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Union Street Merchants upset with Van Ness BRT project

Photo: Earl Adkins

The ongoing Van Ness Transit Corridor Improvement Project has a clumsy name only a bureaucrat could love, and many merchants on Union Street definitely don’t love one of the project’s features: the loss of a left-turn onto Union Street from Van Ness. They say it has hurt business on their street because of a loss of traffic; drivers on Van Ness just find it easier to drive onward and shop elsewhere. One idea being mooted is seeking about $1.5 million in compensation from the city for their loss of business.

The idea of compensation is not without precedent. In 2016, the Board of Supervisors voted to compensate vendors whose business was negatively impacted by the Super Bowl; though the game was held in Santa Clara, much of the Super Bowl-related events in the preceding week took place in San Francisco.

Henry Karnilowicz, president of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations, said that billions of dollars are being spent on the many street changes and improvements across the city. “And here they’re talking about giving 1.5 million? That’s nothing,” he said. “That’s a drop in the bucket.”

Karnilowicz says his organization is working with Union Street businesses to get the city to address the problem. He said the SFMTA has put up signs on Van Ness telling people that instead of turning left, they should turn right, then turn right, and then take another right to do a loop to get over to Union Street, but that cumbersome process just has drivers passing by without going through the effort. SFMTA’s own website for the project includes public comments raising complaints that the multiturn option results in congestion on adjoining streets.

Karnilowicz doesn’t know what will happen regarding compensation, but the situation is not going to go away. He points to a presentation by the city’s Controller’s Office, which studied the impact on local businesses of similar construction projects by measuring the change in sales taxes; in one, West Portal, there was a 12 percent drop in sales tax. “That’s like a 12 percent [decline] in income,” Karnilowicz says; for some businesses, “that’s what their profit margin is.”

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