It’s 2:30 on a Monday afternoon and only two diners are enjoying the Indian-fusion street food at Curry Up Now, which opened on Valencia between 17th and 18th in February.
“Business has been okay,” says the restaurant’s manager, Jonathan Abuel. “But we really make our money at night.”
Curry Up Now, which features tacos and burritos stuffed with Indian ingredients, is just one of 38 new restaurants that have opened on a nine-block stretch of Valencia in the last five years, an analysis of business licenses shows.
Along with a streetscape facelift that, among other things, widened sidewalks three years ago, the rapid influx of eating and drinking establishments has visibly transformed the commercial corridor, leading some to ask whether Valencia has had its fill of restaurants.
“You can’t have a shopping neighborhood that’s all restaurants,” says Allan Horrocks, a Mission resident and co-owner of Aquarius Records. “It’s not healthy to have an area that’s dominated by just one type of business.”
A march planned for Saturday will push for a restaurant moratorium and call attention to recent tenant evictions. But while some merchants echoed Horrocks, others said the issue of restaurant saturation was more complicated. Moreover, economists question the logic of saturation.
Concerns over too many restaurants aren’t limited to Valencia, either. On the 12 blocks of 24th Street between Mission and Potrero, more than a third of the storefronts are dedicated to eating and drinking — well above the 25 percent recommended by the city’s General Plan.
What effects do these establishments have on their neighbors? And what forces should determine how many restaurants are allowed?
Because the market should determine the supply, there’s really no such thing as “too many restaurants,” says UC Berkeley economics professor and Mission resident Enrico Moretti. “If you had too many restaurants, you couldn’t sustain them. The main reason why there are so many restaurants is because there is a lot of demand for restaurants.”
Erick Arguello, president of the Calle 24 Neighborhood Merchants Association, says the restaurants hurt foot traffic. That’s a view echoed by Deena Davenport, founder of the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association (VCMA). The restaurants lure their crowds at dinnertime, Davenport says, causing “daytime dead pockets.”
But interviews with managers at Harrington Galleries, Dog Eared Books and Therapy — all Valencia retailers — suggest otherwise. All say that foot traffic is up in their stores. “There’s a lot of people walking up and down the street digesting food or getting ready to eat,” says Dog Eared Books’ manager Alvin Orloff.
Arguello has additional concerns, though. “These restaurants that are coming in are not your traditional mom and pop businesses,” he says. “They’re investors” with deep pockets “who are able to pay higher rents, forcing surrounding rents to rise.”
But there are other factors driving the spike in rents, says Jorge Carcamo, a real estate broker whose office has been on Valencia since 1985. The Mission is an attractive neighborhood for affluent urban residents who are drawn to the area’s sunny weather, abundance of stately Victorian homes and the walkability of its streets.
Moretti agrees that the influx of new restaurants is a symptom, rather than the cause, of gentrification. “They are providing a service to the people who are living in the neighborhood,” he says. “If the quality of the restaurant changes, it’s because the people who live around there are consuming a different type of cuisine.”
And while preserving the Mission’s Latino culture is a valid concern in the face of rapid change, Carcamo, who emigrated from Nicaragua in 1979, says Latinos should shoulder their portion of the blame. “Are we waiting for everybody of different cultures to buy up and gentrify [the Mission]?” he says. “Why don’t we buy in and participate? This is America. You’ve got the same rules. You’ve got the same economic environment. Latinos have the opportunity to do the same. Why don’t we pool our money together and buy two or three buildings?”
Both Carcamo and Moretti oppose a moratorium on new restaurants, but a moratorium is exactly what the merchants organizations want. Last year, Calle 24 teamed up with the Valencia merchants to push for a temporary moratorium on new restaurants — a move the two groups hope to revive as part of an anti-gentrification rally this Saturday.
Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose district includes the west side of Valencia, was publicly skeptical of a moratorium, pointing to a similar measure on 24th Street in Noe Valley. Enacted in 1987, it allowed new restaurants only if they were taking over a former restaurant space.
“It was a major failure because it sort of turned that street into a less vibrant street than it could have been otherwise,” Moretti says.
That moratorium was lifted in 2010.
Instead, Wiener and Supervisor David Campos passed a measure in May requiring developers wanting to convert Valencia retail space to a restaurant to go through a conditional use permitting process. The process includes public hearings. A similar measure was already in play on 24th Street.
“That’s the most our supervisors said that they could get for us,” Davenport says. “It’s kept it from getting too much worse on Valencia, which was the general idea.”
But even before the conditional use requirement was implemented on Valencia, the flow of restaurants had slowed. In 2013, only four new restaurants opened, compared to 10 the year before.
And conditional use could actually favor the large investor groups that the merchants organizations are trying to keep out, says Jasper Rubin, chair of urban studies at San Francisco State University and a former planner for the city’s Planning Department. “There is a chance that they’re more knowledgeable, that they can work the system, and that they have more resources,” he says.
The whole process was a challenge for Michael Mauschbaugh. The 32-year-old Mission resident ran his French-inspired Sous Beurre Kitchen as a pop-up restaurant out of Sugarlump for two years before pursuing a permanent space. After looking around the Mission, he settled on combining two former retail spots on 24th Street near Potrero.
It took Mauschbaugh five months to get through the conditional use permit process, and the young chef had to pay the rent all along.
“It’s really [expletive] hard to get through everything,” he said.
The two spaces Sous Beurre will take over when it opens this winter were vacant for years, Mauschbaugh says. Who knows how long they would have remained empty had a moratorium been in place.
When Sous Beurre opens, restaurants will make up more than 36 percent of the store frontage on Lower 24th Street, well above the 25 percent recommended in the General Plan.
But Planning Department Spokesperson Joanna Linsangan said the Planning Commission wants to re-evaluate that recommendation, considering that it’s almost 30 years old. “We want to make sure that the language fits the reality that we see today,” Linsangan says. “Obviously, it’s changed over in the Mission.”
And it’s not just the Mission. According to a report from Trulia that used 2010 Census Data, San Francisco has more restaurants per household than any other large metro area in the U.S.
The report also showed that the city had the highest median real estate prices.