San Francisco Chronicle
S.F. aims to further help small businesses
Mayor London Breed and San Francisco officials are proposing legislation aimed at making it easier for small businesses to get up and running, building on changes voters passed in 2020 to cut through layers of city bureaucracy and to cut down on the commercial vacancies plaguing some districts.
The more than 100 proposed changes to the city’s planning code come at a time when some new business formations, particularly restaurants and bars, are on the rise in San Francisco, despite being well below prepandemic averages.
The proposed legislation would allow more retail spaces to be used for multiple purposes, while shortening how long it takes to get the proper permits for a new business.
It also would allow professional services, like an accountant’s office, in ground-floor retail spaces, which under the planning code are largely reserved for retail. The proposal also would push supervisors to remove limits on bars and restaurants in some commercial strips.
“Our small business rules and regulations, which had been a challenge for many years, were made significantly worse during the global pandemic,” Breed in a statement. “Our system for permitting small businesses to open and operate was so broken that voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure to streamline regulations and support our small businesses. We have continued to make changes and improvements to the processes so that entrepreneurs can focus on serving their customers and building up a successful business.”
The changes are intended to build on 2020’s Proposition H, along with the Small Business Recovery Act, which was adopted by the board the same year. The act did away with public hearings and neighborhood notice requirements for some small businesses applications — lengthy processes that could lead to appeals by neighbors and tie up applications for weeks or months.
Asked what the city could do to make permitting easier for businesses, San Francisco Small Businesses Commissioner Cynthia Huie said in an email it could help businesses understand what they need to do to navigate the bureaucracy, instead of “sending them cryptic feedback.”
“Also, not allowing one neighbor to appeal a project and police what goes into a community,” she said.
Before Prop. H passed, some small business hopefuls saw their dreams choked by red tape, causing them to give up altogether.
City officials said key to the proposed legislation would be making it easier for storefront businesses to benefit from flexible retail, such as a combined plant store and coffee shop, without having to get new permits from the city.
That would build on Executive Director of the Office of Small Businesses and former Supervisor Katy Tang’s legislation that allowed flexible retail in districts 1, 4, 5, 10 and 11.
That would make multi-use spaces, like Earl Shaddix’s Bayview Makers Kitchen, which is slated to open in May, easier to get up and running. The maker space is currently online, with businesses selling food and drinks as well as art and other local fare.
Shaddix said to get the Makers’ Third Street location going he had to go through the longer conditional-use permit process for each of its businesses, whereas if the proposed legislation passed they would be covered under the speedier flexible retail provisions.
Shaddix estimated that only about a tenth of the storefronts in the Third Street commercial corridor are vacant, compared to more than a quarter before the pandemic. Voters passed a commercial vacancy tax on landlords in November that is currently being challenged in the courts.
The city estimates that since Prop. H took effect in January 2021, 3,520 projects have benefited, allowing more commercial projects to be processed more quickly.
The city opened its permit center with limited construction service in August 2020, with business and special events services available as of July 2021. Ten city departments are located there, with city staff available to assist people and businesses.
As it stands, most flexible retail isn’t allowed in most parts of the city, according to Marianne Mazzucco Thompson of the San Francisco Office of Small Business.
That includes the stretch of Union Street where Teddy Kramer is planning to open his community space and shop, Neon, this year. Kramer said he has benefited from the city’s First Year Free program, which he estimates will have saved him between $10,000 to $20,000 in permitting fees. And if the citywide flexible business provisions pass, it would make it easier for Kramer to evolve his neighborhood hub space, which he described as a “mom-andpop FedEx/Kinkos” and workspace that gives away coffee since he doesn’t have a permit to sell it.
If the legislation is adopted, commercial corridors across the city, including West Portal, Lower Polk, Upper Market, Glen Park and many others, would be allowed to host those spaces without going through the conditional-use permit process.
The changes would also open some commercial corridors to professional services, like an accountant or insurance broker’s office, that currently are not allowed in ground-level retail spaces.
And for neighborhoods like the Haight-Ashbury and parts of the Mission and the Bayview where there are caps on how many bars and restaurants are allowed, supervisors would be encouraged to re-evaluate those rules.
“That’s a program that needs to be expanded upon,” said Kristin Houk, who owns All Good Pizza as well as Tato and Cafe Alma in and around the Bayview’s Third Street corridor. “It gives the restaurants and the Bayview the opportunity they need.”
Sunny Powers, who owns the Love on Haight artists collective selling art, clothes and other goods, said that as a resident and a business owner in the Upper Haight she wants to see the cap on restaurants allowed in the area lifted.
Current city law states, “A concentration of alcoholic beverage establishments in a neighborhood disrupts the desired mix of land uses that contribute to a livable neighborhood and discourages more desirable and needed commercial uses in the area.”
“More businesses open means more lights, more activity,” Powers said, adding that it could also help with foot traffic for her business and others. “We have a point that we die off in the day,” usually around 6 p.m., she added.