"We would have to send someone to confiscate your toaster." Aaron Starr / xtranormal

A New Year’s resolution for cities: Quit drowning small businesses in outdated red tape.

Let’s end the year on a slightly libertarian note, with a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution for cities: quit giving small business a hard time.

Over holiday drinks, a Cambridge restaurateur told me the story of how he removed caramelized Brussels sprouts from the menu after complaints in the building about the smell. There wasn’t a code about that as far as they could tell, but with rules about everything from awnings to bathroom door handles, management wasn’t taking any chances. Better just to nip it in the sprout.

At the place I’m staying at through the new year, the On the River Inn in Woodstock, Vermont, I inquired why we had the elegantly appointed bistro and bar all to ourselves. Only guests allowed, replied the bartender, because if they want to be open to the public, a specific number of excess parking spots are required. It’s the first time the arcane law has been tested in 40 years—the hotel is the first new building in town in that time—but there’s no opportunity to re-assess the Long Trail Ale-to-parking ratio. The entire enterprise is subject to many regulations a half-century old.

It’s as if as soon as there is activity in an urban setting, local government springs into action to regulate it. Cities and towns are well-known for imposing all kinds of of rules and codes, a great maze to be navigated both in the creation of buildings and their occupation and operation. On a proportional basis, the tight control exceeds anything decreed at the state or federal level.

So it was with great interest that I learned of an initiative in one of the regulatory regime’s most guilty parties, San Francisco, to loosen up a little bit. And the rebellion, to its great credit, began in the Planning Department.

Director John Rahaim was among those who saw a mismatch between small-business entrepreneurs and the city bureaucracy. Permitting and licensing was dizzying in its complexity, and yet the people that had to engage in those processes were among the least knowledgeable or prepared. The regulations governing the establishment of a small café, for example, were particularly Byzantine.

Whether in an act of satire or sheer sympathy, planning staffer Aaron Starr decided to reveal the absurdity of it all by creating an xtranormal video, "Hello City Planner," to illustrate what happens when someone wants to open a little place of their own.

“Hello, city planner,” says the prim and hopeful female avatar. “I’m a small-business entrepreneur with an exciting new restaurant concept. Are there any planning issues I should be aware of?”

“Great,” replies a bespectacled bureaucrat in a green cardigan and necktie. “San Francisco wants small business entrepreneurs to open new and unusual businesses to keep our city dynamic and unique … what type of restaurant and where?”

The two engage in an eerie but strangely compelling exchange, reminiscent of a play by Sartre. Counter or waiter service? Any food in disposable wrappers? This will determine the classification of a full-service or small or large fast-food restaurant.

The woman’s chosen neighborhood, Haight-Ashbury, allows full-service restaurants, but only with conditional-use authorization, which takes between four to six months to process and costs about $4,000 in fees.

“Wow, that's a long time and expensive. I don't think I can afford the rent on an empty space for six months,” she says.

She is asked how big the space is; 1,000 square feet is the critical threshold for what type of establishment it would be. When she replies that it is 1,200 square feet, she is told it doesn’t matter, because neither one is permitted in the neighborhood. But she could open a coffee shop.

“Could I sell sandwiches and bagels at a coffee shop?”

“Yes, as long as they are pre-packaged and not toasted,” the planner says.

“So I could sell bagels as long as I don't toast them or put cream cheese on them, and sandwiches as long as I don't make them on-site or put them in a sandwich press?”

“Yes,” says the planner. Otherwise, “we would have to send an enforcement officer to confiscate your toaster.”

How about ice cream?

“Only if it is served in a cup and not a cone,” deadpans the bureaucrat, in a voice somewhere between Siri and the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Otherwise we would have to send in an enforcement officer to confiscate your ice cream cones.”

(Spoiler alert: at the end of it all, the entrepreneur says perhaps she should just keep her job as a waiter.)

“The conversation in the video is similar to conversations I had had with members of the public at the Planning Information Counter, so the dialog basically wrote itself,” says Starr. “I guess you could call it satire, since I took some liberties to help bring home the point and get a laugh, but most of what is in the video was true. We never confiscated ice cream cones or toasters, but we did have enforcement planners go out to coffee shops to watch people unplug their toasters to correct a violation.”

The video went moderately viral, as these things go in the Bay Area. And then it spurred action. There were 13 definitions in the Planning Code for eating and drinking uses, and a new ordinance was introduced to reduce that to three. The video was a critical tool in convincing a wary public that the rules—many of them established to “protect neighborhood character”—had become unnecessarily complicated. The restaurant definitions were outmoded and needed to be completely rethought based on current realities.

“I strongly believe that without showing how absurd these definitions were we would not have been able to get community buy-in on the proposed new definitions,” Starr says. “The humor was disarming and the video proved to be an effective way of illustrating our point.”

And he’s not done yet. The planning team is currently working on an ordinance that would simplify the planning code by consolidating all uses into one section of the code—currently spread over four different sections—and otherwise making the code easier to use and understand.

The hope is “this will be good for the public as well as for business, and will hopefully result in less confusion regarding this city’s land-use controls,” Starr says.

This is without question part of a larger wave that San Francisco is catching. The city recently announced a new portal for business owners to make life easier all around.

And good for them. Too often, codes are the product of NIMBYism or entrenched constituencies—for example, fire departments demanding that all streets be a certain width. They’re outdated, they ossify over time, smother healthy competition and innovation, and get gleefully enforced by egomaniacs who bless permits with the benediction of their signatures.

Cities have so many other things to focus on. I’m reminded of the Pink Panther film where Peter Sellars asks a blind peddler if he has a license to play the accordion, while a bank robbery ensues in the background. Let’s lift the yoke, and then we can truly toast the times gone by.

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