Do restaurants nourish a neighborhood or fill it with empty calories? That was the issue at a community meeting Thursday night as residents debated a proposed ordinance to allow more eateries on Noe Valley’s commercial corridor.
A straw poll showed the nourish faction winning nearly two-to-one.
“More title companies, nail salons and insurance companies do not make a vibrant neighborhood. Restaurants do,” said a resident who identified himself only as Michael.
But Elanor Gerhardt, disagreed. “No one is going to starve,” she said referring to the 30 or so existing places to grab something to eat.
Noe Valley zoning laws currently bar new restaurants, but District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty introduced legislation into the Board of Supervisors that would lift the ban, yet still require approval by city planners before receiving permits.
It was unanimously recommended by the Planning Committee, but a date has not been set for the Board’s vote.
Gerhardt, who has been involved in other neighborhood planning efforts, stressed the importance of getting the right mix of businesses. “It always comes down to balance and stability. Always. That’s what we’re always aiming for on 24th Street,” she said.
Some residents questioned the notion that the notoriously risky restaurant business would solve 24th Street’s vacancy problem. The vast majority of restaurants don’t make it to their first anniversary.
Still, Carol Yenne, Vice President of the Noe Valley Merchants Association said the business community wants to see more restaurants. She also tried to allay fears that a stampede of new ones would overwhelm the commercial zone, “We aren’t expecting a flood of new restaurants to open,” she said. “We’ll be lucky if just one does.”
But several residents said existing restaurants already cause a host of annoyances including noise and odors for those who live on Jersey and Elizabeth streets, where the back entrances to many 24th Street restaurants are located.
“We’re bearing the brunt of the rest of the neighborhood’s desire to have restaurants and stroll around,” said Mary McFadden.
Others complained that the city doesn’t adequately enforce codes or respond to complaints. Jersey Street resident Joann Swanson said, “the key is addressing these problems up front so we don’t have this war zone mentality.”
Planning Department staff member Elizabeth Watty said that even under the proposed amendment, zoning rules would require any new restaurants to demonstrate that they would be “necessary and desirable” in the community.
When asked to define those terms, Watty said Planning Commissioners factor in issues like the number of already existing restaurants, community support and more restaurants fit into the city’s overall plan. “[The amendment] doesn’t make the process any easier. It only opens the forum to future restaurants,” she said.
A piece of 2006 legislation sponsored by Dufty granted an exception to the ban that allowed three new restaurant permits to be issued. But only one restaurant, Contigo, has opened using the new permits. Two other eateries began the permitting process but have not yet finished it.