April showers bring May flowers, and we are showering some love on our small businesses for Small Business Appreciation Month. With many independent businesses struggling to stay afloat, we are redoubling our efforts to keep these beloved mom-and-pop shops from being displaced from the neighborhoods they helped to define.
Last November voters passed Proposition J, which established a Legacy Business registry and fund. We have nominated more than 16 businesses in the last three months and want your input for additional nominations. (Please reach out to our office to see if your favorite neighborhood business is eligible to apply.) We are also planning a Carrotmob-style District 3 “Love Your Small Business Day” May 7 at 9 a.m., starting at Le Beau Market on Leavenworth Street with a community cleanup. Stay tuned for the time slots for each business, and get ready to mob them with consumer and neighborhood love! We will also be honoring Haji’s Hardware at the Board of Supervisors on May 24. Haji is more than just a shopkeeper with a cornucopia of wares — he’s a confidante, a jokester, a bestower of blessings, and the gentle and wise mayor of Sutter Street. These establishments are the heart of our neighborhoods, and with exorbitant commercial rents pushing them out, we must do more to protect them.
THE CASE FOR INDEPENDENT BUSINESSES AND A VISION FOR POLK STREET
In 2005, I legislated formula retail controls in North Beach and have been a strong supporter of the community’s push to preserve the character of Chinatown through similar measures. A decade ago, neighborhood groups like the Lower Polk Neighbors, the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association, and the Cathedral Hill Neighborhood Association began organizing efforts in the Polk Street Neighborhood Commercial District to connect neighbors around issues of public safety, transportation, and planning. They’ve had several successes, including significant input into the new CPMC hospital planning process and the formation of a Lower Polk Community Benefit District.
I was voted into office in the midst of an affordability crisis that continues to displace residents and small businesses alike. It’s imperative that we build and preserve affordable housing, and protecting our small businesses is equally important. In February, I introduced legislation to help do that in the Polk Street corridor, one of the last neighborhoods in my district without significant protections and a destination for locally owned shops and quality entertainment venues, particularly the once-robust LGBT Historical District. This legislation is a product of years of work by neighbors to carefully craft a commercial district that remains deeply rooted in the community.
While I was campaigning last year, many residents approached me to ask what I planned to do about Star Glass, a beloved neighborhood business priced out of Russian Hill, and I still hear about the charming Chameleon Cafe that closed on Nob Hill. One of the attractive things about Polk is its close proximity to a bustling north-south transit corridor that is not only about to experience a major overhaul with the upcoming Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit but also has the capacity to absorb a mix of development, with long blocks and large lots more appropriate for bulky commercial chain stores, including a 24-Hour Fitness, a Staples, and a popular Whole Foods grocery store.
Observing renewed interest in Polk Street, we are working with city staff to make sure that appropriate planning controls are implemented to give small businesses a fighting chance to compete in this high-pressure real estate climate. Though we already have chain stores on Polk, adding more could adversely affect independent shops, including bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants. Stronger formula controls would allow for new local businesses to be established alongside businesses with similar pricing power, as has been the case in Hayes Valley and North Beach. Formula retail not only impacts existing businesses with competing products and services, it also has the unintended consequence of increasing commercial rents. This is one small step that the city can take to protect local businesses in a historic neighborhood and encourage local residents to take up new opportunities in vacant storefronts while having real negotiating power with landlords.
Getting the Whole (Foods) story
Now what does this legislation mean for Whole Foods going into the former Lombardi Sports space at 1600 Jackson Street? Well, businesses with open applications prior to the introduction of my legislation will still be able to submit to a conditional-use approval process, so I’m happy to say that Whole Foods will get their day at the Planning Commission. Do I believe that grocery is an appropriate use for this site? Now that’s an interesting question, because at the same time the developer had an application open for Whole Foods they had one open for 62 units of housing at the same site, which many neighbors supported. I believe if the neighborhood supports both, the ideal proposal would mix housing with a ground-floor grocery store. I hope the community continues the dialogue with my office about a robust plan for the Polk corridor that also preserves the neighborhood’s character — before it’s too late.