Personal Garages Become Cafes in the Castro, Thanks to Smarter Zoning

This used to be a garage. Photo: Tom Radulovich

Three new cafes and restaurants in the Castro have been created in spaces formerly used as personal parking garages. Driveways and dark garage doors on 18th Street have been replaced with storefronts and inviting patios filled with people.

A few years ago, this would’ve been illegal.

Reveille Coffee Company and Beso, a tapas restaurant, were able to move in and convert these garages this year, thanks to changes in the SF Planning Code’s zoning laws in 2011 proposed by Livable City and former Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. The provision to allow garages to be converted into shops, housing, and service spaces in “Neighborhood Commercial” zoning districts was part of a package of parking-related reforms.

In addition to the first two garage-to-business conversions on 18th, a third is currently under construction nearby.

“These new businesses are helping make a more walkable (and sittable), vital, and convivial 18th Street,” said Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich. He pointed out that the curb space in front, formerly reserved to ensure private garage access, have also become public street parking spaces.

The idea seems to be spreading: Radulovich said the Ocean Avenue Merchants this week endorsed allowing conversions of garages to storefronts in their district, which is zoned as “Residential.”

Radulovich said the 2011 ordinance “also allows the addition of a single [residential] unit to an existing residential building without a new off-street parking space, so long as that unit meets the other requirements of the code, including density limits.”

The entrance to Beso. Photo: Tom Radulovich
  • Tom Radulovich

    Thanks for letting folks know about this, Aaron – hopefully it will let more folks know that their garages can have a new life as storefronts or apartments. A bit of clarification: there is a pending ordinance to allow parking conversions like these in the Residential-Commercial zoning districts of the city, which are located along Van Ness Avenue and Lower Nob Hill, and a separate proposal to allow ground-floor commercial and parking conversions on Ocean Avenue opposite City College, which is currently zoned exclusively residential.

  • njudah

    interesting idea…the fact these are around and somehow avoided the gauntlet of NIMBY screamers and crazies is an accomplishment of its own. Looks nice!

  • omaryak

    Awesome!

  • baklazhan

    What’s interesting is how many of these already exist. On Clement St., or Sacramento St., there are quite a number of houses which have commercial establishments added to them on the ground floor. And I feel comfortable saying that it’s pretty popular: Sacramento especially is a cute, upscale little shopping street. Clement is bustling. Yet, today, it would never be allowed, even as lots of Victorians have had boxy garages placed in front of them.

    I’m glad it’s starting to change.

  • Gezellig

    That’s great! Imagine a similar treatment here:

    Now, even better, imagine that asphalt space converted Hayes Valley-style to a neighborhood square.

  • Tom Radulovich

    It’s a huge space, at the intersection of Ocean, Phelan, and Geneva, that ought to be something much better. The Planning Department’s Ocean Avenue plan is looking at reclaiming that space as a public place. And imagine if some of those garage doors became storefronts.

  • Jamison Wieser

    I created a rough map showing the commercial/retail in the Castro (blue) and the block where all three of the garage conversions mentioned (red, the commecial/retail is almost all on the south side) are taking place.

    To njudah’s comment on NIMBYs, there aren’t many on the block to complain. There are only 2-3 residential garages left and a lot of the homes have businesses on the first or second floor above as well. The house Beso is moving into is a clean and sober gathering space.

    Like Tom Radulovich said in the quote, 18th is becoming more walkable, livable corridor, and growing into a continuous mostly-retail corridor from Dolores Park to a few blocks west of Castro like it is from Dolores Park east into the Mission.

  • Guest

    (Second try at including the map)

  • murphstahoe

    Get rid of the parking and put in bike lanes, deprecate the bike lanes on 17th. I like 18th better to start with. Of course it was better on the AM commute when the parking was prohibited during rush.

  • Gezellig

    Yeah, exactly! There’s lots of potential there. Great to hear the Planning Dept is looking at reclaiming that oddly shaped yet large side street/de-facto-parking-lot as true public place. I wonder if any proposed renderings have been made public yet?

    I bet as landlords realize that they can suddenly monetize the ground floor garage space more will be happy to do these kinds of conversions. Some owners of these types of soft-story apartment buildings complained about the costs involved in the SF Mandatory Soft Story Program but, hey, some may find a new stream of income from former deadweight space helps.

  • Jamison Wieser

    I sketched out what you described, with some of my own suggestions for north-south connections that I’ve annotated.

    Green represents the existing network. Solid are bike lanes, dashed are sharrowed, orange is the Muni tracks and blue are our suggested changes.

    The black dashed green is what @murpstahoe suggests for elimination.

    1) eastbound only coming from Market and runs parallel to the tracks so there’s no crossing the tracks unless turning north until hitting Church. Hartford is a very quiet residential street where that eastbound bike traffic could turn south without any Muni track conflicts at all.

    2) Sanchez sharrows run north from here to where it meets the Wiggle at Duboce Avenue. Moving the bike lane to 18th and continuing the sharrows another block means crossing the tracks perpendicular.

    3) is where the track makes a T and I’ve gotten my bike caught in the tracks. boo!

    4) is one place where the 18th bike lane can connect to the 17th Street bikes lanes a block east of the tracks, and it’s a pretty gentle grade on a wide street.

    5) would be the new bike lanes on a pretty busy street with parking on both sides and the 33-Stockton presents a hazard. It would take a lane of parking to add bike lanes, if that could be done, a two-way cycletrack might be worth exploring: physically separated, and lets commute traffic going mostly one-way pass each other without entering car lanes.

  • Guest

    (Second try at including the map)

  • david m

    there’s an awesome conversion of three spots to commercial on larking street at post. i love it!

  • Jamie Morganstern

    Really like this a lot. Do the owners of these buildings become commercial landlords? How does the business model work ?

  • StatesStMichael

    Jamison is pretty close to nailing it. With some small refinement you’ve connected the Mission to the Castro and created a livable enjoyable street.

    Although I’d support this plan 100% the idea of getting parking reduced to only one side of the street already gives me a headache. Given what we saw with the misguided Polk parking “reduction” this fight would probably drag on for years.

  • Jamison Wieser

    Yes, what @murphstahoe:disqus and I have here would be a change to bike plan and has connection issues that would need to be worked out, this was is just a “what if concept” to me. I’d argue against such a change after all the work done figuring out the plan with there now. Just one example of the complications:

    17th is a good eastbound route for anyone coming down Market because it takes them right to the dedicated bike lanes east of Church. Running parallel, crossing the tracks is the issue and, but the turns to get down to 18th go those several block with traffic and the 33 bus, and then to jog back up is complicated and involves crossing the path of more cars and busses that the current situation (can anything be done to make 17th and church less scary on a bike? good on the signs/stencils for making the safest route, but is there more?)

    Likewise the westbound routes follows 16th, hitting market to get to the wiggle or up 17th to the west. This would be an inconvenience and have impacts I would think on traffic, transit, and and a worst bike safety with the zig zag.

  • RoyTT

    That’s a good question because there are a few issues with doing this.

    Most of these buildings are regular residential buildings and so their owners have not consciously chosen to be commercial landlords, and that is a different set of skills.

    The good news, however, is that a commercial space in a residential building is not subject to rent control. If the owner rents out the garage to tenants in that building, the garage comes under rent control. Much better to let it commercially if you can (or at least let out the parking spaces to people who do not live in the building, because rent control then doesn’t apply).

    While if the flats are owner-occupied, the chances are that the garage is shared, and the owners may not all agree to give up their parking.

    Many garages lack the necessary height clearances to put in a business. Mine is about seven feet, for instance. In those case it would not be possible or desirable to change the use of the basement. In any event, the city would have to be willing to approve the change of use from residential to mixed, so all relevant codes would have to be met.

    The owner may need to evict tenants from that garage, and that might be tough. Some buildings also have an in-law home behind the garage, and that may have to be declared and condemned to proceed with the change.

    All that said, I think it’s an attractive idea to many building owners in those cases where the above problems do not apply.

  • p_chazz

    A Hartford to Market bike lane would cut right through Jane Warner Plaza and conflict with the heavy pedestrian traffic at this location. Not a good idea.

  • Jamison Wieser

    It doesn’t seem like it’s that much of a problem right now. The existing bike route I’d marked in green has an eastbound bike lane splitting off Market at Castro and running through the channel between the sidewalk and the row of planters that mark out the edge of the streetcar stop.

    Few pedestrians mill about in this area so it’s generally clear and the only point of congestion I notice is at the awkward gap between in the sidewalk between the new planters and the old sidewalk and that seems to be entirely from pedestrians fanned out waiting for a walk signal without realizing (since it’s not marked) that bikes might be riding through there.

  • murphstahoe

    No kidding. What will they think of next – a Hartford to Market train line cutting through Jane Warner plaza?

  • rickbynight

    YES YES YES More of this! What an incredible way to remove food deserts in this city, to increase income opportunities, and to decrease commercial lease costs for small businesses. A city’s vitality is, in no small way, based on residents’ abilities to start small businesses and take risks with an idea. You shouldn’t need to raise millions to start a small business—that’s precisely what prevents essential businesses from thriving, and luxury businesses become the default.

  • As one of the residents with a street-facing bedroom window on the very edge of a residential district that immediately abuts an NC district, and now gets treated to the nonstop screaming and whooping from a former three-car garage that now operates as a rowdy open-to-the-street barroom right next to my bedroom until at least 11pm right every single night of my life, I’d like to offer a hearty and deeply-felt F*!#$# YOU, YOU COME TRY TO LIVE NEXT TO THIS THING to anyone who thinks this nightmare is a good idea. Have a great time asking them to keep it down and being told to your face that they don’t care about the neighbors, and then their drunken guests being given your name to harass you on the street.

    My street is unlivable now and this place has made all the neighbors absolutely miserable. Nice work, “Livable City” (what an ironic name) and Sup. Mirkarimi. Thanks for destroying our homes.

    Please sign up for our mailing list on groveresidents dot org if you live nearby and have any interest in joining the effort to stop these people from making our residentially-zoned block a horrible place to try to live.

  • So I assume you’d like to switch apartments with me, and live right next door to a three-car garage that’s been converted into a rowdy open-air barroom every night until late? I’m sure your inability to get any sleep or to work from home, and their complete stated disregard for the concerns or quality-of-lifeof anybody unfortunate enough to live within earshot, will do wonders for your own “vitality”.

    Please reply and let me know how soon we can do the swap, I am quite eager to be able to live in a room that’s quieter than a packed barroom again.

  • Let’s see you come and live right next door to the screams and drunken howling emanating from a rowdy open-air barroom the size of a three-car garage right next to your bedroom window every single night (and sometimes starting as early as 8 in the morning, on World Cup event days) for a year, the owners of which have told you to your face that they don’t care about your complaints and won’t life a finger to reduce the nonstop ruckus, and see if it doesn’t turn you into a “screamer and crazy” too. Until you’ve done that, you have no right to cast stones.

  • Totally! After all, the reason we’re in San Francisco is to make money, and our neighbors’ quality-of-life be damned. If they want to live somewhere without having their neighbors’ profiteering shoved down their throats day after day after day after day, they should leave SF.

    If you don’t understand why I have a chip on my shoulder, you obviously haven’t had to live next door to a business that’s chosen to abuse this poorly-written law to the greatest extent possible every single night. I guarantee you’d change your tune in days. I and my neighbors have been putting up with it for a year now, and many of us are at wit’s end.

  • I can’t believe how many people applaud destroying the ability of neighbors to live in their homes without being subjected to nonstop high-volume noise that they can do absolutely nothing about. Obviously landlords.

  • baklazhan

    Obviously, noise ordinances still apply. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the city to require new conversions to get their neighbors’ approval, or perhaps be required to fund some soundproofing– as you say, there’s probably some inconvenience, however minor.

    But many types of establishments hardly generate any noise at all — dental offices, lawyers’ offices, retail stores, specialty stores.

  • PhillyPlanner

    have you considered moving?

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