Political Notebook: Chipotle seeks OK for Castro location
by Matthew S. Bajko
For the third time this year the San Francisco Planning Commission will weigh whether to allow a formula retailer to open on a prominent corner in the city's Castro district.
This time Chipotle Mexican Grill is seeking permission to open at the old Home restaurant location at the corner of Market, 14th, and Church streets. Gay former San Francisco chef Steve Ells founded the Denver-based chain in 1993 and is its chairman and co-CEO.
The company will plead its case before the planning commissioners at their meeting Thursday (June 20), but it may leave disappointed. As expected, Chipotle triggered a new clause aimed at limiting the number of chain stores that can open along the Market Street corridor between Octavia Boulevard and Castro Street.
According to the staff report released Friday, June 14, a Chipotle at 2100 Market Street would bring the number of formula retailers within a 300-foot radius to 36 percent. Anything at 20 percent or higher is automatically recommended for rejection by planning staff.
In addition to the heavy concentration of formula retailers at that location, largely due to the Safeway shopping center across the street, the staff report also concluded the area is "already well served" by three nearby, independently-owned Mexican restaurants: Casa Mexicana at 180 Church, Taqueria El Castillito at 136 Church, and Chilango at 235 Church.
The planning department report also concludes that allowing Chipotle to open at such a prominent intersection "would be detrimental to the neighborhood," as the Bay Area Reporter noted in a blog post last week. The findings did not come as a surprise, as gay planning director John Rahaim had announced in February that the department would oppose Chipotle's application.
It used similar language in recommending that the planning commission last month reject Starbucks' application to open a coffeehouse on Market Street at the corner of Sanchez. The oversight body voted 5-1 to uphold the staff's recommendation and adhere to its new policy toward chain stores along that stretch of Market.
The Seattle-based coffee chain could have appealed the decision to the Board of Supervisors but chose not to. Danny Cowan , a spokesman for Starbucks who works at the public relations firm Edelman, told the B.A.R. that the company "does remain committed" to opening new stores in San Francisco.
Asked if Starbucks would look for a new location along upper Market Street, Cowan said he "can't comment specifically" on potential storefronts. Instead, he said the company "will look across the city" for expansion sites.
Sweet Inspiration Bakery Cafe co-owner Wendy Mogg said she was not surprised by Starbucks' decision, as the company has previously declined to file appeals when it was turned down in other cities.
"We are pleased," said Mogg, who helped lead the opposition to Starbucks and is now hopeful the planning commission will also vote down Chipotle.
Chipotle representatives have courted community support by hosting several open houses at the vacant restaurant space with free food offered. At one of its sneak peeks last fall, company spokesman Chris Arnold said that Chipotle "doesn't operate like a chain" even though it is now in 40 states and growing its presence in California.
"What makes us different than other chains is our food culture is rooted in better ingredients and sustainably sourced," he said. "We also emphasize and identify our best employees to be future leaders. Instead of dead-end McJobs, we are creating careers."
As for its plans for the 3,467 square foot former Home space, which has been vacant since 2011, Chipotle envisions maintaining the current interior set-up with seating along the Market Street frontage wrapping around to 14th Street.
It has proposed building a new 611 square foot outdoor seating area directly adjacent to the west of the building where there is currently a partially enclosed storage area. An eight-foot high wall would screen the patio from view, while the side facing Market Street would be turned into a public art mural.
The location would serve beer and margaritas indoors only and be open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. It would be the ninth Chipotle in San Francisco.
Despite the B.A.R.'s repeated requests since last August to interview Ells, the company has not made him available. It has run full-page ads in the B.A.R. , as well as on the paper's website, seeking support for its application.
Planning staff reported they had received letters or emails in support of Chipotle from 34 local merchants and another 48 from the public. One pro-Chipotle petition netted 1,661 signatures while another online one had 433 signatures.
Both the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro and the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefits District voted to support Chipotle. Many wrote to say that the corner has been blighted for too long and felt the fast-casual burrito chain would be a good fit for the city's gay business district.
"I support Chipotle in every way and I am shocked that planning department would rather have a corner sit empty when we could bring work to upwards of 50 people in the restaurant, and have a wonderful and charming eating establishment that actually fits right in to the Castro/Duboce community," wrote Rachel Fleischman, a registered expressive arts therapist whose private practice office is next door.
Among the opponents to Chipotle is the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association. Ten local merchants also sent in letters of opposition, as did three residents. Planners said they had received a petition of opposition with 255 signatures and are aware of another online petition against Chipotle with 773 signatures.
"This location is a significant gateway into the Upper Market corridor, therefore it is desirable to maintain neighborhood character and locally supported businesses," wrote DTNA President Pat Tura , whose neighborhood group fought for passage of the new rules governing chain stores along the gayborhood's main thoroughfare.
The one formula retailer to win recent approval for a store on Market Street was CVS Pharmacy, which did not trigger the 20 percent threshold for chain stores. After it dropped plans to sell liquor, limited its hours and pledged to overhaul the facade of the long-vacant Market Noe Center, the national chain easily won unanimous approval from planning commissioners in May.
The planning commission meetings begin at noon in Room 400 at City Hall.
Castro Street zoning up for vote
The commissioners will also be voting Thursday on a proposal to change the zoning along Castro Street between Market and 19th streets, and on 18th Street between Diamond and Noe streets, so as to allow nonprofit uses in commercial spaces totaling more than 4,000 square feet.
As the Political Notebook reported in early May, the code change was triggered by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's plan to construct a nearly 15,000 square foot gay men's health center at 474 Castro Street. Under the current rules, the proposal would not be allowed.
The planning staff is recommending that the planning commission adopt the change so that a "neighborhood-serving nonprofit" could apply for a conditional use permit in a space exceeding the stated allowable limit. The change has broad neighborhood support.
It is expected to be approved and will then require adoption by the Board of Supervisors. SFAF is currently finalizing its design plans for the new health center and is expected to seek approval from the planning commission sometime in July.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on the UC Davis Health System now asking its patients if they are LGBT.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.