Who needs caffeine when the mere discussion of a coffee shop amps people up?
Plans for The Creamery, a coffee shop famed for hosting conversations that allegedly sparked tech companies like AirBnB, to move into the Mission came before the Board of Supervisors today as opponents argued that the proposal violated a 1970 California environmental law and would negatively impact the neighborhood’s environment.
The supervisors agreed in a unanimous vote that it did not.
That vote, however, followed careful consideration of a presentation led by Ben Terrall, who filed the complaint that deployed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to oppose the project led by Ivor Bradley, an Irish immigrant.
Bradley closed the Creamery in SoMa when his lease expired last August after 12 years at the space. As plans for a residential building that would displace his business were underway, Bradley found a new location at 1801 Mission St., which completed development in 2020. The commercial ground floor space on the corner of 14th Street has residential units above, and has been vacant for two years. Bradley will be its first tenant. Various other nearby commercial spaces remain vacant and for rent.
Terrall, a member of the anti-tech Cultural Action Network, argued that the alleged increased gentrification The Creamery would generate would create a negative impact on the local area and possible urban decay. He compared his filing on the Creamery to a successful CEQA appeal in 2004, which argued that the creation of two Bakersfield shopping centers, which included super-sized Walmarts and a gas station, would trigger negative physical impacts on the surrounding community.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen said invoking the CEQA law was a tool frequently used by anti-gentrification activists, and added that the Creamery’s effects couldn’t be compared to the Bakersfield court case. “The court was able to uphold the Bakersfield [case] because of sheer size. I don’t believe that we have reasonable data to indicate that the small site would cause a spiral of closures leading to urban decay and blight.”
Ultimately, Ronen said, filling a long-vacant spot was better generally for the community, even if it started a little competition. She vowed to work with community groups to protect the neighborhood’s culture. “I understand the anxiety,” Ronen said about the Mission community. “I simply do not see how CEQA legally applies.”
Nevertheless, debate on the project was passionate, and a deluge of neighborhood organizers and anti-gentrification activists voiced opposition. Members from organizations like Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, United to Save the Mission, the Latino Task Force, and other cultural districts like the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and SoMa Pilipinas, said that “no one wants” more tech or expensive eats in the Mission. The most expensive menu item on the Creamery’s menu costs $11.
Critics said Bradley’s shop would trigger a “Valencia-fication” of Mission Street, referring to a migration of upscale businesses and bars to Valencia Street. They further alleged that the Creamery would rob pre-existing coffee shops of clientele, which they deemed unfair considering Bradley said he can move to Colorado if this business move fails. “My people have cafes and little restaurants on the neighboring site, and I know they’ll lose way more business,” a self-described Mission organizer said during public comment.
Indeed, two competing shops felt the same. George Salome, the owner of New Star Deli, which has served coffee, breakfast and lunch nearby on 269 14th St. since 1988, said there’s already a handful of cafes within a short distance of the Creamery’s location (Four Barrel Coffee is a brief walk away). “Legacy residents are being forced out,” Salome said.
A block away on 1905 Mission St., the owners of La Noisette called in and concurred, adding that already the pandemic wreaked havoc on their business. “Continuing with this project will definitely eliminate us. We will not survive.”
A caller who supported the Creamery later pointed out that the allegations sounded reminiscent of the battle over Matcha n’ More, a proposed Mission ice cream shop that never opened after a competing ice cream business objected.
Terrall’s final point was that the American Indian Cultural District, which is located in the heart of the Mission, was never notified of the Creamery’s relocation. New businesses are typically asked to do outreach and hold meetings before they open; the Planning Department requires businesses to notify neighbors within 150 feet. “The blatant disrespect of not informing the native community is completely unacceptable,” one caller said. The named representative for the American Indian Cultural District, Sharaya Souza, wasn’t present on Tuesday.
In the end though, the allegations of gentrification and business competition failed to meet specific guidelines laid out by the California Environmental Quality Act, said senior environmental planner Michael Li. He listed examples that would: if the Creamery’s location would damage a scenic resource that’s part of a scenic highway, or cause adverse change to a historical landmark. The shop does no such thing, Li said.
“There is no historical resource,” Li said. “It was previously a vacant lot that was used for surface parking and Christmas tree sales.”
The hearing also allowed Steve Vettel, an attorney representing Bradley, to address the allegations and rumors swirling around the java spot. Two were that the Creamery changed zoning use to accommodate his cafe, and that Bradley planned on selling alcohol. Vettel clarified that 1801 Mission St. was already eligible to serve coffee with its urban-mixed-use designation, and that Bradley had sold his liquor license. Bradley wasn’t present on Tuesday.
Those in support of the coffee shop also expressed frustration regarding the multiple challenges to open a business in San Francisco. One caller implored the supervisors to focus on other issues, not “micromanaging the selling of scones.” Another said, “What kind of city do you want to be?”
This is the second hearing the Creamery has faced. In March, Terrall triggered a discretionary hearing at the Planning Commission. Then too, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the Creamery, as long as Bradley agreed to hire within the neighborhood, to provide his store with multilingual menus, hang cultural art, and to make the diverse community feel at home.
Bradley has pledged to do so.