There’s a new grocery store slated for Hayes Valley in the next couple of years, and in pretty much any other city that would be the end of the story.
But in San Francisco, this decision represents the finale to years of political infighting, housing wars, and community struggle that overlapped with the city’s most dramatic political scandal in a generation. Because nothing about building in SF can ever be simple.
What’s the project? SoCal-based grocery chain Trader Joe’s has wanted to open a new store in Hayes Valley for nearly a decade, and on Thursday the San Francisco Planning Commission finally gave approval for the 16,600-plus square-foot project at 555 Fulton to go ahead.
Why does this matter? SF has a problem getting and keeping large grocery stores in certain neighborhoods, and this creates a lot of hassle for people who live nearby.
But solving the problem can be just as much hassle: It’s been eight years since Trader Joe’s first set eyes on the neighborhood, and during that time they’ve seen previous store plans rejected and even almost lost this site to a competing retailer in 2017 (who ultimately abandoned their own plans for the spot).
What exactly was the problem? Until recently it was actually illegal–yes–to open a store like this in the neighborhood, as the city leveled a very strict ban on chain stores here years ago.
City Hall’s allergy to “formula retail” speaks to a deep cultural fear in San Francisco of allowing the things that make locales like Hayes Valley unique and attractive to become diluted, and of outside companies driving away small SF-based retailers. The Hayes Valley restrictions are meant to shelter the neighborhood, protect its culture, and preserve property values.
That might work all right in some cases, but it left Hayes Valley homeowners lacking anywhere to buy basic foodstuffs for decades. Finally in 2019 the Board of Supervisors broke down and added an exception for grocery chains, as long as they meet certain requirements. Even then it took several more years for the store to navigate SF’s infamously complicated development laws.
Did anything else hold it up? Uh, yes, potentially: The bulk of the 555 Fulton site is made up of the city’s most scandalized condo development.
The five-story, 139-unit mixed-use development broke ground in 2014 but remained unfinished over five yers later, for reasons not evident to the public at the time. Then in February of last year the condo project became the centerpiece in a citywide corruption scandal and FBI sting that ruined former SF Public Works boss “Mr. Clean” Mohammed Nuru and ensnared powerbroker building consultant Walter Wong, among others.
The city only gave permission to build 555 Fulton if it included a grocery store on the premises. The Trader Joe’s locale actually doesn’t have anything to do with the pay-to-play scandal surrounding the larger building–but at the same time you can’t imagine they were happy about the association, or the strange Limbo that it cast the project into.
Whatever happened with the rest of 555 Fulton? Well, there are still condos for sale there, starting at around half a million dollars. Nuru is facing bribery charges, alongside several other former city officials wrapped up in the FBI investigation around the building. Wong pled guilty and is waiting sentencing, and earlier this year agreed to pay some $1.7 million for his role in the condo scheme.
Will they actually build the supermarket? The current timeline doesn’t have the store opening until late 2022 at the earliest. Planning commissioners demanded a follow-up on plans to mitigate traffic around the store, due in one year.
This is a really weird story. By certain standards, yes, but actually almost everything about this years-long saga–the protectionism, the byzantine rules, the long waits, the false starts, the big-money condo deals, the angst over neighborhood character, the basic needs going unmet, the special exceptions, and yes, even the dirty dealings–are quite typical of both building and living in San Francisco; it was all just a bit more dramatic than usual in this case.
It wouldn’t be quite fair to call this story typical of housing drama in San Francisco–but neither is any of it really all that surprising.
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