The Nearly Impossible Path to Opening a Small Business in San Francisco’s District 3

According to a recent study, San Francisco is the hardest city in the United States to run a small business. We see the impact of this in our District 3 neighborhoods, where places like North Beach have a 21% vacancy rate (and this was before the pandemic).

This is a crisis many years in the making and is the result of my opponent’s devotion to highly political approval processes, complex codes, and decisions to carve District 3 out of new uses that would have made it easier for small businesses to open.

After it took our neighborhood association years and over a dozen permits to open a farmers market in North Beach, I knew that something was deeply broken about the way we treat small businesses in San Francisco.

But we have a chance to change this in November with the election for a new District 3 Supervisor. So, what will I focus on as Supervisor to support small businesses?

One of the most impactful, immediate things we can do is to look at our Planning & Zoning map and revisit what is allowed to open in District 3. Here’s the problem: Many of the types of businesses that will bring our neighborhoods back are currently illegal or nearly impossible to open in District 3. That needs to change.

Let’s imagine you want to open a business in San Francisco’s District 3, be it Russian Hill, North Beach, or Lower Nob Hil. Here’s what you’ll find…

What do each of the colors on the maps below mean?

Red — Not Permitted. The use is not allowed in the area, period.

Orange — Conditional Use. It’s possible that the use is allowed, but to get approval, you’ll need to go through a highly political proccess that costs tens of thousands of dollars inadditional fees and adds an average of 11 months in delays. Put another way — you might be able to open one day if you’re lucky, have deep pockets, and know the right people.

Green — Permitted. The use is allowed.

Bakeries, Coffee Roasters & Ice Cream Makers

Want to make a product and also offer it for sale to customers at the same location? This is a “Speciality Food Manufacturing” use.

But, you’re out of luck if you want to open your bakery in North Beach, make ice cream on Nob Hill, or roast coffee on Telegraph Hill. You’ll notice no orange (conditional uses) on the map in District 3, meaning you don’t even have a pathway to fight to open such a business if you wanted to.

See a full list of “Speciality Food Manufacturing” uses.

Pop-Ups

In 2018, San Francisco introduced a new type of temporary use permits, “60-Day Pop-Ups.” This common-sense permit would allow for temporary secondary uses of space.

On paper, pop-ups should be one of the “easier” types of businesses to open today— they require less capital, they allow a simple way to test the waters, and they allow for new concepts that draw curious visitors.

The only problem? My opponent voted against allowing pop-ups in District 3. This means it impossible to open a 60-day pop-up business anywhere in our neighborhoods, from Russian Hill to Union Square to Nob Hill.

Flexible Retail

Want to open an ice cream shop and a greeting card shop under one roof? How about a space that combines an event space, cafe, and bookstore?

Those are both examples of Flexible Retail. They are also both not allowed anywhere in District 3. Many other Districts allow Flexible Retail, but my opponent decided to opt our neighborhoods out of the legislation.

It’s expensive to rent space in San Francisco, and the stakes are high. We should not make it illegal to combine resources to open a space and limit the creative potential of the retail experiences our merchants can offer.

Art Studios & Workshops

It is illegal to open a ceramics studio on Grant Ave, an art gallery on all of Polk Street in D3, or a photo workshop on Hyde Street. Notice that there’s no orange on this map in those commercial areas, so you don’t even have a chance to attempt to open through a conditional use.

These are examples of “Arts Activities.” See a full list here.

Job Training Centers

(L) Where Job Training use is allowed (R) Areas with the highest unemployment — NYT Graphic, Aug. 2020

As more than 100,000 San Franciscans face unemployment, access to job services and retraining services has never been more critical. But, in too many neighborhoods like Lower Nob Hill and the Tenderloin, those services are suppressed by current zoning rules.

Even worse? Many of the areas with the highest unemployment (see image on the right), are the same places where it’s actually the hardest to open a space for job training.

Restaurants

Restaurants require a conditional use permit in much of District 3 — all along Polk Street, in much of Chinatown, on Columbus Ave. and along Grant Ave.

Yes, San Francisco has a lot of restaurants already and balance is important in planning. But is there anything balanced about sending new, hopeful restaurant owners through the broken, lengthy conditional use process?

Want to look at the maps for yourself? Here’s the interactive “Business Zoning Check Tool” from San Francisco Planning. Choose your business type and watch the colors change as you see where you might be allowed to open your business across the city.

We’ve got a lot of work to do. We need to do short-term work to aid our businesses during the pandemic, many ideas of which I proposed in my COVID Small Business Plan in March. We need to hire a team of small business advocates in City Hall to provide more support. We need to build more housing so that workers can live nearby, and clean our streets so that we have vibrant, beautiful neighborhoods to draw visitors.

But, we cannot rebuild our neighborhoods back to full strength until we recognize and reform the broken ways in which our current zoning laws exclude mom and pop small business owners and keep creative new ideas out of our neighborhoods.

We see how badly this needs to be changed. Now, I need your voice and time to volunteer for our campaign that will fight to change this. Join our campaign for District 3 Supervisor and sign-up to volunteer.

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