Upperquad Office Expansion May Not Be Allowed Under Divis Zoning Laws

Upperquad Office Expansion May Not Be Allowed Under Divis Zoning Laws
The former location of Michael's Pit Stop. Photo by R. A. Schuetz/Hoodline
By R. A. Schuetz - Published on January 08, 2016.

When we learned that former Divisadero corner store Michael's Pit Stop, which has been closed for renovations for 10 months, is turning into office space for Upperquad, some readers questioned whether the change complied with zoning restrictions.

"So, did they get a zoning variance? Do they not need one? Are they expanding into the space legally or not?" commented Jason

The short answer? It's a question of whether or not the marketing and design firm serves the surrounding community.

Every zoning district specifies what uses are permitted on which floors. Both the space Upperquad currently occupies and the space it is expanding into are part of the Divisadero Street Neighborhood Commercial Transit District, which allows most retail businesses that provide goods and services to the surrounding neighborhoods on the first floor. (There are a few notable exceptions, such as liquor stores and adult entertainment, and certain retail businesses require a conditional use hearing; you can see the entire list of permitted uses here.)

According to the planning code, an administrative service, defined as "a nonretail use which provides ... services exclusively to the business community and not to the general public," is not allowed. 

However, offices that offer services to neighborhood residents as well as businesses, the way an architecture or a real estate office might, are permitted along Divisadero—you can imagine some foot traffic stopping in to inquire about a remodel or an agent.

So which category does Upperquad fall under?

The company, which advertises itself as providing "strategy, design, marketing and technology services to unthinkably large companies and the just-getting-started"—its roster of clients includes Google, Youtube, Github, Facebook, Pinterest, and Square—definitely provides services to the business community.

But the firm has not yet responded to emails and phone calls requesting clarification as to whether its offerings, which their website breaks down into "Brand," "Interactive," and "Development," are a service to the general public in addition to startups and tech giants.

The building owner, Arther Leung, does not believe the zoning will be a problem. "It's not zoned just for retail," he said. "If it was an issue, it would have come up already."

However, Gina Simi from the Planning Department confirmed that if Upperquad is indeed an administrative service—that is, if its services are only for the business community—then it is considered a nonconforming use. She explained, "Nonconforming uses cannot expand or enlarge, so they would not be permitted to take over the Michael's Pit Stop location with their current operation."

If that's the case, Upperquad would be vulnerable to a planning code violation complaint unless it receives a variance, which is an exception from the zoning rule that requires a public hearing.

We'll keep an eye on this one, and update readers when we know more. 

Update 1:49pm: An enforcement case looking into the expansion of Upperquad's office use was opened on January 6th; it is now under review.

Update 10:40pm: Upperquad founder Phil Ruppanner emailed to clarify the company's offerings: "Our services are available to anyone: big, small, around the corner or international. We’ve had a chance to work with many people in our community (artists, a cake shop, writer to name a few) and are excited to continue to do so."