Launching Surf Spot more than four years ago has brought me into contact with many aspects of Pacifica life and the trials of opening a large business here. While some of the struggles and adventures would have been present in any community, a few are unique to Pacifica or similar smaller coastal cities.
Geography weighs heavy on any potential project in Pacifica. California's Coastal Commission maintains tight control over any construction on the west side of Highway 1. Surfers are generally supportive of their efforts as the protection of the coast translates directly to protection of the ocean as well.
But Coastal Commission decisions take time, so I chose to ignore that side of the highway for my project.
Sunny valleys are also part of our geography. The weather is appealing to a restaurateur, but if there is one thing we have all heard it's "location, location, location.”
Your location has to suit your concept but perhaps more importantly, the location you select will determine how many people see your business, how easy it is to get to and park at.
The Corral Steakhouse was a classic example of how difficult our geography can make it for a new business. Local and deeply talented chef Brent Heckerman launched a menu and style of restaurant that was dead on for Pacifica. Executed very well and presented by a friendly and professional staff, the concept was great.
It was the isolation and lack of exposure that brought on The Corral's demise. When The Corral closed its doors I had to really think about the viability of good food in Pacifica. I resolved to find the perfect location for my vision.
But before choosing that location, I realized I was going to need partners.
Moving to Pacifica only eight years earlier, I knew I would need a partner who was born and raised here. Local knowledge of the land and the community is crucial to cultivating the kind of place people want to spend time in. I also needed someone with a sense of style who could make things happen.
One day, while standing in a surf shop, I found that person.
I lived in Sharp Park, and I loved the original Logshop location with the rattan furniture, giant saltwater tank and the red devil skate room. When the next incarnation of the Logshop came on in Linda Mar, I decided to whom I was going to pitch the restaurant: Tait Cowan.
My pitch went something like this: The restaurant will be made from things I feel are missing in town—a comfortable outdoor space with fire pits and heating, diverse ethnic flavors with vibrant seasonings and aromatics, a menu that changes all the time so a customer will come back again and again and live music.
Tait dug the notion of a really fun, exciting place to hang out in town and we began crafting some of the specifics. Steve Long, a long time friend and collaborator, and I went to work on refining the ideas into what Surf Spot will present in just a few months.
Land is what we needed. Land and money. Of all the potential properties and buildings we considered, one always came back to the top: The old Gem Patio building in the parking lot of Sea Bowl. Thus began a year of convincing the partners and investors and eighteen more months of negotiating and wrangling over a deal that would enable the business to grow and thrive. David Szeto was the third piece to the puzzle.
After two and a half years, I was on my way.
David knows partnerships are by nature difficult and sometimes painful. Many marriages start with a prenuptial agreement and our very complicated relationship needed to be structured and vetted to the upmost standards for everyone's comfort. I believe laying out exactly what everyone is responsible for and what will happen should something go sideways is the best way to prevent an implosion later.
What came next is two solid years of back and forth over plans and codes.
That was just the first two and a half years, and there would be two more before we came to our present situation, perched on the brink of final construction.
Before you start typing in the comments about how screwed up P-Town politics and bureaucracy are, let me say I acknowledge the dysfunction and it would be dishonest to say there were never glitches. Across this nation of ours you will find municipalities just like ours, struggling to build or rebuild a business base and evolve the way they do things to move forward in the ever-changing economy. But top on my list of reasons for writing this piece is to dispel the common perception that the city of Pacifica and all of its dysfunction is why the process took so long.
What worked for Surf Spot in this process was the flexible positive approach we took. This allows a city government to work with you and address your project’s needs. Believe me, the city wants more commercial entities to be built and for existing ones to thrive. A huge slice of our budget woes are a direct result of our lack of new businesses and empty storefronts.
That said, when I presented the vision of Surf Spot to the Pacifica Planning Department for the first time, I could tell this would not be an easy process.
Renovating an existing building into a restaurant is one of the most complex endeavors one can undertake in the business.
Kathryn Farbstein was the city official I dealt with that day and I found her to be helpful from the very start. Listening carefully to where she thought the most challenging issues would arise, I made notes and worked with my partners to address the items one by one.
Farbstein's advice allowed Surf Spot to make a presentation to the Planning Commission that sailed through with unanimous approval.
"City staff wants to encourage commercial projects to help the city of Pacifica economically and to provide amenities and services for the residents of and visitors to Pacifica," she said.
Michael Crabtree told me some time after the Planning Commission meeting that our presentation was one of the more thorough and organized he had seen and that this made it much easier for the commission to approve. We came with visual aids, a clear and concise explanation of the project and our goals, and a posse of supporters, all of whom helped the project attain approval. The organizers of Surf Spot were careful to address neighborhood and municipal concerns in our presentation and integrate any changes required into our vision for the restaurant.
Once the project was approved, the business of designing and building began and, as I mentioned, our project was a complicated one. The single most helpful factor in that process was that we were willing to give and take during exchanges with the city planners. They worked with us to point out problems in our design and suggested possible solutions to ensure we were in sync with all the codes.
George White, Mr. Crabtree's replacement as planning director, came into his position amidst a swirl of rumors surrounding the approach he would take. Four separate people approached me to say he had a "more progressive attitude" and "fresh start approach.”
Meeting with White when writing this article, I found this to be true. White emphasized his desire to partner with existing and new businesses to find solutions and to facilitate economic growth. Bringing jobs and revenue to the city of Pacifica is his focus.
But, there was one glaring exception to the positive, helpful approach exhibited by city staff in the building department. To be entirely fair, I have to emphasize that it was not the people involved but the structure of the process that stood in our way.
Doug Rider, Pacifica's building official, is a straight shooter who is adept at helping correct drawings and providing suggestions to bring them up to code. There was one problem, however: Rider is not a full-time employee of the city. He’s an employee of a company based in Redwood City and works in Pacifica just two days a week. He is available to Pacifica residents by phone, but the reality is he has to see the plans to answer specific questions.
Piled on top of that obstruction is the fact that plans for building in Pacifica must be submitted to an outside entity that is paid to find code violations and is not directly invested in helping achieve Pacifica's goal of stimulating economic growth in our community. An "in house" building official would be able to provide the same cooperation and support the planning department provided.
Preventing the need for repeated plan submissions by working with projects to resolve code violations thoroughly and giving more flexibility to the building department to allow conditional approvals would be the benefit of an in-house building official.
Resubmissions require costly printing and create a cumbersome dynamic which spurs a volley of responses as the plan checkers issue requests and the architects review and redraw plans. Never exactly sure of the details the plan checker is looking for, we "fixed" drawings only to be told upon resubmission we did not make all the changes or the correct changes.
Pacifica would benefit immensely by having Doug Rider as a full-time building official and plan checker, especially if he was in-house, but the sad reality is that it cannot afford one. But Surf Spot and other new businesses will provide increasing revenues for the city of Pacifica and will help us toward that goal.
George White said he would love it if we could see the type of economic growth required to fund a full-time building official. Maybe some day we will get there.
Meanwhile, I am putting out a call to all of you who think you have a project that would be perfect for P-Town. Go for it. Do not let fear of the system or rumors of entrenched city officials get in your way. Refine your vision, talk to and listen to the planning department, and remember to work as partners, not adversaries.
Surf Spot is finally under construction, so watch us build and if you are interested in details about the project or want updates we will be posting items on Twitter and Facebook as we get closer to opening. Look for opening events to begin before the end of the year.