Out of a curiosity, or perhaps a sheer desire to hear terms like "easement" and "conditional use" after a long hiatus, I popped down to see the proceedings in Room 400 of City Hall today. Walking into San Francisco City Hall for the first time, I couldn't help but get eery flashbacks to the final scenes in the movie Milk, although I realize the city has had 34 years to conduct other business since then. I was particularly interested in the zoning hearing going on related to the proposed addition of a La Boulange franchise at 1266 9th Avenue in Inner Sunset. Given that I frequent that block several times a week, plans for that block's future development have a direct impact for me. I used to cover planning committee meetings all the time as a reporter for several newspapers in Maryland, but this is the first time I was attending something like this more as a citizen than a journalist.
La Boulange is a French-style cafe spawned when owner Pascal Rigo opened his first bakery in San Francisco in 1999. In recent years, the cafe has experienced more rapid growth and it has now reached the threshold of more than a dozen branches that the San Francisco Planning Commission uses to designate a "formula," or chain, establishment. The cafes have branched out into the North Bay and East Bay and I suspect it is only a matter of time before the move into other cities. The future Inner Sunset branch will be 3,000 square feet and occupy a space near Golden Gate Park that was originally intended to be three separate retail units.
Most prominent in their opposition to La Boulange were representatives of another local bakery, Arizmendi, itself part of a chain of five worker cooperatives.
I've frequented both bakeries and I like them both. My wife and I had lunch our first day in San Francisco at La Boulange and the food was certainly delicious (we went for a roasted chicken sandwich and a baker's breakfast pizza). I've also eaten at Arizmendi and I like both the atmosphere of the food.
I would characterize my attitude toward the proposal of a new La Boulange as that of a "skeptic." While I do feel Inner Sunset could use a large coffeeshop (my desperate effort to find a coffeeshop workspace in that district have made that much clear) and the 30-40 jobs a new establishment will bring... I also have concerns about the homogenization of San Francisco neighborhoods and the design of this particular development itself, which looked God-awful from the initial renderings. The planned residential/commercial building, which will replace an old mortuary that's there now (not an architectural wonder in itself), is some kind of modern chic thing and the bland La Boulange design for this location has "chain establishment" written all over it. On the other hand, I do like La Boulange's food and I'm not sure that it's up to the Planning Commission to decide all winners in the marketplace.
Briefly speaking, here is what supporters of the new restaurant said during the public comment portion hearing:
- There are other chain establishments in the area.
- La Boulange is a San Francisco-owned business and most of its 400 employees live in San Francisco.
- There is a strong demand for this type of establishment in Inner Sunset.
- La Boulange has a strong history of community involvement.
Here are some of the arguments that were put forward by opponents:
- There are five other bakeries located within a two-block radius and another La Boulange branch nearby in Cole Valley.
- Tourists are attracted to San Francisco because each neighborhood is distinct and chain establishments detract from that uniqueness.
- It would replicate the same menu already available at many other La Boulange locations.
- The restaurant runs contrary to the original plan to have three smaller retail establishments in that location.
Public opinion appeared to be nearly evenly divided, with city planners hearing from about 400 people on each side of the issue in letters and petitions prior to today's hearing.
Then it came time to take the matter to a vote.
Commissioner Michael Antonini said it was "upsetting" to hear people say they don't want local businesses to get bigger. "[The La Boulange] would be 30 new employees and that's what we need," he said. He cautioned against creating "protectionism" and "non-competitivism" in San Francisco and said he would support the new location.
Commissioner Kathryn Moore said she would support the motion but offered an amendment, passed by the board, that would require La Boulange to reduce the uniformity of its planned storefront and to enhance the visibility of its merchandise, making the location more inviting to passers-by.
Commissioner Hisashi Sugaya said, "I'm not a capitalist so I don't understand this desire to continually have more and more stuff" and offered cynicism toward common efforts to "become the Starbucks of the world." Nevertheless, he said he too would vote for the motion.
In the end, La Boulange was supported by a unanimous vote of all the commissioners and the "conditional use authorization," i.e., permission to put a full-service restaurant that address, was granted (subject to the conditions proffered by Commissoner Moore).
I had expected the hearing to last for an hour but instead the portion leading up to the vote lasted at least two-and-a-half hours. By that time I was starving (hearing all that talk about food) and would have been happy to eat at either La Boulange or Arizmendi. Next time I think I'll catch the action on the city website.