Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Levi's, Jet bar projects win approvals


An artist's rendering of the planned Levi's store in the Castro. Courtesy Levi Strauss & Co.
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Plans to open a Levi's store and expand the bar Jet in the Castro are moving forward after winning approval from the city's Planning Commission. A proposal to expand Walgreens' specialty pharmacy on 18th Street, however, has stalled after a city planner failed to endorse the project.

In other Castro business developments, both the Patio Cafe space and adjacent storefront on the 500 block of Castro Street are nearing completion. Property owner Les Natali is working with the LGBT Community Center's economic development staff to lease the properties, and he has begun the hiring process for Toad Hall, the 18th Street bar formerly known as the Pendulum. Natali is hopeful to have the bar open by November.

The Levi's store at 525 Castro Street and the expansion of the Jet bar at 2348 Market Street into the vacant space next door both easily won approval from commissioners in June. Levi Strauss & Co. is awaiting work permits to begin construction on the storefront, which formerly housed Castro Video.

"We are gutting the space, everything from the floor to the ceiling," said Levi's spokesman E.J. Bernacki.

The store opening comes amid reports that the jeans maker could relocate outside San Francisco when the lease on its waterfront headquarters complex expires in 2013. The company plans to open its first neighborhood boutique shop in time to coincide with Folsom Street Fair weekend in late September.

While the commission signed off on the store at its June 12 meeting, as of this week, Levi's was still awaiting final approval to start construction.

Bernacki said that the company is still "hopeful" it will open on time, "but it all hinges on actually getting the building permit issued. It's taking longer than we had expected it would."

The Castro store will be "different than any other store we have out there. It is a real departure from our Union Square store," added Bernacki. "The storefront will be much more in keeping with the architecture of the neighborhood. It will be reminiscent of the neighborhood's history."

The interior of the 1,900 square foot Castro space is expected to include iconic images of the Castro's gay residents wearing the company's button-fly 501 jeans.

"Very few neighborhoods have the history with this company that the Castro does," said Bernacki.

With the national retailer moving in next door to his building, Natali told the Bay Area Reporter this week that he would also like to see a name brand store lease his storefront at 541 Castro Street. The building initially had two retail spaces divided by the entrance to the residential apartments above and was home to rainbow-colored steps popular with camera-toting tourists.

But Natali removed the steps in order to lower the store entrances to street level to provide for wheelchair access, and in the process, he combined the stores into one 1,500 square foot space.

"We are thinking that Abercrombie or Apple or a similar tenant would be successful in this location," Natali wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

As for the Patio Cafe space, shuttered for nearly a decade, the center's staff is also showing the space to prospective tenants, according to Natali.

"We're looking for a restaurant operator with a Mel's Diner type of menu – reasonably-priced, satisfying food that everyone can enjoy and visit often. And it has an outdoor patio dining area," he wrote.

Ken Stram, the center's economic development director, showed both spaces to brokers during a June 30 tour of vacant Castro storefronts. He said both sites have generated interest but did not name any retailers who may be interested in them.

He said Levi's success at generating support for its store has shown brokers that it is possible for a national chain to move into the Castro. The key is having a retailer with a proven history of supporting LGBT issues and the local community, he said.

"The message from brokers consistently was that a lot of their clients want to come into the Castro, but because of the formula retail debate, they didn't think of it as an option," said Stram. "I think Levi's showed that LGBT people pay close attention to those companies that do support our community and would welcome them coming to the Castro."


Walgreens executives discovered this firsthand as they spent the last year pushing a plan to expand their pharmacy space on 18th Street into the vacant Laundromat next door at 4127 18th Street. The company's perceived lack of giving back to the neighborhood and broken promises that it would not seek more space in the Castro led to lukewarm support for the project.

The Castro merchants group backed the plan after critics secured money to pay for new carpeting of a meeting room space. The Eureka Valley Promotion Association members narrowly voted to oppose it.

Last month, city planner Michael Smith threw what could be a fatal wrench into Walgreens' plans when he recommended that the company not be granted a conditional use permit for the project.

Smith said after discussing the proposal with planning department officials it was decided that the company already had acquired enough space in the Castro – it takes up four storefronts already with its specialty pharmacy on 18th and its store on Castro Street – and that its proposal to include a community education/meeting room would not generate enough foot traffic for adjacent businesses.

"We thought Walgreens had an overwhelming amount of street frontage in the district already. We don't want to see that increased," said Smith. "There are alternatives for this. We recommended that Walgreens do a joint venture in the neighborhood with a nonprofit and provide the space on a second floor."

Todd Horton, Walgreens' district manager for its specialty pharmacies in San Francisco and on the Peninsula, said the company would come back to the commission later this year but did not specify a date.

He said he and his colleagues are reviewing Smith's recommendations and evaluating how to proceed. One possibility under consideration, said Horton, is using second floor space above the pharmacy as opposed to ground floor retail space.

"We are reviewing all of the facts in his proposal and looking at our next steps. We hope the community will be able to benefit from our extended services," said Horton. "We know there is a group that doesn't want the enhanced healthcare services we are proposing but also hope we can go forward with the project."

EVPA President Steve Clark Hall said many residents have expressed a desire to see the company walk away from the space or allow a nonprofit to utilize it until its lease option expires, similar to the agreement Washington Mutual made with the GLBT Historical Society allowing it to open a temporary exhibit in the old Ritz Camera space at the corner of 18th and Castro streets.

Writing in the EVPA's monthly newsletter, Clark informed his members that at least four other parties have expressed interest in occupying the Laundromat space and that the neighborhood group's planning committee will be "looking into possible courses of action for the EVPA in this matter."

Bar projects' progress

Another long-stalled project is finally coming to fruition now that the Planning Commission signed off at its June 26 meeting on Jet bar owner Greg Bronstein's proposal to enlarge his establishment and build an outdoor smoking area.

Bronstein has wanted to expand the bar ever since he bought it in 2001 when it was called the Detour. Legal wrangling with Natali over the sale of the business kept him from reopening the bar as Jet until 2006, and this year Bronstein said the time was right to proceed with the expansion.

His plans call for building a recessed smoking patio in the adjacent space and soundproofing the interior walls to keep noise levels down. The current dance floor will be expanded somewhat and a new bar will be constructed. He also plans to remove the metal gate fronting the existing bar space and replace it with a new backlit facade.

It is unclear how soon construction will be able to proceed or how long the project will take. Bronstein could not be reached by phone and did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment for this story.

Natali's new bar space on 18th Street, across from his other bar the Badlands, has also faced delays, with proposed openings continually being pushed back. It has also gone through a name change of late.

Natali had installed a sign naming the spot the 18th Street Bar and put up a much-ridiculed rainbow awning but earlier this year replaced both with a more subdued sign for Toad Hall. The original Toad Hall was located at 482 Castro Street, which is now part of Walgreens, and its facade was recreated for the biopic Milk about the late openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk, set for release this November.

The bar's name is likely to draw in tourists inspired by the film to visit the Castro, though Natali said the naming is serendipitous.

"I registered the Toad Hall name for that location in 2005, years before I knew about the Harvey Milk movie. I was a customer of the original Toad Hall on Castro Street in the 1970s and always thought Toad Hall was a terrific bar and a great name," wrote Natali. "The original Toad Hall was a cutting-edge bar. Toad Hall was to San Francisco what Stonewall was to New York."

When the 18th Street spot was the Pendulum, the bar catered to a primarily African American clientele. Natali's closure of the bar in August 2005 was met by suspicions he had done so in retaliation against accusations that he engaged in discriminatory business practices at his other establishments.

Natali, who spent years refuting the charges, eventually entered into a confidential agreement with his accusers to settle the matter in which he reportedly agreed to adhere to policies ensuring everyone would feel welcome at his bars.

As for the new Toad Hall, he wrote that it "will also be a cutting-edge bar, promoting diversity with music, dancing, and a friendly welcoming atmosphere for everyone 21 and over."

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