Commentary: Brian Quan

Envisioning a Better Neighborhood

Playland at the Beach, Sutro Baths, the Cliff House, Topsy’s Roost – these are some of the former attractions that used to bring people out to the western half of San Francisco.

Not just a sleepy bedroom community to house workers that would head into their downtown jobs, the Richmond District used to be a vibrant part of the fabric of San Francisco. A home to a rich variety of businesses and communities nestled just north of Golden Gate Park, I want to see the Richmond become a vital part of San Francisco’s future.

Other than just the closures of landmarks on the far western edge of the district, I have seen longtime staples in the community face closure and disrepair. As someone who grew up going to Sugar Bowl Bakery and catching new releases at the Coronet Theater, I’m left to wonder “what are the places and stories we are leaving to the next generation?”

While there are many colorful stories and cultural artifacts from the 1960s and ’70s that dominate the narratives of San Francisco, holding onto the past sucks the oxygen from creating a new identity for the Richmond. With the challenges and changes brought about by COVID, tech companies and working from home, what’s the next chapter for the Richmond District and San Francisco?

For this future vision, I wistfully recall summer’s past of Shaw Brothers’ movie marathons at the 4 Star and hope they might return one day. But the new owners there are charting a new path with a gallery and cafe environment.

Holding out for things to remain the same would be burying my head in the sand about how hard it is to run a business in San Francisco. Every business is a risk and an experiment – supporting them creates an opportunity for our neighborhood business corridors to be the place for neighborhood residents who now work from home to connect with each other and grow roots in the neighborhood. While City Hall focuses on how to restore downtown, we need to understand our own role in deciding this future.

The past year has been full of elections that are going to lay the groundwork of the City for another generation. Based on the results of these elections, it is clear to me that education, public safety, small business and the public use of streets appear to be the topics du jour, with housing and homelessness seemingly a lower priority in the Richmond. Unfortunately, elections have a way of making decisions on these complex issues too binary and leave out a lot of the discussions and compromises.

As a community we can take a more direct action in affecting the direction of our neighborhood by voting with our dollars and our feet.

With these myriad challenges we all face, let’s explore the next steps we can start taking to put us on a path to fixing them. Building back a vibrant Richmond will not be easy, so let’s begin a conversation and start thinking creatively! There is no silver bullet to these challenges, and it will take all of the above solutions from building more housing, creating safer streets, increasing public transit and supporting small businesses to be effective.

As found in a 2019 National Institute for Transportation and Communities study, improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure was shown to have positive impacts on sales and employment in the retail and food service sectors. Envisioning a vibrant community allows these synergies to build upon each other where making streets more lively and safe for people walking and biking and helps small businesses.

One of the obvious things to me that I see working in this vein is the usage of car-free/car-lite spaces for “events” such as farmers’ markets, Sunday Streets like Car-free Grant, the eastern portion of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park and the Upper Great Highway on the weekends to draw crowds of people. This isn’t a war on cars since these do have some negative impacts, but rather a call to see what improvements on the whole we can work together on to achieve better outcomes. These changes in some fashion are going to need to be part of this vibrant future, so we need to take care how these impacts are perceived. Engaging small business owners, families and seniors on ways to improve access to participate in these community building events is the starting point to sustainable solutions. When we communicate and converse about what is and isn’t working, we can work to iterate and improve on this moment to create those new experiences and landmarks for a new generation to enjoy.

Brian Quan is a Richmond District native, co-leader of Grow the Richmond, president of the Chinese American Democratic Club, member of the Park Presidio-Sunset Lions Club and participant in monthly Refuse Refuse S.F. street clean-ups.

6 replies »

  1. While I share in some of the same nostalgic views as the author, I have witnessed firsthand how the removal of parking spaces in front of small businesses not fortunate enough to have their own private parking lots has caused them to lose customers and experience a decline in their sales and fearfully anticipate having to close altogether. SFMTA’s movement to remove parking and take up sidewalk space to install rental bike stations when alternative locations are available for rental bike stations that will not affect parking spaces is one example of how the City’s anti-car agenda is hurting San Franciscans. Likewise, citywide events being held on the weekends on the closed Great Highway causes environmental damage to the sand dunes by excessive foot traffic trampling them, escalating their erosion and destroying the National Wildlife Sanctuary within them which is dedicated as a protected area for an endangered species. We need to be more thoughtful and plan ahead before implementing anti-car policies as the solution to all our problems.

    Liked by 2 people

    • All of the studies that I have seen on the commercial impacts of installing bicycle and active transportation infrastructure have shown either positive economic benefits for local businesses or no effect. Volker and Handy (2021) conducted a peer reviewed literature review and evaluated the 20+ studies around the world that have been done on this very topic and found the same: either a meaningful positive effect for local businesses or no effect. These studies have been conducted in Toronto, New York City, Seattle, LA, Vancouver, San Francisco, and many more cities. On this topic the current research consensus is quite clear, and our policy makers should prioritize accordingly.


      • Thanks Jim, but I don’t need a study – I run a small business (which the author seems to want to support) and I sell goods that are typically too large for a backpack, bike, or muni ride. So, my customers often drive, and the research consensus is quite clear from my perspective that parking spaces are critical for them as well as my business survival. What exactly is your proposal for supporting rather than hindering my business? Or, are you just proposing academic solutions and theories without any real-world experience?

        PS – I presume you eat. How do you suppose your food gets into the city, was it biked in? Or, are you ok supporting large commercial trucks, but not small businesses and their vehicles, for handling your survival needs?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with her comments. The anti-vehicle mentality is pervasive and without forethought: no Environmental Impact Report done; ignores the needs of our seniors and disabled folks who need the UGH open; does not consider increased traffic and pollution in the adjacent streets; ignores the needs of families and commuters who use the UGH; does not address the Emergency Responders’ needs for the UGH, does not plan for more EV stations or increased MUNI service that is necessary and adds to the local trash left by those using the LGH and using the UGH when closed to vehicles.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I would like someone to show me **where** in San Francisco parking has been removed in front of small mom & pop businesses and their business has improved. Please tell me which shops so I can contact the owners and ask/verify if this is true. I guarantee no one’s going to answer this question. I want to see that study and *all* the specific details.


  4. I’m glad to see that the city is considering ways to bring back some of the old attractions in the Richmond District. I remember when I was a kid, I would go to the Sutro Baths and Topsy’s Roost in the district. I would go there with my friends and have a blast. I’m glad to see that the city is thinking about ways to bring these places back.


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