A large sunny storefront on a popular corner in Lower Haight has been the heart of an ongoing argument between the neighborhood and an international corporate coffee chain — Blue Bottle Coffee. The case, which has been moving through Planning, has resulted in flyers and petitions, and has been a hot topic at local community meetings. But Thursday evening the battle ended, when the Planning Commission voted to block the coffee chain from its desired location on Steiner and Waller streets.
201 Steiner St. used to be home to Bean There, a community coffee house on the Wiggle where most regulars were on a first-name-basis with the baristas. It was a hub of sorts, able to accommodate parents with strollers at a table next to freelance software engineers typing on their laptops. The copious seating outside made the place dog-friendly, and it was a great spot to grab a cup of iced coffee before heading to Duboce Park on a sunny day.
But in February of 2016, Bean There’s lease was not renewed. After 21 years, the cafe was forced to shut down. The reasons behind this were complicated, and started, as many push-outs do in Lower Haight, with an earthquake retrofit. The original plan was for Bean There to move back in, but landlord Danny Scher claimed that owner Mike Fakhoury had the lease in hand, but never signed it, forcing him to move on to another tenant. Fakhoury claimed he never received the final lease statement, so wasn’t able to sign it — and was then notified that the offer was off the table.
Regardless of whose story was more factual, Bean There did not return. And aside from (yet another) hair salon that briefly occupied the space, 201 Steiner St. has stood empty ever since.
But behind the scenes, a battle against corporate coffee moguls was being waged. To many the coffee chain may seem local — after all, it did start in the Bay Area — but there are actually 34 Blue Bottle Coffee shops located around the world. This puts it way above the city’s formula retail definition of 11, requiring a conditional use hearing in order to determine that it’s a good fit. The process hands a fair amount of power to nearby residents, who are allowed to petition to the Planning Commission for or against a formula retail business moving in.
With this bit of power, Lower Haight got fired up. Neighbors United, a group formed by former District 5 supervisor candidate Dean Preston and his deputy campaign manager Jen Snyder, worked closely with the Lower Haight Merchants and Neighbors Association (LoHMNA) and local resident Hal Fischer to flyer the neighborhood and alert residents about the plan. On Thursday people flooded the Planning Commission meeting, voicing an overwhelming distaste for the chain coffee shop’s attempt to move into Bean There’s old spot.
And in the end, they won. The Planning Commission voted 2-4 in favor of the opposition. A final motion to officially block Blue Bottle will be held at a future meeting.
“This is a huge victory for preserving the character of our neighborhood,” said Fischer, who led a petition drive that gathered more than 1,300 signatures.
This “character of the neighborhood” is something that’s fairly loosely defined and may be hard to understand without living in Lower Haight. It’s a neighborhood with a high turnover of restaurants and retail spaces, but over the years the small local coffee shops have held their ground. The Grind, Cafe International, Cafe du Soleil, Duboce Park Cafe, and even brewery and bistro Black Sands would all be threatened by the presence of a multi-million-dollar corporate coffee chain taking over a prime retail spot. It was one big leap towards gentrification, in a neighborhood that is struggling to stay true to its artistic, independent roots.
And that is something worth campaigning for. “We are fighting for the soul of San Francisco,” said Neighbors United’s Snyder. “When we turn out in large numbers to make our voices heard, our community wins.”