The San Francisco Planning Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to move forward legislation that would regulate new businesses opening along the Mission’s 24th Street corridor.

Already distinguished by the city as a Latino Cultural District in 2014, the five-block section of 24th Street running from Mission Street to Potrero Avenue and some of the surrounding area would be recognized as a ‘special use district’ under the proposed legislation. That would create a more rigorous approval process of what businesses are permitted to move onto the corridor.

The legislation was introduced by Mission Supervisor Hillary Ronen and Mayor Ed Lee in January in an effort to protect the neighborhood’s working class and Latino culture, stabilize existing businesses and to ensure that new ones moving in are providing services in line with the community’s needs. The Mission is now approximately 48 percent Latino, compared to 60 percent in 2000.

“I parallel what we have here to historic districts – those are about protecting physical structures,” said the commission’s vice president, Dennis Richards. “This is about [protecting] the people who inhabit them.”

Some 50 supporters that included Mission residents, business owners, community leaders and members of the 24th Street merchants association Calle 24 filled the hearing room to testify for maintaining the street’s unique enclave of Latino culture and small businesses.

The proposal aims to protect existing businesses from displacement by curbing the merging of two or more storefronts, requiring a Conditional Use approval if the spaces combined exceed 799 square feet. That authorization would also be required for businesses that seek to replace a legacy business.

Chirag Bhakta, a community organizer with Mission Housing. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Such displacement almost became reality for a bookstore and neighboring indigenous arts shop that were nearly evicted in 2013 when investors offered up $100,000 to replace those tenants with a high-end restaurant.

In response to an influx of upscale restaurants on the coveted corridor in recent years, the proposal would also prevent new restaurants and bars from opening if such establishments make up more than 35 percent of the businesses within a 300-foot radius of the proposed establishment.

The ‘special use’ designation would maintain the corridor’s “character, small storefronts, Latino art and murals, its institutions and the services they provide,” said Diana Ponce De Leon, project manager for the San Francisco Office of Economic Workforce Development. She added that the street’s businesses currently consist of about “23 percent retail storefronts and 32 percent eating and drinking establishments.”

With four new restaurants in the pipeline, she pointed to an increasing trend of upscale restaurants taking over retail spaces.

While the 24th Street Corridor has remained somewhat stable, Joaquin Torres, deputy director of the department, said that “a very real pressure exists to the stability of existing businesses.”

Alley Cat Books owner Kate Rosenberger testified in front of the San Francisco Planning Commission. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Kate Rosenberger, the owner of Dog Eared Books at 900 Valencia St. and Alley Cat Books on 24th Street, said she has been “opening bookstores for 30 years” and spoke to the insecurity felt by many small business owners in the current market.

“I had a bookstore in Noe Valley that I ran for 25 years that is now replaced by a real estate office,” said Rosenberger, adding that in Noe Valley “there are now 10 real estate offices and two bookstores.”

“That’s the perfect example of why we need this legislation in the Mission,” she said.

During public comment, a diverse constellation of supporters called the proposed protections “modest” and spoke to the need to protect Mission residents and merchants from market forces.

“The hyper-gentrification is a real danger to our city and community,” said Edwin Carmona Cruz, of the community-based legal organization La Raza Centro Legal. “The Latino community members we serve are victims of high eviction rates.”

Tenant lawyer Scott Weaver said that there are “over 2,000 market rate units in the pipeline in the Mission,” with “700 at least” in walking distance of the cultural district. With their future residents, he said, will come “an economic force that will easily transform the Mission.”

“We’ll see high end restaurants and stores replacing mom and pop businesses,” he said.

Despite strong community support, the measure has been met with opposition by some concerned that it would hamper much needed new developments and stifle economic diversity by unfairly excluding certain businesses that fail to meet the new criteria.

“[This proposal] is awfully close to zoning based on race and ethnicity – I think it’s divisive,” said Mission resident John Pinelli. “You’re telling certain business owners, ‘you’re not welcome here because your background doesn’t fit what we want here.”

One Mission homeowner said that she supports the idea of a special use district with “strong reservations” and requested accommodations.

“I’m worried that it won’t contribute to much needed improvements in the neighborhood,” citing concerns over “blight, homelessness and violence” on lower 24th Street and a “lack of enforcement” among current businesses to “keep storefronts clean.”

“I worry that special use district could result in lock in of status quo along 24th Street. It needs to improve not stay the same,” she said.

Commissioner Christine Johnson, though supportive of the measure, was skeptical of the enforcement of the new protections as well as their effectiveness.

“I don’t know that what I see before me actually achieves the goals that everyone wants to see,” she said, referring to using the legislation as a mechanism to defend the immigrant community against gentrification and maintaining the ability for Latino and small businesses not backed by “big money” to remain in the neighborhood.

“What I feel we really need is not this measure, but changes to small sites acquisition program…and the city to have right to extend commercial leases for legacy businesses. That will keep these businesses here,” she said. “A few people came up and said they are one rent increase away from eviction– but none of this helps that.”

Richards called the piece of legislation “another tool in the toolbox” and acknowledged that it provides a rather experimental approach to solving these issues.
The legislation will move on to the Board of Supervisors for approval.