNiven and Nick Kinsey, assistant director of property management for RPD, said that was not an option. “Not with this lease,” MacNiven said.
“So you will have 50 seats outdoors, as well as room for even more people to stand around on the patio and drink until 9 p.m.,” Sinkovitz said. “And how are you going to make sure they leave at 9 p.m. and don’t take their alcohol off the premises? We don’t want to see Chestnut Street on the Marina Green; we don’t want a beer garden atmosphere.”
MacNiven and Kinsey responded that the restaurant would be on probation for six months, and that park police regularly patrol the area. “If we let people drink off premises, we would be shut down,” MacNiven said.
Thirty-six-year resident and former San Francisco Redevelopment Agency commissioner Benny Yee worried that allowing one restaurant on the Marina Green would set a dangerous precedent. “What’s to stop RPD from allowing more restaurants; more commercialization?” Yee asked.
Kinsey assured Yee that wouldn’t happen, but Fortune was skeptical. “It’s all about money for RPD,” he said. “That’s why you want to serve alcohol. City voters just passed Proposition B, which gives RPD $195 million — you should be able to operate without the minimal rent from this restaurant.”
According to Kinsey, all of the money from the 10-year lease — $110,000 a year plus 10 percent of gross receipts — would go into the Marina Harbor Fund and can only be used on projects and expenses associated with the harbor. MacNiven, whose family docks a boat at the harbor, said this was one reason he wanted to open there. “I’ve always wished there was more food there, and I like the fact the money goes toward Harbor expenses,” MacNiven said.
“What expenses? Mowing the lawn?” Fortune asked. “This money will unfairly subsidize the 600 yacht and boat owners berthing in the Marina Harbor, half of whom don’t live in this city.” Fortune also pointed out that the Planning Commission exempted the project from environmental review. “This was railroaded through,” he said. “Until I emailed the Board of Supervisors, there wasn’t even going to be an environmental review done. Very little thought has gone into this — for example, it will be a magnet for the homeless; they can jump over the short fence and sleep under the benches. How are you going to stop that from happening?”
MacNiven pointed out that the project had the unanimous support of the Marina Community Association, but Fortune said the organization didn’t speak for the neighborhood. “The MCA claims they had 1,000 votes, but I heard they only got 63 e-mails back,” Fortune said. “That isn’t a unanimous vote. They don’t represent me or the many other residents who don’t want this restaurant.”
One resident, who spoke to the Marina Times on the condition of anonymity, mentioned the signs in the windows of homes along Marina Boulevard. “Those signs say ‘No restaurant on the Marina Green!’ and yet the MCA supports this and says they represent our wishes. Isn’t this the same group who is opposed to the pet store on Lombard Street? Last I checked, I didn’t see a single sign saying ‘No pet store on Lombard Street!’ anywhere in the neighborhood, so whose interests are they really representing here?”
Should the plan receive final approval, MacNiven said the Woodhouse Fish Co. would open for business in about a year.