In 2016, Jose Castillo’s dream of opening a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco seemed close to coming true.
Castillo had found a location in the Outer Richmond—on the same block as his family’s taqueria Chino’s—and filed a change of use permit with the city. All that was left was to convert the shop, previously a dry cleaner, into a small dine-in eatery. Castillo commissioned an artist to paint the restaurant’s name, Cielito Lindo—which roughly translates to “lovely sweet one” in English or, as Castillo says, “little pieces of heaven”—on the storefront’s windows.
But the process of opening Cielito Lindo was anything but sweet.
In fact, it took Castillo four years and three months to open his restaurant’s doors. And it cost him more than $150,000 in rent—money he borrowed from friends and family and still needs to repay. (Cielito Lindo officially opened to the public in Oct. 2020.)
And while Castillo accepts much of the responsibility for how long it took to launch—he says he underestimated the cost to open by many tens of thousands of dollars—he also points to San Francisco’s onerous and confounding permitting process as a huge roadblock. He describes it as “going from window to window to window” and getting no answers.
In San Francisco, small businesses are expected to navigate a permitting process that involves securing dozens of permits from up to 14 different city, state and federal departments. It’s a process that often takes months or over a year to complete and that can saddle small business owners with debt as they pay rent on empty storefronts. The process can be so convoluted that some businesses even hire professional permit expediters. Instead, Castillo credits individuals like Balboa Village Merchants Association founder Marjan Philhour and building inspector Joseph Duffy with eventually helping him navigate the city’s complicated permitting process.
Proposition H, a ballot measure that passed in November, seeks to streamline the process by mandating the completion of most permits within 30 days. The legislation will be operational beginning Jan. 19, according to the Mayor’s Office.
Yet, the jury is out on whether the new measure will actually work as intended. One discussion already taking place within the Planning Department, according to senior planner Bridget Hicks, is whether the 30-day countdown to approve a permit begins immediately after the permit is submitted, or only when the permit is “complete and accurate.” “Because in many cases, permits are submitted with something wrong,” said Hicks.
Hicks said the Planning Department is working hard to streamline the permitting process, underlining the inequities of an existing system where “the more experienced you are with it, the easier it is.”
“It doesn’t have to happen this way,” said Castillo of his business’s long journey to opening. “It’s just bureaucracy.”