Across the nation, cities are grappling with storefront vacancies caused by changes in shopping habits over the past few years. To address this issue, Mayor Breed and Supervisor Brown announced a Storefront Vacancy Strategy last year to ensure that business corridors in San Francisco remain vibrant. As part of that strategy, this legislation streamlines the often burdensome and confusing permitting process that small businesses face by clarifying ambiguous provisions in City codes and eliminating redundant requirements for different uses, such as live music and food services.
"Despite our strong economy, it's clear from the number of storefront vacancies throughout the City that our small businesses are struggling to open and operate," said Mayor Breed. "I've heard from countless business owners that our City's complicated, redundant permitting process delays them from opening and is often too restrictive when a business wants to do something like start serving food. We need to be flexible to adapt to the challenges they're facing, and this legislation will help do that."
"I am a huge believer in the importance of small businesses to our neighborhoods, and this legislation honors that," said Supervisor Brown. "It simplifies our permitting and zoning rules to make it easier for small businesses here to get open and stay open. I'm also proud of the changes we've made to better recognize and respect the uniqueness of neighborhood commercial corridors."
The new law will support small businesses as they open, expand, and adapt their offerings to remain competitive in the retail landscape. It will remove barriers and support modern business models so that local entrepreneurs can provide residents and visitors with experiences and services that are reflective of each neighborhood's unique character. Specifically, the legislation:
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- Enables retail businesses to diversify their offerings by reducing costs and barriers in order to serve to-go food and to incorporate entertainment and events. Increases opportunities for retail, restaurant, and nightlife businesses to fill vacant storefronts and enhance neighborhood vibrancy by enabling open air food service, removing barriers for arcades, and relaxing the impacts of zoning restrictions designed for other neighborhoods. Supports live music venues by eliminating duplicative inspections and reducing burdensome food service requirements for entertainment venues. Clarifies multiple previously ambiguous Planning Code provisions in order to bring greater clarity and consistency to the permitting process.
"With many pressures facing small businesses, creating opportunities for them to succeed is essential to the economic and cultural vibrancy of San Francisco," said Joaquín Torres, Director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. "Tailored to the specific needs we've heard directly from entrepreneurs, this legislation will support creative uses, eliminate redundant processes, and provide much needed flexibilities that will allow our small business communities and their neighborhoods to thrive."
The legislation signing ceremony was held at Wooden Coffeehouse, a small business in Cole Valley. Owned by Steve Wickwire, the small business will now be able to apply for a beer and wine license to expand its offerings for customers during evening comedy shows. Prior to the legislation, Wooden Coffeehouse was not able to pursue this license due to zoning restrictions designed for Haight Street that also applied to Cole Valley.
"This legislation addresses several imperative revisions in current zoning structure, and marks a triumph for the future of small businesses in San Francisco," said Steve Wickwire, owner of Wooden Coffeehouse.
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The business permit streamlining legislation was introduced as part of the Mayor's Citywide Storefront Vacancy Strategy, a multi-pronged approach to retain, strengthen, and attract businesses to commercial corridors throughout San Francisco. The strategy is guided by findings in a 2018 report from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development released called "State of the Retail Sector: Challenges and Opportunities for San Francisco's Neighborhood Commercial Districts." This ongoing initiative also includes an investment of nearly $1 million in program investments and the implementation of administrative reforms to ensure the ongoing vibrancy and vitality of neighborhood commercial districts. The program investments include:
- Vacant storefront and corridor-wide assessments to determine the cause of a vacancy and developing a roadmap to fill vacancies. Case management services by facilitating property owner relationships and generating a pipeline of prospective tenants to fill vacant storefronts. Leveraging existing city programs and services to support small businesses with technical and financial services and lease negotiations to help small businesses succeed and thrive.
Administrative reforms adopted as part of this strategy now make it easier for small businesses to obtain more permits over-the-counter, allowing entrepreneurs to open their business more quickly, reducing their startup time and costs and positioning them for future success. These reforms strengthen coordination between City agencies to help small businesses avoid waiting months for their applications to be processed by all of the necessary City departments.
"One of the most difficult parts of starting a small business in San Francisco is getting through the City permitting process," said Rodney Fong, President and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. "This legislation is an important step in making it easier for new businesses get off the ground. The SF Chamber of Commerce commends Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Vallie Brown for being SF small business champions and bringing forward this critical legislation."
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