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An Ascendant Nimby Crowd Threatens the Fun

Ike Shehadeh during the grand opening of his sandwich shop, called Ike's Place, at Stanford University on Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Ike Shehadeh during the grand opening of his sandwich shop, called Ike's Place, at Stanford University on Wednesday, September 8, 2010
San Francisco’s once-playful populace has turned into a phalanx of meddling, whining neighbors

When students return to Stanford University on Sept. 20 for the fall quarter, thousands are expected to line up for a new elective: sandwiches at Ike's Place.

The eatery just opened a branch on campus, two months after its Redwood Shores location became so overwhelmed that only phone orders are now taken. Other shops are planned for Burlingame and Santa Rosa.

These should be joyous days for Ike Shehadeh, the owner, but, as the saying goes, it's complicated.

"I'm eager to be somewhere where we're welcomed with open arms," Shehadeh said.

In San Francisco's Castro district, where the first Ike's opened and became a sensation for its savory sandwiches with quirky names, the eatery has faced a litany of complaints to city agencies about noisy crowds, trash and kitchen smells, and it could be forced out of business. That has angered customers, but critics say it is also emblematic of a larger issue, one that might sound frivolous but has troubling implications for the city's economic future.

It has been nicknamed "the death of fun" — the idea that a once-playful populace has in recent years turned into a phalanx of Gladys Kravitz-style meddling, whining neighbors.

Curtailing the good times could have serious consequences, says Michael Cohen, the city's chief of economic development.

"San Francisco's economy and vibrancy as a city is based on a lot of energetic, talented, educated, young people who want to live here," Cohen said. "San Francisco has to be careful not to make this not a fun place to be."

A recent survey by Portfolio magazine ranked San Francisco No. 6 in its Fun Index of American cities (New York, Chicago and Boston were the top three), with the city making the top 10 primarily for its food.

Trying to quantify any decline in fun is problematic, but examples seem to abound:

In the Mission, neighbors complained about a popular roof deck at the nightspot Medjool , even though it had operated for years, and the Planning Department threatened to impose fines; the once-raucous South of Market neighborhood has been gentrified from the gritty bar and club scene that dominated for decades; and annual street parties have been sometimes banned (Halloween) or slapped into sobriety (alcohol forbidden at the Bay to Breakers 12K foot race).

Some residents are pushing back. Phil Boissiere of Cow Hollow recently helped start the Union Street Enrichment Association, a group of merchants and citizens. The association formed to fight efforts to pacify the neighborhood after complaints against a local pub when crowds watching the World Cup soccer tournament at the pub cheered too loudly.

"It's the not-in-my-backyard people," Boissiere said of those who groused. "They are not open to the bohemian atmosphere that the city was known for."

For Ike's Place, the problems began when four upstairs neighbors complained. The objections led to stepped-up health department inspections, eviction proceedings by the landlord and a recent decision by the Planning Department that the restaurant now needs a different permit to operate, even though it has been in business since October 2007.

Perhaps sensing that a larger issue is at stake, keeping up with the latest in the Ike's case has captured the public's attention. The drama peaked last month when the shop was evicted one morning because of a legal technicality, then saved a few hours later by a different legal technicality. Frantic bloggers blasted bulletins: "Only five hours and 28 minutes left for Ike's!" Followed later by, "Ike's saved!"

Terry Connelly, Dean of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University, said the city had long had a reputation for doubtful feelings toward new businesses. "In San Francisco, a business is guilty until proven innocent," Connelly said.

Rob Black, a vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said people developed strong bonds with their neighborhoods and wanted to hold onto the version of the city they first fell in love with.

"There are community groups that would like to see the city covered in amber and stored," Black said.

It is a view that does not bode well for any upstart business like Ike's. A newly formed Facebook campaign is trying to persuade Shehadeh to move from the Castro to the Lower Haight neighborhood, but he believes he would face the same backlash from residents there.

As his company thrives, Shehadeh doubts he will keep his corporate headquarters in San Francisco. "We'll probably be moving out of the city," he said.

It's just no fun dealing with all the hassles.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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