San Francisco Chronicle
A club — on Mission Street? Neighbors shocked
San Francisco needs Marco Senghor to succeed, and all but a handful of city residents seem to know it.
Senghor, a well-known, well-loved restaurateur and dance club impresario, has all the ingredients for a thriving small business: an inviting space on Mission Street near 19th Street, brightly colored walls with original artwork, a popular menu with dishes from his native West Africa, connections to a host of international musicians and DJs, and support from everyone from local politicians to the preschool next door.
Meanwhile, San Francisco, a city with more empty spaces than a first grader’s smile, desperately needs creative entrepreneurs willing to fill them. Incredibly, there are 70 commercial vacancies on Mission Street between 14th and 30th Streets, and finding new uses for them is crucial to the neighborhood’s post-pandemic success.
But there’s one sour note spoiling Senghor’s effort to create a bigger, better version of his now-shuttered restaurant and club, Bissap Baobab, around the corner. Owners of condos next door have protested his new business at every step. They fought him at the Entertainment Commission, which approved his September opening anyway. Now, under his permit, he’s allowed to host indoor entertainment until 2 a.m., but the neighbors have called 311 a dozen times to complain about loud noise. The most recent call came Feb. 1 at 10:41 p.m. when a neighbor complained of “visible and audible drumming.”
Each time, inspectors have found Senghor in full compliance with his permit.
The neighbors have also protested since last summer his right to serve beer and wine, a matter that should finally be decided Thursday before an administrative law judge with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The neighbors’ protests have meant Senghor hasn’t been able to apply for a hard liquor license because a business owner can only seek one license at a time, said his friend and political adviser, Kevin Ortiz. Both men expect the neighbors will fight him next over the hard liquor license he intends to seek once the beer and wine license is resolved.
“Anything I do, they will complain,” Senghor, 58, told me as we sat in the sun-filled front window on a recent afternoon. “On Mission Street! It’s a commercial zone. Come on. They want the Mission to stay quiet, and they want the Mission to die.”
He said he’s spent $60,000 soundproofing the space — including adding 100 soundboards, covering the walls with a barrier of mass loaded vinyl and installing wood floors — but that the complaints keep coming.
Ortiz said he tested the decibel level inside the neighbors’ condos with their permission at 11 p.m. on a Saturday in November and found they were at a humdrum 40 decibels. The 14-Mission buses barreling past were louder.
Senghor said not being able to serve hard liquor has cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in business. Plus, some musicians are turning him down, saying the place doesn’t have “a good energy” because of lack of alcohol and surprise inspections prompted by the neighbors’ 311 calls, he told me. He created a GoFundMe to weather the setbacks.
I’d like to hear what the neighbors have to say, but despite their loud complaints against Senghor, they haven’t uttered a peep to me.
I emailed the condo owners who filed the protest to the beer and wine license asking for comment. One of the couples doesn’t even appear to live in their Mission Street condo, instead using a Bernal Heights address on the protest. I also phoned and texted, as well as leaving business cards with a description of what I was working on in the condo mailboxes. Silence.
A July letter to the Entertainment Commission gives an indication of the neighbors’ concerns. The building’s Homeowners Association wrote that when they purchased their condos, the building next door housed a furniture store.
“Although Mission Street can be a challenging place to live, we all took comfort in having quiet businesses on both sides of our building,” they wrote. “We appreciate the vibrant and diverse atmosphere of the Mission; however, the addition of a bar with loud music sixteen hours per day next door would have a devastating impact on the livability of our homes, not to mention our property values.”
But 16 hours is nowhere near accurate. Bissap Baobab is open from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On Thursdays and Sundays, it closes at midnight or earlier. And it’s closed all day on Mondays and Tuesdays. And it’s not like Senghor is hosting a nightly rave. He plays a mix of salsa, reggae, flamenco, gypsy jazz and other international tunes.
But buying a property in San Francisco doesn’t mean your neighbors will never change; in fact, it’s almost guaranteed. And buying property on Mission near 19th Street and complaining about nightlife is like buying property on the twisty part of Lombard Street and complaining about tourists.
The neighbors’ gripes are just the latest misfortune for Senghor, who operated his beloved Bissap Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant and dance club, on 19th Street since the 1990s. On Aug. 1, 2018, he was arrested while walking on Mission Street and faced up to 10 years in federal prison after being accused of using a sham marriage to obtain citizenship. He pleaded guilty to making a false statement on an immigration document and was sentenced to a year of probation and a $1,000 fine. He is now in the country legally and serving on the city’s Immigrant Rights Commission.
He sold the original Bissap Baobab in 2019 to pay his lawyers’ fees, leaving a hole in the neighborhood for the throngs that loved the international music, seared lamb and hibiscus-based cocktails served in plastic cups. Last year he decided to try again, getting a $50,000 small-business grant from the city and moving into the former site of Lupulandia Brewery, which had replaced the onetime furniture store but closed during the pandemic.
It seemed like a win for him and for a neighborhood dotted with vacancies. Senghor secured letters of support from Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Myrna Melgar, state Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Matt Haney.
Last year, Mio Preschool also sent a letter of support, saying Bissap Baobab would be “an excellent asset to the neighborhood,” far better than the “eyesore” left by the brewery’s vacancy. No surprise, the Mission Merchants Association and the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District also support Senghor.
Perhaps my favorite letter of support came from another neighbor living on the other side of Bissap Baobab. She wrote that the music, food, hospitality and attentive management would be a boon to the neighborhood.
“I believe that value should be placed on grassroots establishments with a heart,” she wrote. “That is why I am living here.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Let’s raise a metaphorical glass (or a real one, no judgment) to Senghor, Bissap Baobab and San Francisco coming back to life, one small business at a time.