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A frustrated San Francisco business wants a security gate. Red tape is getting in the way

A person in a gray overcoat stands in front of their business that is boarded up with plywood.
Cyn Wang, CFO of Wang Insurance Agency, says her family is feeling increasingly frustrated as they try to find a city-code compatible solution to protect their storefront. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Two weeks after a masked vandal smashed a metal rod through the windows of San Francisco’s Wang Insurance with a few flicks of their wrist, Cyn Wang is still trying to get the glass fixed.

Worried that the individual will return, Wang, the CFO of her family’s business in the Outer Sunset neighborhood, has been waiting to replace the windows until she can install a roll-down security gate to protect them. But she can’t put in a gate without a permit from the city, and getting one is proving to be a challenge.

“We’re very cold here with these plywood walls out front,” Wang told The Standard. “I thought it would be very easy once I had my glass broken to at least figure out the fix of the physical part. … It turns out it’s the regulatory system that is the bigger barrier for my business recovery.”

For decades, the city barred roll-down gates that are 100% solid, requiring that they be at least 75% transparent to help maintain a vibrant and safe environment for pedestrians when businesses close at night. The rationale was that mostly transparent gates look nicer and give the street a bit more life after dark.

But in response to complaints about break-ins, the Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance earlier this year to allow businesses to install gates that are only 20% transparent as long as the barrier is see-through so fire and police officials can look inside. Under the ordinance, which took effect in June, gates can be up to 80% solid metal, allowing for “an infinite number of options,” Planning Department Chief of Staff Dan Sider said.

Here are the rules:

  • Any level of opacity up to 80% is permissible.
  • Any gate that is more than 25% solid must provide an eye-level fire-safety window.
  • “Mesh” gates, whose metal components create opacity, are also allowed as they are not fully transparent.
Wooden plywood cover windows of an grey building.
Plywood covers the storefront at Wang Insurance on Judah Street after a vandal smashed the glass windows. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

READ MORE: Cash-Heavy Small Businesses in San Francisco Report Surge in Break-Ins, Claim Police Can Do Nothing

In an interview with The Standard this week, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who introduced the legislation, described the new 20% requirement as a compromise—one that he believes will allow businesses like Wang’s to protect their storefronts without making the street feel deserted at night.

“Before my legislation, she wouldn't have been able to get anything at all,” Safai said. “This is at least giving people the option of having a solid roll-down gate.”

But for Wang and her family, the amount of time and money they’re having to invest to find a solution has left them feeling increasingly frustrated. As of Tuesday, they had received just one quote for a roll-down gate that they believe, but aren’t sure, is compliant with the new rules. The price? Over $27,000.

“We’re the victim of a crime,” Wang said. “And now I've spent several days researching gate materials, and now I have to get a permit—if I'm even going to be granted one—to fix this.”

The insurance agency’s storefront was vandalized around 11 p.m. on Dec. 6, hours after Wang, her family and their employees had gone home for the day. It was the first time in their 44 years of business that their windows had been broken, Wang said.

Security footage shows a vandal smashing the windows at Wang Insurance. San Francisco police said they have not made any arrests in connection with the incident. | Source: Courtesy Cyn Wang/Wang Insurance Agency

Security footage shows the vandal walk up to the storefront, smash both windows and the glass panel in the front door with a metal rod, and then leave without attempting to enter the building or take anything.

Wang said that over the years, vandals have tagged the business with graffiti, and one time someone wrote a racial epithet on their front door. Whatever the reason for the window smashing, she said it felt like her family’s business was being targeted, but she’s not sure why.

“I don't even want to venture to say,” Wang said. “We thought, could it be someone who had a claim denial? Could it be part of the wave of [anti-Asian] hate? We really don't know.”

READ MORE: Is Anti-Asian Hate on the Decline in San Francisco? Activists Aren’t So Sure

In a statement provided to The Standard, the San Francisco Police Department confirmed that they responded to a report of vandalism at the insurance agency. The department said no arrests have been made and the investigation remains open.

‘Insult to Injury’

Further east in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, Brett Thurber, who owns the New Wheel Electric Bikes with his wife, went ahead and installed mesh roll-down gates on their storefront windows without a permit after experiencing six break-ins in 2020.

“We had this installed during the pandemic as sort of an emergency because there was nothing we could do to stop getting broken into,” Thurber told The Standard, adding that the business hasn’t had a break-in since.

Then, last December, someone reported the bike shop to the city's Department of Building Inspection, which served the business with a notice of violation for installing the gates without approval. Thurber said the planning department ultimately allowed the gates, but he still had to pay $2,000 for the violation and a permit after spending about $30,000 to repeatedly replace the glass and install the roll-down gates.

“For the city to add another $2,000 on top of that just for like a permit [and] a penalty on a permit that was greenlighted because it was so non of an issue was a little insult to injury,” he said. “It’s money that I don't think we should have had to pay.”

Charcoal gray rolling shutters cover the windows and door at a storefront
The New Wheels Electric Bikes installed roll-down security gates in 2020 after experiencing six break-ins. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Sider said permits are required for roll-down gates for two reasons: to ensure that they are installed safely and so that the city can maintain an engaging streetscape for pedestrians. In the planning world, these kinds of regulations have been informally referred to as anti-Escape from New York controls, in reference to the 1981 science fiction film in which all of Manhattan has been transformed into a giant prison.

“This is much more something that goes to the character of the urban space—that is this space San Franciscans move through,” Sider said. “Do you want to move through here as quickly as possible with your head down, trying to avoid the urban ills about which we’re all too aware, or is this a street environment where you feel comfortable?”

‘Absolutely Crazy’

But for small businesses that are struggling to keep their doors open, these kinds of regulations around commercial security measures just don’t meet the moment.

“I think it's absolutely crazy,” said Ryen Motzek, president of the Mission Merchants Association. “Anything that doesn’t fully protect a storefront, and you don’t allow a storefront to be fully protected, is sick.”

“It’s just another thing that the city does to squeeze the business owners,” Motzek added.

A person at their desk in a gray coat jacket types at a computer.
Cyn Wang, right, works at her desk at her family's insurance business. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Wang said she wants to make sure that whatever roll-down gate she gets—if she can find one that meets the city’s requirements and is financially feasible—will fully protect her business’s windows. She worries that if the glass is broken again and again, her family will either have to pay out of pocket to replace the glass, which costs about $5,000, or risk losing their own insurance due to repeated claims.

Wang, who serves on the city’s Entertainment Commission, said she spoke with planning and building inspection officials after The Standard reached out to the city and was appreciative of how responsive they’ve been. The Planning Department has recommended that she install a roll-down gate with a chain-link fence type of material, Wang said. Still, she worries that wouldn’t be enough.

“Any hole in the material would create an opportunity for them to break our glass again,” Wang said.

Tim McFarland, general manager for the roll-down gate vendor R&S Erection of San Francisco, said the change in transparency requirements should make the roll-down gates less expensive to install, but criminals will still find a way to cut through the grill portion of the gate to break in.

“When they’re solid, it’s much, much, much harder to cut through,” McFarland said.

‘More Red Tape’

Design standards approved in October and posted to the Planning Department’s website last week require the roll-down gates to be concealed by an awning when not in use—a feature that McFarland said could be an even bigger headache for vendors and businesses.

“Now I’ve got to get an awning person to come out to get an awning to also be approved by the city, and if they don't want to approve the awning, that means I can't put my door in,” he said. “So just a little bit more red tape for us to go through.”

Sider described the new requirements as “significantly more lenient and accommodating” than the previous rules. He said he’s hopeful that planning can work with Wang to find a way for her to install a security gate that makes her feel protected.

“We’re trying to support small businesses in a way that may not have been the case in generations past,” Sider said. “We’ve recognized that every time a small business loses a glass plate window, that's a tremendous amount of money.”

As she continues to search for a solution, Wang said it feels unfair that her family has had to spend so much time and will likely have to spend a lot of money.

“We need to confront the reality that there have been a lot of break-ins and there has been a lot of vandalism,” she said. “Small businesses need to be able to protect themselves to be able to operate in this city.”

Stephanie K. Baer can be reached at sbaer@sfstandard.com