Small Businesses

Get Started

Overview

If you are planning to start, renovate, or expand a small business, or change the type of business operating at an existing business location, you will probably need a permit. Depending on the scope of work and zoning district of your property, your project may be approved and the permit may be issued “over the counter,” or it may require a more thorough review process, including several pre-application and staff review steps.

Obtaining a Permit

There are six basic steps required for a construction or renovation project or a change of use in San Francisco.

By the Applicant By City Agencies
Visit or call the Planning Information Center Permit review
Understand what is allowed Permit approval
Fill out building permit forms and pay fees Inspection (by the Department of Building Inspection, Fire Department, and, if you plan to serve food, the SF Department of Public Health).

The City’s Zoning Ordinance describes what types of businesses are allowed in each zoning district. For any location at which you plan to operate your business, you should first find out its zoning and permitted uses to determine whether your business can be approved there. To find your zoning, please visit the Property Information Map or call the Planning Information Center at 415.558.6377.

Environmental Review

Most development projects and permit applications are required to undergo environmental review to determine whether they will cause environmental impacts to the City of San Francisco and its residents. There are several levels of environmental review, depending on the size and nature of the project, which can range from projects for which no review is needed, to small projects that can be evaluated over the counter,to those requiring an environmental impact report that may take a year or more to complete. As part of the Planning Department’s review of your permit application, staff will determine what type of environmental review is needed for your project and will provide you with information about the fees and time required to complete the review.

Some actions are exempt from (that is, by law they do not require) environmental review; these generally include small-scale new construction or demolition, some changes of use, and some building additions. A list of types of projects that are exempt from environmental review, known as Categorical Exemptions, is available here.

Notification Process

Project with new construction or building expansion, as well as applications for change of use to some types of businesses, require notification to the public before permits can be reviewed and the project can be approved. Following the Department's review of your building permit application, a 30-day notice describing the project must be provided to all owners and occupants within 150 feet of the property and to local neighborhood groups. For some projects, a pre-application meeting is required as well. For a Conditional Use application, a hearing before the Planning Commission is required, and all property owners within 300 feet of the property must be notified of the hearing.

For additional information, including a list of the types of projects that require notification and a detailed guide to the process, see the Neighborhood Notification General Planning Information Handout.

Community Business Priority Processing Program (CB3P)

Some businesses require a Conditional Use Authorization (CUA) from the Planning Commission, depending on the type of use and location. For example, new restaurants or cafes in some Neighborhood Commercial zoning districts require a CUA. The CBP3 program streamlines the CUA review process for certain small and mid-sized business applications and provides a simplified and efficient system to help you open your business sooner.

Projects that qualify for and enroll in the CB3P are guaranteed a Planning Commission hearing date within 90 days of filing a complete application, and placement on the Consent Calendar. To determine whether your planned business is eligible, please read the CB3P checklist.

Resources

  • Business Zoning Check – Visit San Francisco Planning and Symbium’s BUILD for Business zoning check to easily determine whether your proposed business is permitted in a specific location. Don’t have a specific location in mind? You can also search for all areas it’s permitted in San Francisco under applicable zoning regulations and find detailed information on required process and applicable programs.
  • San Francisco Business Portal – our City’s primary online business resource for help with starting a business.

Provided below are the most common handouts and applications that will get you started on your project.