Reader summarizes Les Natali Hamburger Mary’s meeting

We were not able to make the meeting yesterday for the proposed Hamburger Mary’s at the Patio Cafe space, but one of our commenters who goes by the handle “loic” was and provided this report:

I was at the meeting. It was kinda bizarre. From what I remember, the arguments for Hamburger Mary’s were:

  • Hamburger Mary’s is not really a formula retail in Mr Natali’s eyes
  • He will not use the franchise sign, fiber glass doll, menu, uniform
  • Bring back Hamburger Mary’s in the City where it originated
  • The space will be open after being closed too long
  • Hamburger Mary’s is gay

Arguments against it were:

  • Hamburger Mary’s is a formula retail (more than 11 locations in US, even one in Germany and try to expand)
  • Can we trust Mr Natali to open anything at the The Patio anyway, after so many disappointments
  • Noise concerns (there is a nice retractable roof in the back) lots of echo (big room with tile), lots of Hamburger Mary’s have drag shows, cabaret…

The great question not really answered though, was: Why did he choose Hamburger Mary’s, a formula retail ? He could open today (or yesterday) a burger place without having to fight the City Hall and everybody would live happily ever after ?

His answer was basically that he wanted the help of Hamburger Mary’s staff to open the restaurant (they would get a percentage, as an incentive). I found hard to believe that he could not find anybody to help opening a burger joint, without signing with a formula retail… The space is fantastic, ready to go, everything is ready, all the permits are done, all the equipments are there, just bring the buns and the pickles! Lots of people went through much more troubles to open a restaurant in the City, and succeed. Even the $4 toast place on Divisadero is packed, they are building an expensive parklet to hold even more. The Patio is an absolutely gorgeous place. Mr Natali did an excellent job there. This thing will be successful even with mediocre food.

Then someone argued that a simple burger joint would not be enough, we need to bring something GAY, because the neighborhood is getting more straight (and apparently straights get drunk and loud… because you know, gays are never drunk or loud). Well if Mr Natali opens his own burger joint, it will be as gay as a Hamburger Mary’s. He does not need a franchise to make it gay. He could even call it “Hamburger Fairies” to address that particular concern if needed.

So overall it was not very convincing to me. It actually feels a bit sad and tired. Mr Natali has been a successful business man, with an entourage and lots businesses (Zapata, Badlands, Toad Hall, The Mix, Dancing Pig, etc.) that have been mostly successful. I like most of those businesses, but at the same time I am wondering if the neighborhood would rather need someone from outside, who does not take it for granted, someone who brings some fresh competition. Because as much as I like those businesses, they won’t obviously compete with each other, some even stay close rather than compete (The Patio, the open space close to Toad Hall). It feels that this pseudo sad and tired monopoly is actually causing this depressing feeling in the Castro that people complain about. And I really don’t know if a Hamburger Mary’s (if approved) will help at all…

Roy McKenzie

Roy has been a Castro resident since 2010 and is passionate about drag queens, bicycling, and food. Follow his babbling on Twitter.

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37 Responses

  1. DerekSF says:

    Formula retail uses are commonly referred to as “chain stores.” Under Section 703.3 of the San Francisco Planning Code they are defined as “a type of retail sales activity or retail sales establishment which, along with eleven or more other retail sales establishments located in the United States, maintains two or more of the following features: a standardized array of merchandise, a standardized facade, a standardized decor and color scheme, a uniform apparel, standardized signage, a trademark or a servicemark.” In other words, retail stores with multiple locations and a recognizable “look” or appearance.

    Hamburger Mary’s is a Franchise that offers a lot of flexibility, see http://www.hamburgermarys.com/franchise/

    I could buy the argument that it doesn’t fall under the city’s formula retail law.

    Noise wise, doesn’t Les own most of the surrounded buildings and evicted the upstairs tenants?

    In the end, for me, it comes down would we rather have a Hamburger Mary’s, a gay friendly place with entertainment and potentially mediocre food or have the place sit vacant for another 10 years?

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  2. Jim says:

    I agree with the end commentary. The CASTRO needs someone new and fresh to come in and make a difference. The real monopoly going on in the neighborhood is the property owned by Mr. Natali.

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  3. Chickpea says:

    I was at the meeting last night ……. looking forward to having a Hamburger Mary’s open up in the Castro

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  4. Castro Resident says:

    I still don’t get this formula retail stuff – It seems very arbitrary. Let’s walk down Castro Street and look for formula retail: Walgreens, LOccataine’, (until recently) The Body Shop, Levi’s, Starbucks, turn the corner: CVS. Why is that OK and Hamburger Mary’s or Chipoltle not ok?

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    • Mitch Mansfield says:

      Chipotle is not OK because the DTNA decided to impose their misguided beliefs on the rest of us. Not that I would have gone to Chipotle. I’m just saying that the neighborhood looks the way is does because of DTNA, EVNA and MUMC deciding what is best for us, and a Planning Commission that makes up rules as it goes along.

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    • Jack Frost says:

      Completely agree! The phrase “formula retail” is used WAY too much as a reason to not let a business into the neighborhood. The Dobuce Triangle Association uses it as a way of stopping businesses they dont like from even attempting to try and move into a vacant space.

      Whats the point of formula retail stopping some chains when you have all the ones you listed and still have 14 coffee shops within a mile radius of each other?

      PS- my two cents about the noise complaints around The Patio make me grind my teeth. You live above a bar/food space YOU WILL HEAR NOISE! If you dont like it move to Laurel Heights or the Sunset. Im tired of people living in an urban setting on a busy street then complaining about noise. Grrrr!

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    • Castro Resident says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • sjg says:

      There is a misconception that restriction=ban. That is untrue.

      The law simply requires any formula retail establishment is subject to a “Conditional Use” Permit Application. During this process, the permit application is open to input from members of the community. Once the comment period is closed the permit is voted upon by the permit board. If the project is approved it is cleared to open if not then they can appeal (most companies do not appeal)

      There is a “loophole” to this restriction. If a retail establishment is open for business and fully operational, it can be aquired by a “chain” and converted into an outlet for that company.
      Example: Starbuck’s aquired Pasquale (18/Castro) and converted it into one of their locations. Although this was done before the law, they would have been exempted from the restriction.
      Another good example of this is when Sunglass Hut (Luxottica Group) bought out the small sunglass store on Market Street ( Idon’t recall the store’s name but it is where the accountants office is now).. They were exempted because they were simply converting an existing business.

      The companies you mentioned (excluding CVS, and Levi’s) were opened prior to the enactment of the chain restriction, therefore they were grandfathered in. Levi’s and CVS went through a arduous and costly negotiating process which resulted in concessions by these companies before approval was won.

      Hopefully, my explanation answers some of your questions.

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  5. Joe says:

    Something doesn’t smell right. I was also at the meeting last night. Why would a guy with restaurant and bar experience, and ton’s of cash want to pay franchise fees for the life of the business, just so he gets help opening the place? That’s a pretty expensive way to go. During the meeting he told us, the menu wouldn’t be the “standard” HM menu, it would reflex SF Food culture. The interior wouldn’t match other HM’s. So he’s spending all that money for a name?

    This was my first time in the “new” Patio Cafe. It is soulless. The patio area is just a mess, with Home Depot lighting, bad acoustics, and “brand new” it looks dated.

    More then anything, I’d love to see a thriving, popular restaurant in this space. I just don’t trust Les.

    Roy, Zapata is owned by George. Les owns the building. The Mix and failed Dancing Pig are owned by Les’s buddy, Larry Metzger.

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    • Castro Resident says:

      Why can’t we pump up the quality….see for example the Citizen remodel, Unionmade, Francis, Cliffs and the pet store. Compare that to Gyro Express that looks like it belongs in some c class shopping mall. And before I get jumped on, by quality I don’t mean price point. The store fronts of some of these stores look like they where made in someone’s garage with home depot products. After a couple of months of commerical use, it all looks like crap. I think that this is what we are all reacting to….a general decline in quality.

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      • Joe says:

        Castro Resident, I agree. I eat in very few local restaurants mostly because they look so dirty, and the food quality is so bad. Why is Chestnut Street so nice, without street people and filled with interesting shops and restaurants and Castro looks tired with drunks, mentally ill, and drug addicted running the street?

        Tried Gyro Xpress twice, I won’t be back. Because it’s just NOT GOOD FOOD

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      • Area resident says:

        @Castro Resident Well said. Thank you. I’d add the new Reveille Coffee on 18th to the quality list.

        Let’s stop with the tacky and soulless. This neighborhood should be better than that. We’re better than that.

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  6. Kevin_BGFH says:

    This does sound strange. I was giving Les the benefit of the doubt at first, but this doesn’t really make much sense. He already has enough experience to open it, and if he simply doesn’t feel up to it any more, why not track down a very competent manager to handle the details?

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  7. Old tired labeling still applies says:

    It’s pretty funny that straights are being labeled as “drunk and loud” given it’s The Castro. Anyone else been on 18th and Castro on a Saturday night? I wouldn’t say it’s the straights making the noise… I’d say it’s the obnoxious people.

    There is no need to start pointing fingers based on sexual preference. The Castro should know that more than any other place.

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  8. jpciudad says:

    Looking forward to try the new Hamburger Mary’s in the Castro. This is so much better than an empty storefront. Natali tried to make a good case for his restaurant last night. Some people at the meeting just did not trust him. I don’t think there was anything he could have said to convince them.

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  9. Paul Allen says:

    It’s kind of amazing that Mr. Natali, nor anyone else at the meeting, could vocalize the rather obvious reason a business owner would want to open a Hamburger Mary’s vs. a no-name hamburger joint: Hamburger Mary’s is an established brand that many people in the Castro know and love. People either remember it from when it was in SF years ago, or from their travels to other cities. I for one would go there fairly regularly, as would many of my friends. That kind of brand equity is quite valuable. That’s why he’s pursuing this. It’s odd that he wouldn’t just say that.

    Personally I find it disgusting that the city is even involved in these kinds of decisions at all. How can a small group of people dictate what is right for the whole community? There is a foolproof way to make sure that the neighborhood gets exactly the businesses it wants and needs. It’s called the free market. If businesses open that people don’t want, guess what happens? That’s right, people don’t go and the business folds. Why not let all of us decide what we want in the neighborhood, not a small group of busy bodies with ulterior motives. They sure don’t represent me or my needs, yet they have an awful lot of power over my life.

    As to whether this guy owns too many businesses already… really? He owns a handful of businesses. Is that a reason to punish him? Or maybe he should be lauded as someone who brings the community businesses it wants (obviously, since they are successful) and employs lots of people. If anything his request should be granted faster because he has a proven track record.

    The rampant anti-business attitude in SF isn’t helping anyone. It only does harm.

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    • Don says:

      I believe that Les knows he has alienated enough potential patrons that bringing back a known-quantity establishment with a strong gay following and nostalgic significance could make others more inclined to suppress their resentment. With clever, distracting marketing…Les is more. I hope this passes and Les puts some money, creativity and energy into revitalizing a space that’s quickly becoming dated since it’s anti-climactic renovation.

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  10. josh says:

    Les Natali has a proven track record of keeping valuable Castro business locations closed for years at a time. He also has multiple rental units he keeps vacant. It’s sad to think about how much of a drain his incomprehensible business tactics have been on the neighborhood economy. That said, I’d rather see the old Patio location open and in use than get in a fight over HM vs something else.

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  11. Mark M says:

    It was great to see so many people at the Hamburger Mary/Les Natali meeting this past week…I’m good with the new restaurant and yes, rather skeptical of some of Les’ demands for partners in this location and past promises…but I can be hopeful and support him….

    Reading the above comments, there seems to be some concern and frustration about one of the more important underlying issues involved in this “yes/no” decision…

    Formula Retail: just because a business falls under the formula retail definition, does not spell the end of their chances to establish a place in SF…the formula retail decision process has been set up so San Francisco as a city can give back some of the decision making powers to local neighborhoods wishing to define what’s right for them, locally. It’s been the stand of most neighborhood groups (like EVNA and DTNA) to try to retain some of the unique charm while blending in new and needed businesses as the preferences of their constituents evolve with each iteration of residents…when the city delivers it’s default “no” verdict- the resulting process is intended to kick it back to the local area so they can make the decision This “no” by the city makes the applicant take its case to each neighborhood to get their support to then go back to the city and get a “yes” (by way of a conditional use waiver).

    The city’s default “no” on formula retail is actually quite brilliant- and it’s (so far) the best mechanism I can think of to allow for an open public discussion and to give the power of approval/rejection right to people most impacted.

    Neighborhood groups like DTNA and EVNA have been positioned, for better or worse, as the mouthpiece for those living in the area. They either work or don’t work because of their success or failure to attract enough residents and workers from the area to join forces and provide the group with the broadest spectrum of opinions, philosophies, economics, etc. to actually have fair representation of the opinions of those living there. Allen- I don’t know that we should kick the people who are trying to get involved and represent the ‘hoods via EVNA, etc. (no matter what their opinion/slant/etc. is) and trying to activate the membership to be a better representation of those served.

    As a new Board Member for EVNA, a long time resident, a business owner…the influence of the neighborhood group is critical to inform the city and businesses what WE believe is right for us as Eureka Valley residents and workers. The formula retail process we have IS working- but it needs everyone’s input (via the established channels) and everyone’s effort to make it most reflective of our wants and needs. Trader Joe’s and Chipolte didn’t get approval because those residents that showed up put in the time, took an interest, formed an opinion, and used the system to express that opinion were heard and prevailed- that’s all. For the people I’ve witnessed on the board or at the public meetings, there’s no evil plot, no ulterior motivates..just involved people who were doing what they think best for our ‘hood.

    EVNA/DTNA/Corona Heights Neighbors/Castro Merchants/etc. exist only because there are constituents willing to join, get involved and make their voice heard. EVERY one of these groups are pleading for area residents and workers to get involved- especially to express opinions the current members may not hold, be aware of, or even know about. Please join the group that is right for you- call me, I’ll tell you about EVNA and DTNA!

    We need newer residents, more woman, gay and lesbian people, people of color, young, old and straight people, we need everyone so that the formula retain and political systems we have work best to solve challenges and keep our respective neighborhoods vibrant, active and reflective of the values of those living and working in them!

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    • Paul Allen says:

      You say, “The city’s default “no” on formula retail is actually quite brilliant- and it’s (so far) the best mechanism I can think of to allow for an open public discussion and to give the power of approval/rejection right to people most impacted.”

      Ok… So please explain exactly how this process gives me any rights whatsoever? It gives the neighborhood associations an enormous amount of power, but citizens? We aren’t part of the process at all. Sure, we can sign petitions, send emails, shout at meetings, but in the end it adds up to nothing. I was in favor of both Starbucks and Chipotle, and so was literally everyone I know, yet we had no say.

      As I said above, the way to “give the power of approval/rejection right to people most impacted” is to allow the free market to sort it out. If the impacted people don’t want a certain business it will soon go out of business, right? What’s wrong with that?

      The idea that it’s better to keep places vacant for years rather than allow chains to come in is just plain wrong. It’s hurting the community.

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    • Paul Allen says:

      And regarding the ulterior motives many people ascribe to the neighborhood associations, a huge part of that is because so many of you own local businesses. How convenient that you almost always decide to keep the chains out. It couldn’t possibly be because you don’t want them competing against you, right? It’s all about what we want… Yet public opinion polls showed that we wanted Starbucks and Chipotle.

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      • Jpciudad says:

        Paul, to Mark’s point, you can always get involved with DTNA or EVNA if you don’t think the current board represents you correctly.
        That’s how you can make change happen with these neighborhood organizations.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

        • Paul Allen says:

          Yeah, I know I can get involved. My point is, it’s not a good, working, democratic system. You literally have to PAY to vote with the EVNA (which I’ve done). I am not eligible to join the more powerful DTNA. And on important issues, like Chipotle, literally only 18 people voted. If you think this is a good system for representing the needs of the neighborhood, I would have to respectfully disagree.

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  12. Paul…you do have a voice and power….and the city hears that voice on these types of issues through the neighborhood groups…and neighborhood groups are open to anyone who lives/works in the neighborhood…it requires you get involved…no ones gonna come to your front door every time a decision has to be made, and no one says you’re gonna get what you want just because you want it…we live in a democracy…and we have to participate. the volunteer members in these groups are trying their hardest to publicize meetings, get information out and invite people to give their opinions- YOU are the neighborhood group….there’s your power and your

    I don’t agree with your assertion that most people in the neighborhood groups are business owners…have you ever been to one? I go to every EVNA meeting and most members I know are residents….Castro Merchants is by default all business owners because it is a merchants group….At EVNA and the Merchants group I personally voted for Chipotle and would have voted for Trader Joes if I’d been here….empty storefronts are more a result of landlords looking for top dollar rather than angry, competition killing, conservative old business owners from neighborhood groups as you might think…

    Let’s go have a coffee….I’ll be happy to answer your questions…

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

    • Paul Allen says:

      YOU SAY, “it requires you get involved…no ones gonna come to your front door every time a decision has to be made, and no one says you’re gonna get what you want just because you want it”

      Wow, this is really condescending. Why do you assume I haven’t been involved? Why do you assume I’m waiting for someone to come to my door? And why do you assume I think I’m gonna get what I want just because I want it? The fact is I have been involved – as involved as this broken system lets me be. The people making the decisions hear what they want to hear and do what they were predisposed to do in the first place. All this “listening to the people” is merely theater.

      You talk of democracy, but this is about as far from democracy as you can get. Your EVNA makes people literally pay to vote! And what assurance do we have that you actually adhere to the votes anyway? None that I can see.

      YOU SAY, ” I don’t agree with your assertion that most people in the neighborhood groups are business owners…”

      I never asserted that most are business owners. I said “so many” are business owners, which is true. It’s a conflict of interest, plain and simple. Business owners, especially retail business owners, should be banned from any committee that decides on planning issues.

      And regarding empty storefronts, there are plenty of chain stores that would love to rent them. But you and your kind won’t allow it. The old Home restaurant would not be vacant today if you hadn’t blocked Chipotle, and the space Starbucks wanted to occupy would not be vacant had you not blocked them. Sure, we would all like thriving local businesses to occupy every space, but if those tenants don’t come forward, then it should be criminal to block a qualified chain store. A chain store tenant is better than no tenant at all.

      And of course landlords want top dollar. Why on earth shouldn’t they? Who are you to tell them they need to discount their property just to fit your ideal of what the neighborhood should be? How absurd.

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

    • Paul Allen says:

      Apparently my response has been censored. Not sure why.

      Let me just summarize by saying, despite your assumptions to the contrary, I am as involved as the system allows me to be. The system is FAR from democratic, requiring people to pay to vote (which I have now done), and with only a tiny handful of people actually doing so (18 on the Chipotle issue). And I never said “most” neighborhood association members are business owners, I said “so many” are. In my opinion it is a conflict of interest and retail business owners should be banned from planning committees that seek to block chain stores.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  13. Fixitbehr says:

    Sounds fishy…considering his past, maybe he realizes that the HM franchise will be shot down. They he can place the blame on keeping the Patio closed on the City and the Castro residents instead of being blamed himself. And he still has his tax write off and we still have a vacant store front.

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  14. Peter says:

    “Why is Chestnut Street so nice, without street people and filled with interesting shops and restaurants and Castro looks tired with drunks, mentally ill, and drug addicted running the street?”

    Because we Castro residents have been remorselessly inculcated with the belief that “quality of life” is a bourgeois, entitled, classist, Republican construct — to such a degree that no one dares to mention it anymore.

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  15. Castro Resident says:

    This is one of the best discussions I have seen on this site in a while. It is interesting that the HM situation has unlocked some major issues.

    Some thoughts:

    Castro Street has deteriored to the point that we are is at a tipping point. The community should use the street remodel as an opportunity to rebrand the street. It is not the the Castro of the 1970s any more. We have to figure out how to take the best of the past, and mature. The gay community, in my view wants to be buttoned to the past, but not achored there. Our community has matured, is diverse and welcoming. Surely there is a way to take the best of all of it.

    It is discouraging to me that we are discussing and using public dollars to talk about rainbow crosswalks when we have real issues: the homeless situation is unsolved and getting worse, our public amenities like Jane Warner Park have been taken over by small “special interest” groups, store fronts are of very low quality or poorly maintained. Stores are empty for decades. This in spite of the fact that our SF economy is very healthy, unemployment in SF is at 5%, very strong by any reasonable standard. Yet we are deciding whether rainbow stripes should be parallel or perpendicular to the curb.

    No one is talking about the effect that the construction on the street is going to have on small businesses that are already struggling. Some may recall that the BART construction down Market Street destroyed certain business districts for decades.

    There is little question in my mind that the formula retail issue is well-meaning legislation that is having many negative unintended consequences. To fall back on suggesting people get involved and that will solve all the ills is a bit naive and simplistic. Most people have very full lives, and work to just keep up with the requirements of their everyday lives. We elect officials to represent our interests – which is not always done to perfection- but is the system we live within. We then inject these one off processes – like the California propostion system, or the formula retail process – which overrides elected officials.

    What I think a lot of people just don’t consider is that running a City like SF takes A LOT of money. Revenues come in from many sources – some of which are sales taxes, payroll taxes and real estate taxes. These taxes pay for things like public parks, roads, dog parks, schools and the improvement of our communities. Empty stores pay for none of these. Well run businesses, that people frequent, pay many these taxes. And, some of these can and should be “formula” retail. I do not understand why the default setting is NO. The default setting should be YES. This is a DEMOCRACY (actually a Republic, but I am splitting hairs). If the neighborhood does not want something, then it springs into action. But a legitimate business, that is honestly run, offering services that the community wants, should be permitted. If we don’t want it, vote with your dollars and it won’t survive.

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  16. Tim says:

    Fifteen years ago, I spent nearly all my non-working, waking hours in the Castro. Now, living so far, far away in the Lower Haight, I rarely set foot there. I’ve out-grown the bar scene, I don’t need a mani/pedi, and there are more unique and better restaurants and coffee bars closer to my home. (Honestly, the Nespresso place is the silliest, most pretentious thing I’ve ever seen.) But today I ventured into the ‘hood to mail a package at PO Plus. It struck me that the Castro is a very curious place right now. It seems like a transitional neighborhood that hasn’t figured out what direction to go in. Right now it feels run-down and, dare I say it, second-rate. But I can’t say what it needs. I hope it never becomes another Chestnut Street. I’m hoping for a gayer version of the Inner Sunset -which IMHO is an authentic, vibrant neighborhood with an incredible diversity of businesses and people.

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  17. brid says:

    Castro Resident: Thank you! Most sensible & cogent piece of writing I’ve read online for a while, and certainly on this site.

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