Commentary: Brian Quan

Creating a Vibrant Neighborhood

Last month, I started a conversation about how we can work toward a better and more vibrant neighborhood. This time I want to consider what will need to be done to put us on a path toward that vision. Have you considered what a vibrant neighborhood looks like to you?

I went out to The Laundromat on Balboa Street on a recent Sunday night to have dinner and found it bustling. Families were sharing pizzas and dates were getting to know each other over wine as they waited for their food. This newly opened restaurant is a bright spot in the Outer Avenues that shows a spark toward when we used to have great late-night offerings for community building. Let’s figure out what steps we as a community can do to help replicate these successes.

Obviously, one data point doesn’t tell the whole picture. If small businesses’ health is the measuring stick for the health of a neighborhood, then we must start by taking stock of how healthy our business corridors are currently. On my way back from downtown, I thought I’d see how many blocks on Geary had a vacant storefront. Starting at Arguello, I counted 20 blocks with at least one vacancy, and some had multiple “for lease” signs. As one of the most heavily traveled streets in the City, this is a clear disconnect between the status quo and what many would consider a healthy neighborhood.

Having listened to some of the newer business owners, one of the biggest challenges seems to be clarity from the City’s permitting process and how easy it can be for anyone to put up another roadblock for them to navigate. Even if you took over a location to operate a similar business you could be hit with issues over unpermitted changes like awnings or range hoods, and that’s before having to bring a place into ADA compliance. Yet many strive forward through this plethora of challenges.

With the mayor’s recently released plan to streamline the permitting process for new small businesses, how do we as a community build upon these efforts? Some of the more notable delays in other neighborhoods we should seek to avoid are recent situations like El Farolito moving into North Beach and Bissap Baobab in the Mission applying for new permits where competing businesses or neighbors put up objections within the City’s numerous approval processes. The west side of San Francisco has traditionally attracted those who enjoy the quieter aspects of city life, which can be at odds with revitalizing our westside business corridors. The current process of veto points unfortunately creates an incentive toward exclusion since anyone can stop or delay changes if they don’t see a direct benefit.

Reforming how the City incorporates public input around consensus instead of by objections will be needed to help speed changes to adapt our neighborhood to our new post-COVID realities. This will require greater community responsibility in making sure we are organizing inclusively and affirming positive changes.

Through collaboration we can start to be intentional about the design and feel of our future, otherwise, we risk being locked into our current path that has left us with so many vacant storefronts. Getting buy-in beforehand doesn’t mean we will all get what we want, but it works to align our values and goals to ensure outcomes in those directions.

Ultimately, the big change we in this City are going to have to take is embracing a change in mindset. We cannot continue to let individual inconvenience outweigh collective benefits if we as a community are to work together toward a more vibrant neighborhood. With enough problems facing us all where anyone can say “no” to changes we don’t agree with, how can we come together to start to say “yes” to things many of us want as possible solutions.

One item I would like to end on is the current outreach process for the SF Municipal Transportation Agency’s Active Communities Plan. Here is a clear place where, instead of a street-by-street or bus-line-by-bus-line approach, we can all get involved to decide how we can imagine better ways to move around the neighborhood. Perhaps even have conversations with all the stakeholders that could help us avoid previous conflicts like with Geary and Taraval that will provide ways to help others access and enjoy the west side more. Let’s find ways to increase the joy and awe that makes these parts a place where people want to come and stay.

Sign up for project updates via its webpage at to keep informed of upcoming opportunities. Or reach out to to request a meeting with the project team in your neighborhood or around a specific corridor.

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.

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