How Should Auto Repair Shops Fit in San Francisco?

An auto repair shop on Ninth Avenue in the Inner Sunset. Photo: Aaron Bialick

San Francisco’s many auto repair shops are mostly concentrated along its motor traffic sewers, but when they’re placed without restriction in the thick of restaurants, shops, and pedestrian traffic, can they hinder our city’s most valuable streets as desirable places to be?

“Auto repair shops, and other auto-oriented uses like parking and gas stations, can degrade the pedestrian environment in neighborhoods,” said Tom Radulovich, the director of Livable City.

On Ninth Avenue in the Inner Sunset, one of the city’s many commercial streets, three repair shops sit in the mix of residences, shops and restaurants. Street life is plentiful on the stretch, but the space around the large auto shop between Irving and Judah streets in particular appears empty. Shelby, a resident of the neighborhood, was enjoying a snack outside Arizmendi Bakery a few doors down.

“Randomly, you’ll have a little strip of small restaurants and art galleries, but then you’ll have places like that that don’t seem to fit in because they just got there first,” said Shelby. She also pointed out that many vehicles pulling in and out of some garages, and the illegal parking they attract, can hinder and endanger passersby.

“It sucks as a bicyclist when you’re trying to go up a hill or something and there are three cars double parked,” she said. Cars left on the sidewalk aren’t an uncommon sight, either.

Customers and employees appear oblivious as pedestrians navigate around their cars left on the sidewalk at this shop on Fulton and Divisadero Streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Auto shops began appearing in the city around the time of World War I, growing primarily in the 1920s and largely around a stretch of Van Ness Avenue called Auto Row, according to architectural historian William Kostura [pdf]. Construction of buildings designed for fixing and selling automobiles continued throughout the mid-20th century.

Auto repair prior to the war was largely done as a secondary job in various types of mechanical facilities, and “the first business to advertise in city directories under the heading of ‘automobile repair’ was, in fact, a bicycle shop” on Larkin Street which began offering the service in 1904, writes Kostura.

But auto shops, if not integrated carefully, can impact a street’s quality as a place to be on foot, on bike, or to pass through on transit, something that city planners have taken more seriously in more recent years.

Transportation planner Jeffrey Tumlin, a principal at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, thinks there’s a place for auto shops in commercial districts “provided they treat them respectfully.”

“It’s possible to design them in a way that doesn’t destroy the positive qualities of walkable neighborhoods,” said Tumlin.

“For what’s effectively an auto-oriented use, they have some interesting qualities,” he said. “If you can minimize the damage and the danger associated with the driveway, the buildings themselves can be quite lovely. Watching cars being repaired up on their lifts with repairmen wandering around is a kind of interesting urban activity.”

Although Tumlin said they might not be ideal on the city’s “more precious commercial streets, it’s something that can lend authenticity and local character to the more work-a-day centers of neighborhoods.”

“If you recognize that some percentage of San Franciscans will continue to own cars for a long time, that repair needs to happen some place,” he said. “And for people who are getting their cars repaired, when their car’s in the shop, they need to be able to get around without their car, so putting auto repair shops in an industrial ghetto doesn’t really work very well.”

In order to lessen the impacts of auto shops on pedestrians, cyclists, and transit “and make the business a better neighbor,” legislation has been passed to make requirements on auto shops generally more restrictive, explained Radulovich. However, most auto shops were built under the looser regulations of decades ago and “grandfathered” in.

That means a new auto shop built on a neighborhood commercial street like Ninth Avenue today would be subject to stricter requirements, if permitted at all, than it would have been before the 1980s when restrictions on permits were put in place.

Currently, new auto shops are prohibited in residential districts, allowed in industrial districts, and only “conditionally permitted in other neighborhood commercial and mixed-use districts,” said Radulovich. But ”such businesses only have to comply with the current code if they move into another space, or if the building is rebuilt or undergoes certain major renovations.”

For new shops, restrictions are now in place under Planning Code amendments passed in April that were pushed by Livable City and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. They require smaller widths for garage entrances, restrict them from being placed “on important walking, cycling, and transit streets across the city,” and require that they be located on smaller side streets where possible, said Radulovich. Car storage is also required to be “screened behind active commercial or residential uses,” he said.

Ninth Avenue. Photo: Aaron Bialick

But constructing new auto shops in San Francisco hasn’t been an issue of late, as the demand seems to be dropping. Joshua Switzky of the SF Planning Department said he couldn’t think of any proposals for new repair shops or gas stations in recent years. If anything, he said demand is so low that on some corridors like Valencia Street, “they tend to be the few development sites that are left.”

Last month, the Planning Commission approved a project to redevelop a closed gas station into an 18-unit residential and commercial building on the corner of Valencia and 20th Streets.

Tumlin noted that auto shops can be converted into other uses, granted they’re designed well, and often have useful features like high ceilings, good natural light, and a lack of columns. San Francisco historian and Streetsblog contributor Chris Carlsson said he “would like to turn them all into community centers.”

Some buildings containing auto shops, like those built in the Tenderloin in the 1920s and 30s, have “spectacular” architecture and “bizarrely contribute positively in many ways to the vitality of the commercial districts there,” said Tumlin. Kostura’s report notes that “former auto showrooms, garages, and repair shops have found adaptive reuse as restaurants, stores or offices.”

This auto shop built in the 1920s at 1765 California Street at Franklin was converted into a grocery store several years ago, though with a parking garage underneath. Photo via William Kostura for the Planning Department

Still, Radulovich said current rules can make converting auto shops for other uses difficult. “While controls on new automotive repair and service station uses have generally become more restrictive, another provision of the code makes it very onerous to convert a service station to another use,” he said.

And, he noted, increased restrictions on auto shops can face resistance from labor advocates. “Some activists are concerned that they are eliminating blue collar jobs from the city, and limiting peoples’ access to auto repair services in their neighborhood,” said Radulovich.

Indeed, any auto shops that are converted or redeveloped would likely have to be phased out.

“If they choose to move out,” said Shelby, “then maybe we can go towards” turning auto shops into public spaces, residences, other businesses. “But that business is already there, and if they’re still making money and paying their due, then I think it infringes on their rights as business owners.”

This article was revised from its original version on June 6, 2011.

  • Brent Sleeper

    Look at Cole Garage (on Cole St. In Cole Valley, natch) for a good example of how a garage can fit into a neighborhood. Takes care to have minimal intrusion on sidewalk and pedestrians, great mural adds color to streetscape, owner and employees shop in businesses on the street, etc.

  • JamesF

    Aaron, Are you singling out just vehicle repair joints here, or all examples of engineering, industrial and chemical businesses in residential areas? It seems to me that some City politicians regard it as being important to have a mix of residential and industrial use, not least because jobs are vanishing for blue collar workers in the City.

  • While I don’t think it was the author’s intent at all, the elitism and classism of this is frightening. To say the least. 

  • John Murphy

     That is hyperbole. To say the least.

  • Anonymous

    Answer: “wherever they are or want to be.”  The idea of asking “where [they] belong”  is absurd and elitiet– let them be, and keep your nose out of other people’s business. They don’t degrade neighborhoods, and I see far more double parking and blocked bike lanes caused by delivery trucks in front of restaurants and small shops.

  • There’s a couple of examples of auto shops that contribute to the streetscape, rather than detract from it.  Cars Dawydiak on Franklin has a wonderful corner display, with the repair facility upstairs and a small driveway on the side. 

  • mikesonn

    We have a planning dept for a reason. And are you making an argument for more yellow zones (and, in a way, higher meter rates to encourage turn over).

  • I really like Streetsblog, but this article strikes me as odd. I can certainly support the regulations on new repair shops and better enforcement of parking rules around existing ones, but I don’t agree with implicitly advocating shutting down existing shops. Some of the current shop buildings are great assets to the streetscape, and we can all benefit from an appropriate variety of uses/services. 

  • EL

    I agree.  It makes sense to at least have the service shops on transit corridors so that the customers can use transit to reach their destination after dropping off their vehicle.  Otherwise (using Serramonte dealerships as an example), you’d have to rely on a courtesy shuttle, taxi, or another private vehicle for someone to give you a ride.

    Also, since this article references the former Toyota service at California/Franklin that’s become a Whole Foods, isn’t it better that there’s a service center located at Geary/5th Ave (closer to residential areas but still on a commercial corridor) so cars don’t actually have to drive into downtown for service?

  • Nick

    This article is so strange- 9th Avenue is a “precious commerical cooridor” but Ocean Avenue or Bayshore is not? The classism and elitism are very repugnant (I know that was not Aaron’s intent).

    Shouldn’t there be geographical equity (or shared sacrifice) for businesses that are undesirable to the pedestrain experience?

  • mikesonn

    I’ll go out on a limb and say the focus is on 9th because Aaron lives there and knows the area well.

    Maybe a request for a focused write-up on Ocean or Bayshore would be a better course of action.

  • Anonymous

    In general, I don’t mind the repair shops at all. They provide jobs, a necessary service, and are generally active places. Sure, they shouldn’t block the sidewalk, but the city shouldn’t chase them out either. In fact I’d be in favor of allowing them to lease street parking from the city if they need it (for a sizable fee).

    But I’m not very fond of the Toyota service center at 5th & Geary. It replaced a supermarket, and is really big in a prominent location. Unlike many old auto shops, it has no charm. Big parking lot. The Starbucks that was supposed to go in was chased out by the anti-chain people, and even that tiny storefront remains vacant. I’d much rather see some sort of housing-over-retail, or just about anything else.

  • Anonymous

    I realize it’s fashionable amongst the “holier than thou” wing of the urban movement to disdain any job that doesn’t involve ad sales via computers or whatever, but not everyone wants to be working for a dot bomb bubble company, and until you ban cars, people will want them repaired nearby. 

    Please ban cars, and make a Muni that works first, then talk about banning jobs that don’t involve grant money or selling shit on the internet through spammy ads or with Google. KTHXBAI.

  • Anonymous

    I live on 8th, and I don’t seem to be suffering from the pain and horror of a repair place that fixes Priuses. Oh and also, a parklet is coming to the front of Arizmendi. Somehow, we’ll survive the pain and suffering, I suppose!

  • Oh My God.
    You, Aaron Bilelick, will be duly singled out for mass derision. Consider your career over.

  • Evan Doll

    This is the dumbest thing I’ve read on the Internet this year, which is saying a lot.

    Next up: donut shops that cater to blue collar rather than artisan organic hipster clientele!

  • The intent of the article was to discuss how auto repair shops can best be incorporated into our cities to minimize their impacts on our streets’ potential. I chose Ninth Avenue as an example partly because, as Mikesonn guessed, I’m familiar with it and because it’s a street that I see a lot of potential in. It’s one of many (like, as Nick pointed out, Ocean Avenue or Bayshore) where, of course, there’s a lot more work to be done to make a better street. But for the purposes of this article, the scope only encompasses these types of businesses. I apologize if it was unclear or appeared to reach farther than that.

  • Wow.

    You deleted my comment. You are a cock.

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s true that there is no inherent reason auto repair shops can’t fit in with livable streets. However, I also think it’s true that many (probably most) auto repair shops do not meet this goal by, for example, blocking the sidewalk and bike lanes with cars. And I think this is what the article is trying to point out.

    And yes, it’s also true that delivery trucks for other businesses do block bike lanes, but that doesn’t make it any more right nor does it take away from the argument at hand. I think that auto repair shops (not all, but most) have a feeling of being above the law, so to speak, and that they can just block sidewalks and roads at will. I think that is what needs to change, and that is what this article is trying to address.

    Part of the problem with car culture is that motorists think that their needs and conveniences trump not only the needs and conveniences of other road users, but also the safety of other road users. And I think auto repair shops, like any part of our car culture, contribute to this paradigm. I think it is useful to look at this issue, just like all the other issues in an obsessively car-centered culture. The point of this article is not to say that it’s the most pressing problem in SF, but just that it is something that is neglected and is probably pretty easy to address (in parallel with all the other issues we are trying to solve).

    We certainly need auto repair shops, and they most certainly should be located in dense areas so that customers can walk or take public transit to and from the shop while their car is being repaired. But it’s important to make sure they do this in a way that contributes to livable streets.

  • guest

    Jeez, Brock, I expect better out of you. Perhaps you’re not on here enough, but the focus of this blog is discussing all facets of a streetscape. 

    Think about how this very visible segment of the service economy can affect dense neighborhoods, block by block. These are places that aren’t ever open past, say, 6pm. Lots of cars go in and out throughout the day. If we’re talking about an auto body shop rather than a service shop, then you have other issues like noise and paint smells and so forth. 

    It’s hardly elitist to wonder if some of these places could be put to better use, seeing as it’s a little odd just how many car-oriented shops we have plunked down in the middle of low-car-ownership neighborhoods. 

  • guest

    Aaron, there really wasn’t any problem reading your intent. People, when they don’t agree with something, prefer to make facile, indignant comments rather than think for a minute about both sides of the argument. N.B. ‘Evan Doll,’ who in the most ironic and SFGate-like way possible registers his disgust with your article, appearing to have no clue what you’re trying to say.

  • Brillo

    The phrase “motor traffic sewers” at the top of the article shows that this is not meant to be an even-handed discussion of potential improvements to a neighborhood. Any snark in the comments is forgiven by the snark in the first line.

  • mikesonn

    I think traffic sewers speak for themselves.

  • ahmad

    its one of the most problem in many cities,what shall we do?

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