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How a zoning dispute becomes a neighborhood controversy


The neighborhood at the edge of the earth, where streetcars turn away from the wind, was once a dangerous place.

“You’d be afraid to walk out on the streets in fear of getting mugged or getting shot at,” remembers Vijay Patel. He works for eBay, now, and lives south of San Jose, in Morgan Hill. But when he was 14, he and his family had just moved from the outskirts of London to San Francisco’s west end. “Growing up in the Sunset, especially the end of Judah, was difficult,” he says. “There was a huge homeless population. There were a lot of drunks that were out here harassing people.” Patel says having four bars in walking vicinity didn’t help much either, nor did the lack of policing in the area.

That was then. This is now.

The community’s gone through a transformation in the past ten years. It’s turned weed-strewn lots into rock gardens, added a neighborhood watch, and installed at least a dozen small businesses. A locally sourced food restaurant called Outerlands was written up recently in a glowing New York Times food review. The Java Beach Cafe is a community hub. There are several other restaurants, a tattoo parlor, and even a parklet outside of a drip coffee shop called Trouble. Yes, the neighborhood has changed a lot since Patel’s father bought the 20-unit Beach Motel back in 1983.

“It’s a good neighborhood,” says Bob Patel. “Everybody wants peace and quiet.”

Patel and his wife live at the motel, which looks pretty much like any of the other flat-fronted, three-story apartment buildings framing Judah Street. It’s a good business, he says, drawing about $300,000 dollars in revenues in a good year. And he says he’s a good neighbor to his fellow business owners.

“They don’t want any bum people or something like that,” he says. “That’s why we are trying to save this property as a tourist hotel.”

The problem is that might not be allowed.

The Controversy

Steve Collier, with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, says the Beach Motel “is a motel that operates illegally as a tourist motel under the zoning,” instead of as a residential hotel. The Tenderloin Housing Clinic is a non-profit that, like Bob Patel, has been working in San Francisco about 30 years. But where Patel works with tourists, the THC leases units long-term: nearly 1,600 in 16 hotels and an apartment building – all for low-income tenants. They’ve got on-site case managers, support services, and a legal team that advocates for San Francisco’s low-income residents.

“Whenever residential hotel rooms are converted to non-residential use,” says Collier, “it results in a direct loss of housing for low-income people,” which, he claims, is what the Beach Motel has been doing for decades. “The city has on its records that it was 100 percent residential in 1979.”

In the years that followed, those numbers shifted. Sometimes there were more permanent residents, and sometimes there were more tourists. Eventually, the Beach Motel turned exclusively to the more lucrative tourist trade. Collier says that never should have happened.

“[Some] tourist hotels break laws,” he says. “I could tear down my home in a residential neighborhood and build a 6-story apartment building if I could get the financing, and make a lot more money. But it’s not legal.”

But the law is not that clear cut. The city board of appeals confirmed that the Beach Motel was in violation of local codes in 1998. Yet, right above the Beach Motel’s front desk, there’s a certificate, issued by the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection in 2002, which says the building can legally rent to tourists. Those conflicting rulings were never reconciled; and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Bob Patel have been fighting it out in court for 16 years and counting, debating the merits of res judicata and “nonconforming conversion allowances” without resolution – or any more clarity.

Bob Patel says he doesn’t know why the Tenderloin Housing Clinic is pursuing the case. “This isn’t a 180-unit motel,” he says. “It’s 20 units. And it’s far away from the city’s downtown area. I’m not a rich guy. I work 24/7 ... I own the motel, and this is my bread and butter.”

But Collier counters, “Well, there’s lots of people committing crime on the street. It doesn’t mean we allow crime to continue just because a lot of people are doing it. Zoning is what protects the characteristics of a neighborhood and the people who live there. And residential hotel rooms, which are typically a single room without a private bath, tends to be housing for people of lower income. And that’s the type of housing we need the most in San Francisco.”

The Flyers

In March, Bob Patel and his legal team ratcheted up their own rhetoric, spreading 2,000 flyers around the neighborhood that said “the Tenderloin Housing Clinic is … trying to force the owner of the Beach Motel … to run the motel as a group home, housing welfare recipients or felons.” While Collier says the flyer is biased and not based on fact, Patel stands by the claims.

“That’s completely, absolutely right,” he says, “And a lot of people in this neighborhood think that’s right. Last five years it’s cleaned up. We don’t want the same thing again.”

Patel’s attorney, Andrew Zacks, echoes his concerns. “Housing for felons, that’s certainly a possible use of group housing,” he says, “And the real question is, ‘What does the Tenderloin Housing Clinic propose to do if, in fact, the city were in the unlikely event to rule in their favor? What would the land use be?’ Nobody really knows what the use will be.”

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic claims to have no interest in taking over the Beach Motel. But it has filed lawsuits against half-a-dozen business owners alleging they’re conducting illegal tourist operations. And Collier says the city’s zoning laws have supported his claims before, forcing the Empress Hotel, which had violated zoning laws in converting to tourist use, to shut down and reopen as a residential hotel.

The Empress Hotel

The Empress Hotel is about two blocks from Bloomingdales at the Westfield Shopping Mall, but it could be a world away. It’s typical Tenderloin. The Empress stands across the street from the Tea Room, advertising all-male adult entertainment. It’s also two blocks from the Tenderloin police department. An equal housing opportunity hotel, it’s pretty clean and nice from the outside, in a neighborhood that has a mixture of tourist hotels such as the Royal Inn and residential hotels like the Hotel Ambassador.

Robert Miller says he pays a third of his income to live at the Empress. A resident for about seven years, he says it would be a model residence in the Sunset District. “If they’re going to build a hotel like this,” he says, “it’s going to be very safe. We have cameras on every floor. We have a security guard. It’s very safe, it’s very safe.”

Jackie Zeltzman has lived at the Empress for 12 years and pays about a thousand dollars rent per month. She says she was one of the managers when it housed both residents and tourists. “The way the city runs it and the way it was run before is totally different,” she says. “There were a lot of amenities that we had before that we don’t have now: candy machines, ice machines, soda machines, daily maid service, that type of thing we don’t have any longer.” Those things make a big difference to Zeltzman, she says. “They catered to people differently than they do to these people here, but these people here have medical and mental needs that need to be met. So there’s a lot of medical and social worker staff here.” Zeltzman says she has no concerns over safety: “Not one bit.” And she says people living together with and without subsidized housing “works.”

The Legal Process

On Wednesday, April 11th, Bob Patel and Andrew Zacks met Steve Collier before the five-member San Francisco Board of Appeals in a request for rehearing. A few dozen people who’d received the inflammatory flyers showed up as well – mostly patrons of the Beach Motel’s neighboring bar, Pittsburgh’s.

It was a dynamic hour. Steve Collier said the Tenderloin Housing Clinic did not want to turn the Tenderloin Housing Clinic into a homeless shelter. Andrew Zacks said the flyer was not necessarily appropriate. Members of the board expressed confusion over the nearly 15-year-old case. The lawyers argued about the conflicting evidence. Scott Sanchez from the city’s zoning department said the case could easily stay in the board of appeals for a long time to come, no matter what the ruling. Both lawyers discussed res judicata. Board member Michael Garcia thanked Collier and Zacks for their entertaining testimony, saying, “That was an interesting ping pong game.”

The board voted 5 to 0 to rehear the case, setting the new hearing date for June 20th. [Eds. note: The new hearing date has since been changed to August 22nd.]

The Neighborhood

It’s nighttime in the Sunset District. A crowd of people gathers outside Outlerlands, waiting for a table. Musicians warm up at Java Beach Cafe, preparing to play before patrons who are paying more attention to their laptops. A homeless man walks into the wind as another walks away. Vijay Patel stands in the parking lot of the Beach Motel, not paying them any mind. He’s thinking about how the neighborhood came together over the last many years, creating parks and building businesses.

“It increases our property values,” he says. “It increases safety for our kids, you know. It makes things a lot more livable. The last thing we want is something coming in and changing all that.”

This story originally aired on April 12, 2012.

Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.