Zeitgeist's sunny patio, 2016. Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist.

The sponsors of a 28-unit housing development proposed for 198 Valencia – the current site of an auto service station discovered Thursday the peculiar traps of developing housing in San Francisco.  

This one concerned the questions of shade, legacy businesses and in the end became a debate on whether the city’s charm – a charm derived in part from legacy businesses that provide sun-filled patios – was more important than building more housing. For the moment, the developers have lost.

The San Francisco Planning Commission moved to continue their vote to approve the project until February 16.

Grounds for the delay was the Commission’s request that the project’s developer and its opponents – the owners of the adjacent bar Zeitgeist – collaborate on a shadow analysis to gauge the impact that the five-story housing project would have on the bar’s outdoor patio lighting.

Klaus Burmeister, president of Zeitgeist, a popular Mission bar at 199 Valencia St., filed the appeal along with another neighbor. Burmeister told the commissioners on Thursday that the project’s proposed height threatened to throw shade on his his establishment’s iconic biergarten.

“[The biergarten] is a unique and distinctive organism and like any other organism, to survive, it needs air and sunshine. And that, is the problem,” said Burmeister.

The 40-year-old bar was recently added to the registry of legacy businesses, and Burmeister said that part of that legacy includes the creation of a unique urban oasis distinguished by its patio.

Unwanted shade from the project, he said, could cost him business by deterring a “neighborhood community of fiercely loyal customers” who “cannot afford their own backyards” and are drawn to Zeitgeist for its commodity of drinking beer in the sunshine.

In documents filed with the Planning Department, Burmeister argued that the increased shadow cast by the planned 55-foot tall building would impact the bar’s annual sales by 30 percent, impacting the business from about “4:30 p.m to sunset.”

But the developer argued that much of Zeitgeist’s shadow is self-imposed – the bar’s patio is outfitted with several umbrellas to protect patrons from sun exposure, and a shadow analysis provided by shadow expert Adam phillips of PreVision Design proved inconclusive.  

Still, Burmeister requested that the current designs be revised to reduce its height by two stories, adding that he is not against housing – “we have 18 units of affordable housing above us,” he said, referring to a residential hotel located above the bar –and willing to work with the developer to find a solution.

During public comment, several patrons of Zeitgeist agreed that the bar would be half as charming without its natural light.

“Half of the appeal of this business…is that the community can get together, sit outside, meet strangers, learn a little bit more about the world and sing the praises of our city,” said one patron of Zeitgeist. “Personally as a customer sitting outside is a big plus for me.”

The commissioners were torn. First because it was unclear how long and how severely the patio would be impacted by the shadow, and secondly because it was difficult to assess the loss of revenue, if any, caused by it.

And so instead of coming to any quick decision, the discussion went on – and on.

For a large portion of the almost three-hour hearing, they analyzed the project’s design in a conversation that ultimately devolved into a question of what deserves to be prioritized – the maintenance of a San Francisco’s unique character by protecting legacy business that add charm and history to the neighborhood, or the addition of more housing units in the midst of a citywide crisis.

The project would include at least four affordable onsite housing units, which could be compromised if the project’s design were revised, argued its developers and supporters.

Mission resident, occasional Zeitgeist patron and a leading member of the YIMBY, Yes-in-my-back-yard party,  Sonia Trauss said that building housing is “more important than drinking beer.”

A Mission newcomer who gave his name as Steven said that it took him four months to find a  $2,000 a month room in the Mission.  As a result, he supports the construction of more affordable units.

“This is not how I imagined my life in San Francisco,” he said.

Laura Clark, founder of Grow SF, a pro-development advocacy group, said it is “scandalous and embarrassing for San Francisco” that the Commission is considering delaying the construction of much needed housing units over an issue of shade.

But Peter Papadopoulos, of the Mission’s Cultural Action Network, called the affordable housing provided by the proposed project “minimal,” and that razing the auto service station and replacing the  “$30 an hour” wages that the shop provides to blue collar workers with minimum wage retail jobs created in the project’s proposed 6,000 square feet of commercial space, was far more damaging.

As the conversation stretched late into the night, the commissioners were unable to agree on how to move forward with the project.

Commissioner Christine Johnson said she was supportive of the project and not comfortable with revisions that would include fewer units. Commissioner Kathrine Moore wondered if the proposed ground floor commercial space could be modified to include some of the residential units should the building’s height be adjusted.

Commissioner Myrna Melgar pointed out that an additional shadow study would add notable costs to the project. By 7:30 p.m., the fatigued commissioners decided to give both parties another month to work out the details of the shadow’s impact – to the dismay of some of its supporters.

“You just added three more weeks and additional expense to [a housing project] in the middle of a housing crisis because of a shadow,” said Clark.

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  1. fixing the housing problem by making it suck to live here is not the answer. Community is more important than redoing the city of Sam Houston in the bay.

  2. Just a quick correction – I watched the hearing closely and Christine Johnson was in support of the project but very much NOT in support of any reduction in units. She was the only commissioner to move that the project go forward and was not seconded.