Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mojo Bicycle Cafe's Remy Nelson and Divisadero's New Parklet

Sommer Peterson, (l), president of Divisadero Merchants Assoc., and Remy Nelson

Sunshine makes it all even better

Much-needed bike parking along Divisadero

Cooperative effort brings San Francisco's first parklet to NOPA

This morning Mayor Gavin Newsom, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, other elected officials, livability advocates, Divisadero merchants, and neighborhood leaders will celebrate the city's first "parklet" outside Mojo Bicycle Cafe. Newsom previously described the mini-pavement-to-parks initiative as a chance to "slow down the day" and allow people to "pause and reflect and connect with one another." For Remy Nelson, owner of the hot spot cafe on the busy Divisadero corridor, those ideals led him to devote the last three years to get to this point.

On a warm, sunny afternoon earlier this week, Remy recalled for BIKE NOPA how the cafe and bike shop came to be and why it had to be on Divisadero. We sat outdoors in front of the cafe but not on the new sidewalk extension, the parklet -- it was already filled with neighbors and customers chatting, reading, and texting with cups of coffee nearby.

"It all sort of started when John and I were sitting at Zeitgeist several years ago," Remy said, referring to John McDonnell, co-founder of Mojo Bicycle Cafe and one of the operation's top-notch mechanics. "We thought wouldn't it be cool to have a place like that and repair bikes for customers too." Remy completed his college studies and began his career as a hydrologist working for a large corporation. He was living at Grove and Broderick Streets then, but he wasn't happy with his everyday routine. "I got tired of the commute, the setting was too corporate," he explained, "and I didn't like never seeing how my work affected anyone."

Remy left the corporate world and the neighborhood to travel for a year in 2004. After he returned to San Francisco, a casual conversation with his dad about his plans for the future led to thoughts of starting his own business. "I thought wouldn't it be cool to be a good boss and make a difference." A realtor friend of his dad's found the building where Mojo Cafe is today. "I told them it had to be on Divisadero." Remy had returned to the North Panhandle neighborhood, and it was important to him to locate his business nearby.

The building, located on the west side of the street between Hayes and Grove, originally had a plumbing store in its storefront and later a beauty parlor and an architect's office. "It needed a lot of work," Remy recalled. "We put a year and a half into the remodeling." (Photos of the cafe and remodeling here). Today Remy says he had no idea what he was doing, but he was the architect and the project manager for the project and steered the work through all the bumps along the way, including the maze of city permits. "I thought 'how do I do the next three steps? Let me get those done and then I'll see what's next." Mojo Bicycle Cafe opened in 2007 just as a revitalized Divisadero corridor was in the works.

Both Remy and John brought related experience to Mojo. John was previously the manager of the Pacific Bike Shop on Geary Street, and, for awhile, Remy worked for him as a mechanic. Remy also undertook a cross-country bike tour and served as the mechanic for 120 other cyclists. Although he hadn't operated a business before, he had racked up a lot of experience managing people during his corporate stint.

Remy also serves as vice-president of the Divisadero Merchants Association, a group that has helped encourage new businesses on the street as well as the makeover near completion today. "I think it's fun to work with the board," Remy remarked, "but I'd like to see more cohesion among the merchants on the street."

As for today's focus on the new sidewalk extension, Remy said the main reason the wooden platform, the landscaping, and the bike racks are outside his business is because it is a good location with a cooperative business willing to maintain the space. Remy also brought to the project his work with the merchants' group, his involvement with NOPNA, the neighborhood association, and early, collaborative relationships with Supervisor Mirkarimi and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. " But Remy emphasized that anyone can sit a spell at the new mini-park, "even if you bring your coffee from somewhere else."

Remy gives a lot of credit to the city for making it all happen so quickly with cooperation from the Mayor's office, the Planning Department, the Public Utilities Commission,and the Department of Public Works, the SFBC Great Streets Project, and the generosity of RG Architecture, Bison Deck Supports, Flora Grubb Gardens, and dozens of volunteers. "Just a few months ago," Remy recalled, "Ross (Mirkarimi) pulled everyone together and said let's do it." And they did. Stop by the cafe today for the mayor's press conference at 11:30 and linger awhile "to slow down the day."

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