When local medical cannabis dispensary SPARC opened its elegant glass doors in SoMa six years ago, it was greeted with design awards and a flattering nickname for its chic aesthetic and professional atmosphere: the "Apple store of pot." But a Lower Haight expansion of SPARC has proved more contentious, pitting local business owners and organizations against each other amidst a background of rising rents, questions of neighborhood character, and even allegations of threats and intimidation between business operators.
SPARC announced plans for its second retail location at 473 Haight Street last year. "We're really excited about taking the existing model and aesthetics of the original space and making it a smaller and more efficient operation," SPARC founder and president Erich Pearson told SFist at the time. "It'll be all the same elements and materials, with some refinements — white oak counters, a similar but slightly different facade. It should be a nice addition to the neighborhood." The Lower Haight Merchants and Neighbors Association, or LoHaMNA, agrees and supports the business, but according to one merchant dozen local businesses disagree with that stance, with some saying that LoHaMNA doesn't speak for them. SPARC contends that the opponents in the neighborhood number less than five.
With 150 signed letters of recommendation on the part of neighbors, as well as 150 more signatures from the immediate neighborhood achieved through outreach since last year, SPARC opened its "Farm Direct" cannabis pop-up several weeks ago. But one particularly vocal opponent of the location is, problematically, next-door business owner Azam Khan. Although a previous dispensary was already permitted at the location, the proprietor of Love Haight Computers has filed an Application for Discretionary Review to be considered at a Planning Commission meeting this week, blocking SPARC's anticipated remodel.
"We believe that the operation of any MCD (Medical Cannabis Dispensary) in the Lower Haight district of San Francisco will be counter productive to the advancement of the neighborhood," Khan writes in his application, adding that "The smell of cannabis and the presence of an MCD adjacent to Love Haight Computers cause Love Haight Computers to appear unprofessional in a trade that demands professionalism." Khan, however, assures SFist he is not anti-marijuana.
Unperturbed, SPARC spokesperson Joel Freston told Hoodline last week that "SPARC was issued a permit to operate by the Health Department on June 20th, 2016," and it's already proceeded to do so with Farm Direct. "[Farm Direct] is a simple, straightforward concept that allows us to bring a quality product directly to our local patient base ... [with] a curated selection of locally sourced cannabis."
The space's previous occupant, Good Fellows, was a smoke shop with a license to sell medical marijuana that's grandfathered in and now applies to SPARC. It's unclear to what degree the business bothered Khan, who insists he still has a positive and even close relationship with its former owners. His complaint, instead, is this: According to Khan's knowledge, Good Fellows' rent was raised from just $2,700 to more than $10,000, leaving the business no choice but to fold. At that point, Khan claims his landlord assured him that the next tenant would not be a marijuana business, a promise that turned out to be false. Kahn then claims he started a Boys & Girls Club program in his basement, but SPARC contends he only did this in preparation to oppose their permit.
Khan's Application for Discretionary Review of the project claims that Good Fellows was only partially an MCD, and that a full MCD should be treated as a separate matter. Across the street, Glass Key Photo owner Matt Osborne explains his objection to Hoodline. "There's a city loophole that they've been able to exploit that allows them to be, in this case, 509 feet away from an elementary school. The city ordinance is 1,000 feet from schools. If this was being treated as a new application, there's no way it ever would have been approved."
Supporters, of whom there are many in the neighborhood, say that SPARC will provide a safer environment for medical cannabis sales, with a proven track record of security in SoMa. Tomorrow's hearing promises to bring together all of these players, and although the sale of cannabis is not even on the agenda — it's merely the remodel which is to be considered — the event promises to be a heated one.
One major local figure, a part-owner and worker at Lo-Cost Meat and Fish Market (498 Haight Street) will be there to spearhead the discussion as "block captain," according to Khan: Pierre Pegeron, celebrated as a hero after he noticed a nearby fire in 2011, raising the alarm and helping to evacuate residents according to an article at the time in Haighteration. A longtime resident of the neighborhood, Haighteration quotes Pegeron as saying "if we all help each other, then this place is going to be a better place."
SPARC's Pearson, however, has found someone who appears to be Pegeron to be less invested in neighborhood unity, and even threatening. "Various employees of SPARC and community members have been threatened with violence by a few of the [Discretionary Review] requesters. Specifically, a gentleman by the name of Pierre." Pearson declined to identify Pierre by his last name. Four different SPARC employees have separately reported that this same person has approached the business threateningly in the last two weeks, on four separate occasions, vocalizing threats against the business including "blowing the place up."
"In an effort to ease tensions we waited to report these incidents to law enforcements — until they became increasingly violent," he says. SFist has contacted SFPD to confirm the specifics of these allegations. "We find it a sad irony that those requesting [Discretionary Review] are the same people perpetuating this violence," Pearson concludes.
Pegeron disputes that characterization. "I would never threaten anybody, that's not me," he tells SFist. "For me to hear this, that shows me how underhanded they can go." Instead, Pegeron feels disrespected and ignored by SPARC. "My issue is I've been here 40 years. I know the history. I'm Native American, French, and African American. When SPARC came in, they said they reached out... but they didn't reach out to my community."
Like Khan, Pegeron associates marijuana with the area's history of drug use and violence and is concerned about its effect on local kids who might consume or resell it. "All I wanted [SPARC] to do was listen about the history of this place. Listen about how we came from being the drug capital of San Francisco and we got it all cleaned up... Good Fellows got robbed so many times it wasn't even funny. But [SPARC] don't want to listen to the history of it and they don't want to bring in the race thing, cause it doesn't affect them."
Meanwhile, Lo-Cost Meat and Fish Market may soon find itself another changing aspect of the Lower Haight business community. Last year, Hoodline observed that the business' location was listed as "for rent" at $25,000 a month, a significant rent increase spells doom for Pegeron's business, though that could go down if there aren't any takers. "I've got two years left on my lease," Pegeron confides, "and I know good and goddamn well my rent is gonna go through the roof. Then, I'm out. It is what it is here in San Francisco. I had a good run," he says, "I've seen a lot."
If the retail space does change hands, who's to tell how the neighborhood will change? One clue might come from that rental listing for what's now Pegeron's Market. "Corner Store Front - Used to be Bank of America with vault still intact... Excellent location for 'medicinal marijuana Dispensary'."