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SF Zoning Department rules that Workshop Cafe is an office, forcing it to close [pdf] (sfgov.org)
53 points by jbaudanza 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

I once spent an hour sitting in the SF planning office on Mission and it was the most eye opening experience in regards to the city's building issues. Most of the discussions are done in the open so you can hear the conversations between the planners and people looking to get permits. Almost every convo started with "...so your permit looks good but I won't approve it until you make [some irrelevant, arbitrary change]". They would look through historical Google Maps images and find temporary backyard sheds, windows that had been replaced or door frames that were painted and refuse to issue until these changes were reverted.

I understand the need of a planning department to enforce safety codes, plan large construction like the Salesforce tower and make traffic decisions. But every discussion I heard that day was a planner making completely subjective decisions that, in my mind, shouldn't be anybody's business but the building owner. No wonder we have problems building enough housing when so much effort is exerted dealing with such minor design decisions.

It's not just SF, I sat in on some such meetings in Mountain View. It's petty tyrants in positions of power showing the plebes the extent of their authority. One of them even acknowledged that everything was up to code in a restaurant, but they wanted changes made anyway due to subjective aesthetics.

Almost every single zoning rule or HOA rule out there is based on subjective aesthetics without taking into account the immense tradeoffs.

And somehow this all passes Constitutional muster...

Sadly, the racist Supreme Court under former President Taft ruled that the city does have pretty much unrestricted ability to interfere with what people do in their homes and businesses, as a police power. Euclid v. Ambler (1926) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Village_of_Euclid_v._Ambler_Re....

  the racist Supreme Court under former President Taft
It was a 6-3 decision, and one of the dissenters was, in fact, a Taft nominee.

Does anyone really care about the Constitution anymore? At least in SF, I doubt so.

This was one of my favorite places to go work in SF. It was a cafe that was optimized for people working.

I was disappointed recently when I found out they had shut their doors permanently. I was surprised too, because they always seemed to be busy. Apparently, they had an ongoing dispute with the zoning department over whether they were a "cafe/restaurant" or "office".

Which one pays more in taxes? Of course it’s that one then!

We need to consult the chart!

This decision is a real shame. There is real value to a space like Workshop that provides food and business services in a social space in the Financial District. A decision like this, which does not take into account the consequences to SF's everyday life, is one of the thousand tiny cuts the city inflicts on itself to no purpose.

The real shame here is that the city is basically setting up a “ask permission before trying anything” environment. Quite antithetical for a location that prides itself on innovation.

SF's government has always been like this and it's infuriating. But at the same time, it creates opportunities because there's nothing like regulation to create exploitable places.

It's a pity in this case because I really liked Workshop Cafe. I worked nearby and when we went by it felt like any other cafe, though a bit quieter. Also, the area right outside it was very pleasant for it having been there. This is definitely a loss for the feeling of that corner.

So what good do use based zoning rules do? I can see prohibiting heavy industrial or chemical in residential areas but outside of that it seems like more harm than good.

They increase property values for existing property owners in high-demand areas by preventing innovative mixed-use implementations. Forcing supply of office space or residential area down, while demand stays high, causes prices to increase.

I guess people might think that while making such policies but I would say it isn't for certain that prices increase. They may actually decrease the value of properties since they cannot be used for more productive purposes. It also increases cost since more transportation (cars) are required, which means more parking, which means less available land for useful things.

Restrictive commercial zoning limits competition for a space, enabling businesses that could not otherwise afford to be there. It’s a way for a community to inject some central planning and override the market when they disagree with its wisdom, e.g to kill the local independent coffee shop in favor of Blue Bottle.

It’s also a way to concentrate traffic where there’s infrastructure to support it, and limit it where there isn’t.

Proponents would say that that a good central plan adds value more value to the city as a whole than it costs in local inefficiencies.

“ Proponents would say that that a good central plan adds value more value to the city as a whole than it costs in local inefficiencies.”

This seems...unlikely.

It is about unaccountable government servants having power over serfs. People have to justify their existence and hence every day they go to their work thinking "what new rules can I enforce today". This was inevitable.

I used Workshop Cafe a little and liked it, but I agree with the planning commission.

All they were asking was for 2/3rds of the space to be available to the public.

They could have made 1/3 reservable. They could have charged for wifi in the other 2/3rds or came up with other ideas.

Why does a business need to appease one agency or another for the privilege of operating? If it’s dangerous to have them in that location they should be prohibited - if it isn’t, they should be allowed to operate their business without preconditions. The purpose of zoning should be to minimize actual harm, not micromanage the local economy.

That is the point of zoning. If every coffee shop became paid only, there would be no coffee shops and the financial district would be a dead zone of offices.

It isn't a micromanage, it is the intended feature of zoning.

does SF only allow fancy restaurants to take reservations for 1/3rd of their tables?

The letter noted two distinct facts vs. typical restaurant reservations: 1) You have to pay to reserve at Workshop Cafe (unlike typical restaurant) 2) The reservation can be for an unlimited period of time (again unlike a restaurant reservation)

That 1/3 was designated as subordinate (ie non-restaurant) use. Fancy restaurants would have the same problem if they started using up a bunch of space for whiteboards and printers.

I wonder if the people running this thing will now attempt to make good with the zoning department and try things like your suggestion, or if a discussion like this has already occurred and they don't have a further way to negotiate out of a shutdown.

I think this is what clarified it for me:

> A good analogy for this principal is a movie theatre. Customers must buy a ticket to enter (i.e. reserve space), and the principal use is the movie theatre. Customers may purchase food and beverages in the theatre, and may consume them in the actual theatres. Such food and beverage sales often outpace actual ticket sales. However, the Planning Code does not consider a movie theatre to be a restaurant simply because its customers may, and often do, purchase food and drink that is prepared on-site.

(principal is your pal)

I am a big fan of the Japanese zoning system. I'm sure it has its flaws and that there are arguably better systems, but it seems much better than what we currently have in the US.


Here is the original article in French if anyone prefers reading that version: http://kchozeurbaine.blogspot.com/2014/03/zonage-japonais.ht...

That article mostly just hammers home how terrible most American zoning is. It's like city planners all grew up playing Sim Cities (residential here, offices there, residential here, shops there).

It has meeting rooms, desks,...etc.

Not really surprised the zoning department ruled it was co-working space vs a cafe:


Although I have never been there, but I don't think the street view makes your point. If you take the monitors out that cafe does not look any different than any other rather run of the mill cafe with stock furniture.

I wonder if this is a bit of a perception is 9/10ths of reality thing where the fact that the furniture looks too "office like" with the separated meeting table with an wall hung TV and other office-feel things; rather than cafe-like with exposed wood and pipes, Edison bulbs, copper stuff, monitors that are built into an enclosure instead of free standing, etc. the bureaucrats found a probably already biased/influenced position and finding easier to rationalize.

I know that may seem silly to some, but if you have ever worked with or in a bureaucratic and especially a political office, you will surely know what I mean when I am describing the use of any and all excuses and tiniest little reasons to rationalize a preconceived or forgone conclusion. It's really a major scourge on every single aspect of government and leads to these kinds of decisions.

My theory is that it largely stems from the fact that bureaucrats, including most politicians these days, simply have no real accountability or consequences for their actions and decisions, so some tiny technical violation can invalidate everything else on precept.

They charge per hour for `workspace`: https://www.workshopcafe.com/pricing & https://www.workshopcafe.com/meeting-rooms

A true cafe doesn't charge you an hourly seating price. Its somewhat a grey area though as a cafe might have an `order` minimum/hour or kick someone out who hasn't bought something recently.

Have you ever been there? I went a bunch of times just to use it as a coffee shop and it felt no different to any other coffee shop from that perspective. Hard to imagine who benefits from this (other than the national/multinational coffee chains in the surrounding blocks).

This is a fair interpretation of zoning laws, but I don't think it respects the reality of most coffee shops. What I liked about Workshop (other than being one of the only places in FiDi you could get Stumptown for a while) was that it was explicit about the real trade going on in many coffee shops.

If you're spending more than a half hour at a coffee shop, you're there to work. You're playing this game where you're trying to figure out whether you've bought enough coffee not to look like a complete mooch. You're also hoping the free Wi-Fi is up and working, and that nothing is going to happen that will disrupt the work you're doing.

Workshop offered a great cafe menu, but most importantly offered assurances around seating, quiet spaces, and high-quality Wi-Fi. It was a hybrid model, and one I don't think there are decent laws established for them. This is a bummer, and probably a bad application of by-the-book zoning in a city where those same laws are being used to prevent way more important things like improved housing density.

But that's SF for you, I guess.

They could have applied as a conditional use. It exists exactly for good ideas that aren’t quite obviously good. For uses which are good or bad for a locale depending on the specific details of the project. That’s not San Francisco, that’s pretty much every urban area in the US.

If you're tired of shit like this, you gotta vote for people who want the city to be more tech-friendly and have sensible rules. In particular, vote for me ;) https://buss2020.org

Good platform, thanks for sharing! It's a little sad to me that SF is a one-party town, and thus the real work of governance happens in the back rooms like this, but I think it's great that you're tackling that head on.

You can't ban the ban's... they're the favorite way to virtue signal your higher morality from the top down.

I have to say, I am really tired of right wingers claiming every SF or other government or political policy they don't agree with is "virtue signalling". It is a lazy ad hominem which I don't find the least bit convicning.

Virtue signaling can be a lot of things. It can be insisting that a bike be painted shale blue to prove that you have a trendy sense of aesthetics.

On a side note, I’m surprised you are calling out the right wing for being anti virtue signaling. In my opinion, people who name themselves the Moral Majority are the biggest virtue signallers of them all.

It's one thing to wear a pin on your sleeve, but it's another thing to use the force of gvt to attempt to enforce morality, by banning things deemed "not good" like vapes, private cafeterias, plastic bags, straws, etc..

On a side note, trying to put a label into one or two buckets is very short sighted.

Disposable plastic is not an infinite resource, and its cost to the environment is not priced in the item. What is the problem with a good faith effort to reduce consumption?

Nicotine is addictive, last I checked a carcinogen in its own right (even if better for you than other cigarette additives), and there are reports that an entire generation is starting life addicted to it more than any previous generation. So if I think that's concerning, I am just trying to signal my virtue?

Can't be that I came to be concerned about either case for good reasons.

What I see a lot of on the internet lately is that people become unable to argue points like this and pull out the "virtue signalling" label when backed into a corner. Or like you I guess, you decide to mock "virtue signalling" without understanding how a person comes to these opinions in good faith.

Opinions. It's one thing to have them, it's another thing to force them on society.

If you want to reduce plastic consumption, just don't use it. But I bet you use a phone, computer, desk, eye glasses, wallet, clothing, etc., all made from the environmental destroying resource.

If you don't like addictive carcinogens, don't take them. Or is it your job to save humanity by banning it for everyone, or people of a certain age?

I have plenty of concerns, but I don't dare force them on the masses because of my own efforts of good faith. Change starts with you.

But here's a question... if plastic and nicotine and maybe other things like alcohol are so bad, why not just outright ban them (prohibited) instead of just limited to reduced consumption? It's b.s. legislation meant to signal virtue to the constituents. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Personally, these days when I see the term at all, it's usually a right wing complaint that nobody really cares about wealth disparity, the environment, equality among races creeds and gender, etc., but that any time anybody expresses support for any of these things it is "virtue signalling" and not an actual concern.

  It is a lazy ad hominem
As opposed to your "right wingers" appellation?

It is as far as I know an accurate description of who is doing this. I don't personally see a lot of centrists and leftists complaining about virtue signalling in non sequiturs to preemptively dismiss an idea or policy, or save them from thinking about why one might hold a position in good faith.

Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. My non-sequitur wasn't intended to be a formal argument, but a joke to get people to think about the nature of "bans" in general.

I have to say, I am really tired of left wingers banning anything they don't agree with.

The issue seems to be the combination of more than 30% of the floor space being dedicated to reserved seating, and the Cafe charging for those reservations.

What's more surprising to me is that an area zoned for retail restaurants is not zoned for office use. I see shop fronts in strip malls converted to ad-hoc office space all the time.

I assume this is a zooming regulation specific to SF? What would be the rationale behind it?

I would guess that it's more about antiquated attitudes about how cities should be centrally-planned and heavily segregated by use. Some zoning control is necessary to keep chemical plants and steel refineries from blowing up in your backyard, but the notion that there needs to be clear delineation between "office use," EG clerking, and restaurant/bar use is why central business districts are all crime-ridden dead zones after about 7 pm. And it's also why there are traffic jams between 11am and 1 pm where I live.

Seeing "office use" be more tightly restricted than general commercial use still seems strange to me.

I can understand restricting retail use in areas otherwise zoned commercial if the area can't support traffic from, or doesn't have enough amenities for, the general public.

But what impact would an office have on a neighborhood that a restaurant wouldn't?

> I assume this is a zooming regulation specific to SF? What would be the rationale behind it?

Preventing tech converting all the retail and restaurant space to offices.

Right, but a bit more subtle. The Cafe was invited to apply for conditional use. It appears (from my limited research) that within the Financial District (and whatever overlays might apply) ground floor office use is not allowed by right. Conditional use means that office use on the ground floor requires approval based on what is actually proposed. The Cafe might readily be approved as a conditional use or might be approved after a few adjustments. It's just not approved by right.

For what it's worth, reading the appeal reminds me why its worth paying a high dollar real-estate lawyer who deals with the planning department all the time. The Cafe's appeal didn't address the basis of the complaint: supplemental versus primary use in terms of floor area. Basically, there was no basis for overturning the zoning official's determination because the appeal did not address the basis for the zoning official's determination.

Yah, I agree that a conditional use permit might be granted. The person just asked the rationale behind disallowing office use (by default).

Does by right even exist in San Francisco? My understanding is all land use is subject to review and approval at the discretion of the Board of Supervisors.

What he's saying is that you can use land according to existing zoning code requirements without explicit zoning approval... Or you can convince the local Planning Commission to approve another use.

From reading the appeal, it appears a restaurant use is by right in that location.

You would imagine so, but every permit that does not have a state-level override (for example, SB-35 of 2017) is subject to discretion of the Planning Commission. Which is an unelected commission with members appointed by the mayor or the Board of Supervisors.

Most permits go through anyway, because the Commission chooses not to involve itself in everything, but every permit can be appealed with an application for Discretionary Review. https://sf.curbed.com/2013/4/17/10252934/what-the-heck-is-di...

The Commission website is https://sfplanning.org/resource/discretionary-review

From my experience as a planner and subsequent experience as an architect, I infer that the discretionary review process tends to prevent injunctive delays via the courts. Conclusion of the quasi judicial discretionary review process exhausts due process while direct decision by the board makes overturn by a court highly unlikely because the board has statutory authority to make the decision to issue the permit. From a project development standpoint, the timeline is predictable so long as it accounts for the discretionary review process. If discretionary review doesn’t happen then the project will be ahead of schedule.

To put it another way, discretionary review tends to benefit professionals but will tend to upset those attending their first rodeo. As I mentioned elsewhere it’s often worth hiring a local real estate attorney experienced at working with the planning department.

Who do I vote for if I want a workshop office like this to be legal?

The zoning administrator is part of the San Francisco Planning Department. Last September, the SF Planning Department Director, John Rahaim, announced his retirement. Mayor London Breed will need to find a replacement nominee soon who will then need to get approved by the Board of Supervisors.

If you're looking for a way to get involved, letting the mayor know your thoughts about this might be a good start.

Not Nancy Pelosi, since it’s her daughter who is the one that is the lawyer on this case.

Pelosi Law Group were working _on behalf of_ Workshop Cafe in this case, not against them.

My mistake. Thanks for pointing this out.

ignoring the matter of who was representing who, lawyers don't only represent people they like/agree with. (good news for criminal defendants!)

And they certainly don't only represent people their mothers like/agree with.

It's interesting to hear all the positive comments here about Workshop Cafe, and at the same time in previous threads there have been many negative comments about WeWork.

Can someone who has been to both and has differing opinions about them share how they differ?

Negative WeWork comments were about their business model, not their product.

I worked out of both WeWork shared space and at Workshop Cafe.

At WeWork you pay $350 per month (price varies) and get access to a shared space that is arranged like an open office (shared tables / desks). This is for the lowest plan, you can get dedicated office for more money.

Workshop Cafe is (was) arranged like a coffee shop, but with more seats. You pay per hour (forgot how much, but not much) for access to a dedicated table / desk. They have a better wi-fi than most coffee shops and they have outlets at each table.

It's also a coffee shop (you can buy coffee, tea, basic food).

They were both great for what they were offering.

Zoning laws are so backwards that it borders on parody. Can we get a state-wide referendum to eliminate all but the most important zoning regulations and then let the cities grow naturally?

How do you think zoning laws came about? We had no zoning laws, and then cities grew naturally, and then we had zoning laws. They exist as a result of real problems in the world. Now, some of those problems were definitively wrong [1], and we should clearly have a way to review, modify, and revoke zoning which is bad for society. But throwing them all out and doing nothing else is a quick way to welcome them right back.

[1] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoning_in_the_United_States#Ra...)

The same assholes driving up rent and making homeless situation worse.

Yet another act in the SF Government's ongoing performance art attempt to turn everyone into hardcore libertarians.

Nothing worse then having cafe shops being packed with people working on their notebooks taking whole tables and not allowing people to enjoy them to drink their tea. I wouldn't mind if they would forbid notebooks in cafe shops like Starbucks

It's literally called Workshop Cafe. It's built from the ground up to be a workspace and cafe in one. If you want to enjoy your tea, go to Samovar.

Places like Workshop Cafe are designed to cater specifically to this need. Their existence reduces the number of laptop hobos and startup squatters in socially oriented coffee shops.

They allow it because they make more money having consistent regulars who buy multiple items throughout the day, often entire meals.

It'd stop if it weren't profitable.

"If it is profitable, it will be regulated out of existence", to paraphrase Ronald Reagan.

San Francisco has become a place for junkies and Google sociopaths. Creative people have left and remaining creative people are leaving. It's a very bad place to start a company now (not to confuse starting a viable business with raising venture capital).

Unlimited governmental power. It's what democracy is, it's what Californians want.

Hello, Interesting Innovation? I'm Outdated, The Draconian Zoning Law. We have some things that need to be discussed.

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