The mourners gathered Monday morning outside the former Thom’s Natural Foods in San Francisco’s Richmond District, watching as four black-clad, white-gloved men chanted and carried a black-draped coffin down Geary Boulevard.
The casket was adorned with notes listing Thom’s and other dearly departed businesses: Mike's Chinese Restaurant, Silver Cut Hair Salon, Safe Harbor CPA, M.V. Code coding school, La Vie Vietnamese Restaurant, Mr. B.’s Sewing Machines.
The pallbearers chanted, "Geary Boulevard needs some help! Mayor Breed, we need your help! Jeff Tumlin, stop working against us!"
"We’re gathered in memory of our beloved small businesses on Geary Boulevard," former San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer told the group as the procession came to a stop outside Thom's between two chairs with signs for San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director of Transit Jeffrey Tumlin. Neither official was present.
“We know that many of them could not recover after Covid,” Fewer said of the closed shops. “We are also here to honor the existing small businesses that are trying to build up their business to pre-pandemic levels, and they are not there.”
Fewer said there will be more nails in the coffin if the transportation agency goes ahead with its proposed Geary Boulevard Improvement Project. The SFMTA board is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to approve installation of a bus-only lane along Geary Boulevard between 15th and 33rd avenues for immediate start this fall, or approve installation but delay lane installation along multiple blocks of Geary until San Francisco Public Utilities Commission water and sewer construction begins in 2025.
As reported last year in The Standard, the project was supposed to include center-running bus lanes similar to Van Ness. But the city found that it could get a similar reduction in travel time at a fraction of the cost and time if it switched to side lanes. Plus, it said, side-running lanes already built on the corridor were already proving effective, and feedback from a community survey from September 2021 found more than 60% of the 600 respondents supported side lanes.
But the major downside of a side-running plan is that it removes some parking, around one to two spots per city block, according to an SFMTA presentation on the project, and requires conversion of angled parking spots to parallel parking.
Fewer said the neighborhood’s restaurants and other establishments are dependent on automobile traffic. She and others want the SFMTA to delay its plans.
"I am not a merchant here. I am just a supporter of merchants and small businesses in San Francisco," she said. "I think what these merchants are saying is, 'Give us a year to help build up our businesses, and especially those fledgling businesses, before you actually eliminate these parking spaces.'"
SFMTA spokesman Stephen Chun struck an empathetic tone in a statement Monday pointing to the project’s website. “We deeply value the livelihoods of the people who run businesses in our city and understand the serious effects the pandemic has had on them,” Chun said. “We support their recovery wholeheartedly and want them to thrive.”
To that end, Chun said the agency had worked with merchants on the project, including efforts to add replacement parking on cross streets, and said a working group would use project-provided marketing funds to bring in customers during its completion. He described the project’s striping and signage as taking one to two days per block over three months, with no excavation required.
After pointing to a prior agency survey that “found that 22% of people along this stretch of Geary arrived by car, and that those who walked or rode transit visited more frequently and collectively spent more than those who drove,” Chun said that similar improvements along Mission and Taraval streets found sales tax receipts “were similar or higher than citywide trends after those projects were implemented.”
One of the mock coffin pallbearers, David Heller, head of the Greater Geary Boulevard Merchants and Property Owners Association and owner of Beauty Network, a salon in the Central Richmond, echoed Fewer's sentiments.
"We're not saying we don’t want the project done. What are we saying? 'Let’s work together. Let’s do it all at one time.' There’s no reason to do it now and come back a year and a half later," Heller said, referring to a sewer-replacement plan scheduled from 2025 to 2027.
Another pallbearer, Sean Kim, owner of Joe's Ice Cream, called the SFMTA’s quick-build project a "quick disruption" that would destabilize his business and others that remain fearful after dipping into reserves to keep doors open.
"You know, some people think this project will bring more foot traffic, but we don't know. You see Downtown?" Kim said, referring to problems faced by Downtown businesses. "This is severe. We cannot survive these constructions. Please help us, support us and then we can survive this hardship."
Watching front and center was longtime Richmond resident Howard Epstein, 74, who said he always parked his car and walked a half-block to block to visit businesses. He said he was leery of plans to switch many diagonal parking spots to parallel parking.
"That’s going to make it very difficult. It’s going to drive people to go to the other side of the park, maybe over to Taraval or send them out to Serramonte,” Epstein said. “It'll make it almost impossible to shop here."
Richard Corriea, a former Richmond police station captain and fourth-generation Richmond District resident, read from a eulogy for Thom’s honoring its commercial-corridor impact, as well as warning of the fate feared for other businesses.
Drawing on his law enforcement experience, Corriea said neighborhoods that don't draw shopping traffic risk urban blight: "An active neighborhood is a safe neighborhood. Any policy that serves to deactivate a neighborhood is bad for that neighborhood, and bad for the city."
Victor Collaco, who said he was a retired commercial banker who grew up in the Sunset and attends Holy Virgin Cathedral on Geary between 26th and 27th streets, took particular objection to the project's conversion of angled parking to parallel parking, calling it "the worst possible idea" for a corridor dependent on parking access for seniors.
He said Holy Virgin attendees were elderly and “dependent upon parking, and many of them, if they don't find side-street parking, turn around and go home. So their ability to pray has been impacted by the decisions made by the SFMTA."
Collaco urged the SFMTA to stop the quick-build and "come back with a better plan after the sewer lines come in."
Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said Breed and others need to listen to the business owners.
"The mayor needs to listen. The mayor needs to be present. She needs to step up, and she needs to show leadership. That's what being mayor means," said Safai, who is challenging Breed in the 2024 election. "Not hiding behind decisions of five appointed commissioners that she controls, and the director that she controls. The power rests with the mayor in this decision. We need leadership in this city right now."
Cyrus Hall, a public transit activist with the independent Faster Safer Geary campaign in favor of the Geary Boulevard Improvement Project, attended Monday’s protest. Hall said what struck him about the protest was the merchants’ focus on long-gone businesses like Thom’s, which closed in January 2018, rather than what he saw as the merchants’ successful influence on the project’s details.
“The project looks like it does because of merchant feedback. There’s been a huge amount of feedback over the last 15 years, and it’s just time to move forward,” he said. “It’s time to put public transportation first on Geary.”
George Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org