The Great Falafel Debacle
The ordeal of a falafel shop encapsulates everything wrong with San Francisco’s permitting process
San Francisco has a major problem with retail vacancy, a result of a regulatory thicket of oddly specific zoning requirements, terrible Prop 13-induced incentives for commercial landlords, and difficulty finding staff who can afford the extreme rent. Vacancies harm neighborhoods through a deader street life and fewer public spaces for neighbors to come together, and can have a knock-on effect on other businesses as poorly maintained street fronts drive away potential customers.
You might think that in light of this, the city would be rolling out the red carpet when a business wants to open in a vacant storefront. Unfortunately the carpet is made out of red tape. The planning code is so incoherent that Supervisor Vallie Brown had to introduce an ordinance just so that businesses can know which sets of rules apply to them. Previously it was a completely arbitrary and capricious decision by Planning Department staff, subject to change at any time. The process of opening a restaurant is so convoluted that the SF Controller’s office created the following helpful chart to illuminate the way.
Enter Flying Falafel. Flying Falafel wanted to open a second location in a vacant retail storefront on Castro Street. This requires a permit for conversion to limited restaurant. In this particular space, limited restaurants are principally permitted, which means that restaurants merely need a straightforward change of use permit, as opposed to the expensive, months-long public humiliation ritual known as a conditional use permit. Normally this conversion is a (relatively) easy over-the-counter permit that gets processed in about a month. But not this time, thanks to the unique, bizarre system of frivolous appeals known as Discretionary Review.
In functional cities, permits are based on rules. If you follow the rules, you get your permits. This is how it works in literally every other major city in the US. But in San Francisco, nothing is guaranteed. Discretionary Review allows anybody to appeal any permit for any reason (or no reason) and force a public hearing in front of the famously arbitrary Planning Commission. It’s the minotaur in San Francisco’s permit labyrinth. Shockingly, it is a cornucopia of selfishness and pettiness.
This case is no exception. Gyro Xpress, an incumbent restaurant on the same block of Castro Street, filed for Discretionary Review to block Flying Falafel’s change of use permit. The stated rationale of “not enough retail” fails to conceal the brazen attempt at rent-seeking, padding Gyro Xpress’s profits at the expense of falafel connoisseurs. Most of the other neighboring businesses support Flying Falafel, which is why they have the support of the Castro Merchants Association. In other words, a single competitor is weaponizing the permit process to delay Flying Falafel’s opening for months. Why do we allow our public processes to be hijacked by special interests to the detriment of our neighborhoods’ vitality?
This was scheduled to go in front of the Planning Commission on October 3. But at the last minute, to the complete surprise of the pro-falafel contingent, the Commission decided to continue it to October 24 because of a “noticing error.” What is that, you might ask? Well, San Francisco assumes that taking off work to opine on your neighbor’s proposed roof deck on a Thursday afternoon is a common thing that normal people do. So every time you have a hearing, you have to post a giant sign on the property, plus mail a several-page-long packet to all neighbors within 150 feet to tell them that there’s a hearing. And if you make any mistakes — if your sign isn’t big enough, if you used the wrong font size — your hearing gets delayed and you have to re-schedule. That means at least 3 more weeks of rent just because the city decided that not enough people heard about the hearing for a permit which shouldn’t even have a hearing in the first place!
If you think this is ridiculous, come join us at SF City Hall on October 24 to fight this abuse of process. Or if you can’t make in person, send an email to the Planning Commission. Planning Commission meetings tend to be dominated by busybodies who feel they should have veto power over anyone doing anything anywhere nearby, so it’s important for us to show the Commission that there is a constituency for more falafels and less bureaucracy. It’s the only way we can achieve our neoliberal dream of falafels on every corner!
Update: On October 24, the Planning Commission heard this case towards the end of a marathon 7 hour meeting. The owners of Gyro Xpress did not speak, instead leaving their presentation to one of San Francisco’s many purveyors of Corruption as a Service (hey, at least we’ve got a competitive market in something). Despite strong backing from the Planning Department and 10 public commenters, the owner of Flying Falafel had to defend his decision to obey the written laws of San Francisco, when he should have known to obey the unwritten ones instead. Commissioners suggested that he simply move to a different storefront, but funnily enough, neither the Commission nor Gyro Xpress offered to pay the tens of thousands of dollars that would entail. In their questions and comments, every single commissioner took at face value the claim that the only reason one restaurant would try to block a competitor’s permits is because a neighborhood suffering from too many vacant storefronts has a shortage of vacant retail spaces.
Then the Commissioners took a vote, which is where things got confusing. Three of the four Commissioners still present voted to take DR and deny the permits, with Commissioner Fung standing as the lone, brave voice against regulatory capture. Victory, the project is approved! Wait, how did that happen? Well, because there are seven seats on the commission, 4 votes are required to take action. And because Flying Falafel is seeking a principally permitted change of use, the default is “yes” and the Commission has to take an action to change that to a “no.” 3 votes = no action. Yes, we had to ask Planning Director Rahaim to explain this to us. So thanks to one vote and three absences, Flying Falafel is coming to the Castro!
For more updates on San Francisco’s permit zaniness, follow the YIMBY Neoliberal Twitter account, and if you want to do something about it, join YIMBY Action and support Steven Buss for DCCC!