The street that defines and divides the face of San Francisco has been reinventing itself for the better part of a century — but always to no avail. Is this time different?
Last November, David Addington was working the register at Showdogs, his experimental upscale sausage restaurant at the corner of 6th and Market, then only a few months old, when a man he recognized came into the restaurant, approached the counter and grabbed the full tip jar. Addington, acting quickly, grabbed the man’s shirt in turn.
The shirt tore and, as if in shock, the man’s pants fell to his ankles. He was not wearing any underwear. There were about 40 people in Showdogs at the time. “And what are those people going to remember? The great lamb sausage or the fact that this man’s pants fell down while they were eating?” Addington asks. “This isn’t appetizing, appealing, good for the neighborhood,” says Addington, the frustration apparent in his voice.
Last October things were better for David Addington. Last October the Atlanta-bred real estate developer had legislation snowballing through San Francisco; a proposition that would, he hoped, turn this neighborhood around. If all had gone according to plan, Proposition D would have allowed for lighted signage and general advertising, the kind explicitly banned throughout the city, along a troubled three-block stretch of Market Street. If all had gone according to plan, Addington says Proposition D would have earned Mid-Market an estimated $100 million for neighborhood improvement projects and community betterment.
But that was 2009, and this is not. This was before Prop D faced hefty opposition and was voted down by 56 percent in the November 3 election. This was before the muralist working on a public art project at one of Addington’s properties was stabbed and robbed of his art supplies one afternoon. And this was before Showdogs was robbed by the pantsless neighborhood man. David Addington keeps trying to push back against the street, and the street keeps pushing back at him. “Sometimes,” Addington says, “I compare our struggle to Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the mountain.”
This is the friction you see in a neighborhood in flux. And sometimes it looks like a man with his pants around his ankles in a busy upscale hot dog restaurant.
The problem has eluded city government and planning, property owners and realtors and the neighborhood population as a whole for decades: What to do with Market Street? How to get past that friction and make it through to the other side?
San Francisco’s once Great White Way long ago became its most visible central den of inequity, lined with the city’s most embarrassing social and criminal problems: drugs, homelessness and prostitution. One hundred fifty years after Market Street was first carved across the city, redevelopment and rebeautification efforts have failed these six blocks time and again. “It really is sort of like the picture of Dorian Gray,” says Executive Director of activist group Livable City Tom Radulovich, “hidden in progressive San Francisco’s attic.”
For such a progressive city, San Francisco has been slow to make many changes in its urban plan. The city has grown less than 10 percent over the last 30 years and residential vacancy rates are miniscule. The city’s unique embrace of direct democracy, its culture of consistently well-attended planning meetings, makes even real estate intensely political and hotly disputed. “The city wobbles between crackdown and complacency,” says Radulovich. For as many times as mid-Market has been re-made, it’s also been neglected as the various parties involved disagreed about what to do.
Central Market is hardly the only neighborhood hit hard by blight. Retail vacancy throughout San Francisco has recently shot up to 13 percent, with office vacancies closer to twice that. About a quarter of mid-Market’s retail space is vacant, and some estimates put its entire vacancy rate close to 40 percent.
To deal with the issue, San Francisco has tended toward stop-gap measures that appeal to the city’s upper cultured class, such as the Art in Storefronts campaign, which dressed up empty store windows to make the neighborhood feel less barren, and hopes to encourage foot traffic on the block closest to Upper Market’s bustling shops. One of the installations showed a deep-sea diver reading a newspaper with headlines about foreclosure and the recession. Bubbles floating up from his painted helmet, the diver drank in the news, safe from drowning.
Market Street has perhaps always been fated for controversy. When city planner and engineer Jasper O’Farrell first designed the street, the widest in the city at the time at one hundred and twenty feet across, it sparked a riot among local landowners. Calling the street an infringement on their rights as owners of the Market property, they organized a lynch mob. The 30-year-old O’Farrell, warned of the danger, retreated for several months to Sonoma.
That was in 1846, when San Francisco was still called Yerba Buena. In the century that followed, O’Farrell proved those property owners wrong. Market Street thrived as the burgeoning city’s arts and entertainment mecca, lined with retail and restaurants among grand theaters, the pulsing central artery of a growing, vital, increasingly important American city. Even after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fires that destroyed much of the city, a great portion of Market’s current architecture was designed and built. The street itself was torn up again in 1918 and ’38, and still repeatedly throughout the ’40s and ’50s to perfect the in-ground streetcar tracks.
Then San Francisco’s priorities changed. In the 1960s, car culture overtook America’s new middle-class suburban society. The new nuclear family wanted pleasant roads to drive, parks to visit from their polluted and cramped lives in the city, and national planning trended toward roadside beautification. In 1965, the city set San Francisco’s biggest thoroughfare, Market Street, in their crosshairs, and banned major signs of any kind all along the street. Then came BART. The street became a gaping maw from 1967 to 1972 as the vast underground train network was installed beneath it.
The issue was hardly solved over the next decades. Mayor Dianne Feinstein pledged to remake Market Street yet again in the ’80s, and the road was once again torn up — this time, for a $50 million development plan which installed redbrick walkways and rows of spindly trees. The surface improvements helped the northernmost blocks of Market Street recover, but mid-Market never bounced back. The restaurants folded or moved to more desirable areas; storefronts were boarded up as retail closed; formerly grand cinemas devolved into adult movie parlors, then strip joints — if they were lucky enough to avoid police raids.
In 1995, the city formed a Mid-Market Redevelopment Committee and spent the next decade surveying the area and crafting a plan to revitalize it. Backed by the Planning Commission, the plan went to the Board of Supervisors, where it was met with hasty and harsh criticism from local property owners and neighbors. Activist and Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Randy Shaw and District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly were particularly outspoken in their criticism of the plan, which they said would “bulldoze” the neighborhood and help property owners more than residents; for its part, the city claims the plan would earmark 40 percent of redevelopment funds for affordable housing. Any hopes for the mid-Market redevelopment plan died unceremoniously in committee in 2005 — the plan never even received a vote.
While politics had failed the neighborhood, hopes were high at the zenith of the real estate bubble in the early to mid ’00s, with cash flowing and private developers licking their chops at Market’s potential. Massive neighborhood projects, from Mint Plaza at 5th Street to the mixed-use condo and retail development Crescent Heights at 1455 Market, broke ground. Tech money flowed freely and the real estate bubble grew, and more and more investors sunk cash into mid-Market. But this was aggressive investment. “The developers were kicking out tenants and holding onto properties for speculative purposes, holding out for deals,” says Radulovich of this period.
Then the real estate bubble burst. Developers previously flush with cash and credit found themselves broke as banks tightened their purse strings. Residential plans for CityPlace mall were scrapped. These days, 1455 Market is still just a hole in the ground while Crescent Heights developers scramble to raise new funds.
Some developers, such as Urban Realty and David Addington, took advantage of lower mid-Market prices. Addington bought the Warfield and nearby 1028 Market in 2005 and immediately set about crafting a measure that would allow for the return of big advertising to Market Street, a measure that became Proposition D.
“None of Prop D would be necessary if we could get a $250 million grant. Then we could buy the theaters and rehab them, we could redo the storefronts, and it would all be without advertising,” says Addington. “But it’s not going to happen that way. We have to find a way where the neighborhood can afford to do this on its own.”
The measure proposed creating a special district allowing for lighted billboards up to 500 square feet in size — exactly the kind of signs explicitly banned throughout San Francisco. The proposition garnered the support of five members of the Board of Supervisors, the non-profit San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (which first initiated the sign ban in the ’60s), and even Shaw.
Ultimately, between strong opposition from preservationists and non-profits San Francisco Beautiful and Livable City, Prop D failed with 46 percent of the vote.
“Almost 65 percent of the neighborhood agreed with us,” says David Addington. “But there are people in some of the outlying neighborhoods who didn’t agree. I just don’t think they realize what we deal with day to day and, you know,” he pauses. “I suppose if I lived at the top of a Pacific Heights co-op, I might not realize how tough it is at 6th and Market.”
Just south of the Westfield Mall and the Powell BART station, the northernmost part of what is generally considered mid-Market has some things going for it. A smattering of discount retail, from Marshall’s to Payless, and some successful fast food, a Carl’s Jr., a Donut World. But Urban Realty’s vacant properties weigh heavily on Market between 5th and 6th. The Warfield is similarly quiet. David Addington’s Showdogs, sits gleaming, all windows, at the northwest corner of 6th.
Still, obvious blight abounds; Merrill’s at the corner has been empty since 2004, and 1023 looks sad and dirty, awaiting legally required expensive upgrades. The Federal building and Civic Center dominate the landscape between 7th and 8th, which is, for the most part, quieter than the northern blocks. Between 8th and 9th, and 9th and 10th, things pick up a bit, with some surviving restaurants, corner markets and single room occupancy hotels.
Throughout the blocks there are a few working theaters turned strip clubs, some marginal and often-changing retail, plus some non-profits taking advantage of the affordable office space to serve marginalized or needy communities.
“It’s where we store a lot of the social services that no one really wants in their neighborhood, but that are all essential things for the city. But the concentration of them here hurts this neighborhood,” says Radulovich. The Homeless Services Coalition, San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Social Security Administration, among others, are all located on mid-Market.
The neighborhood more or less shuts down after the government and nonprofit employees leave. Even when big shows hit the Orpheum Theater, patrons walk briskly to and from BART and their cabs — no post-show dinner or drinks here.
“Market seems to have always been a common no-man’s land of major businesses, big theaters, hotels, and furniture stores instead of integrated with a neighborhood well,” says Greg Proefrock, an architect and MBA candidate at the Presidio Graduate School. “Shit goes wrong when no one is watching.”
While some of these buildings are empty for lack of repairs, many are actively for sale or lease. But there aren’t many buyers willing to put down upwards of $5 million for a building that hasn’t seen tenancy since the Clinton administration, or take on a huge expensive and time-consuming historic renovation project.
High rents are relatively low for one of the most expensive cities in the country, but still too high for many small businesses; even when those businesses do materialize, retail in marginal communities such as mid-Market is traditionally plagued by a multitude of other problems, including marginal clientele. They go out of business. The space sits for another year, waiting for a new tenant.
What often looks like blight is a vacant market priced too high to clear, with some owners underwater on their mortgages and potential tenants either unable to come up with the rent, or unwilling to spend it on mid-Market.
It is a complicated problem with a rich and sad history — but one that, David Addington insists, “is shallow.” And, some say, nearly solved.
The economic recession may have killed some of the loftier, credit-driven projects along mid-Market, but it has also forced property owners with bills to pay to make the most of their investments by cleaning them up and renting them out. This neighborhood is primed for change, and tenants are already signing leases in hopeful mid-Market moves.
The Warfield is set to house the three-story home of an uptown outlet of the Mission’s art-house-cum-eatery Foreign Cinema, and Blick Art Supplies will move in to the south side of mid-Market at 989, near where rival Pearl Paint used to reside at 969. Finishing touches are being put on the Superior Art Museum at 1025-1029 Market, where two former two-story commercial buildings that have been joined with an ornate pristine white facade; inside, vines cover the ceilings and creeks run through the floors.
After ten years of renovation, 1035 Market is also complete, and the ground floor is occupied by an art gallery — the building recently took out an ad congratulating itself on hundreds of new leases in its last 12 months on the market.
And though there’s still a long way to go, the San Francisco Police Department has stepped up beat patrols in the area, with a new mid-Market district that some residents say is making a difference.
Nearly 4,000 units of housing are still coming to the mid-Market, Tenderloin and SOMA areas, as well as hundreds of thousands of square feet of new office, retail and restaurant space to serve those new residents — positive nighttime uses that the neighborhood so desperately needs after the local government and non-profit employees clock out at 6 p.m.
All of this is more promise than mid-Market’s had in any recent memory — but for now, that’s all it is. The three CityPlace lots are boarded up, along with the first floor of the Grant building; 973, set to be new condos, is covered in dusty scaffolding; 1127, the former Strand theater, is also set to be new condos, but it stands as closed up as ever, next door to 16-year-vacant lot. These game-changers may be in the pipeline, and they may have the cash to make it to the finish line, but in San Francisco, and in this economy, projected completion dates of 2012 quickly turn into 2015.
Urban Realty owns much of Market Street between 5th and 6th: 901-919; 925; 935-965, the three-parcel future site of CityMall; 966, 972, 974-976. Altogether, CityMall’s Market Street investments total more than $150 million; the CityMall properties alone were last valued at more than $25 million.
But these are drops in the bucket for Urban Realty’s primary backer, the $25 billion investment firm Commonfund.
“Mid-Market is primed for a new beginning,” says Urban Realty Development VP David Rhoades. “Urban Realty and our partner Commonfund are taking on the risk of investing in the neighborhood because we’re confident that with the right concept we can succeed there. ”
Still, Rhoades refers to CityPlace as a “leap of faith.” CityPlace has no delusions about its address: Urban Realty are looking to find “value-based” tenants for the mall, shops that will appeal to San Franciscans who shop in the suburbs — ones who might drive and park at the structure’s massive parking garage. It is Urban Realty’s stated intent to eventually also replace the buildings at 966, 972, 974-976.
For now, though, the company is wealthy enough to sit on that portion of their mid-Market investment, waiting to see how redevelopment shakes out before committing to one plan for the properties.
Fitting, then, that the next plan to save Market Street and restore its former glory is banning cars, and that it may very well be successful before CityPlace ever pours the concrete for that garage. San Francisco is strongly considering a ban on many forms of traffic along downtown portions of Market Street.
Reactions to a pilot program of the idea have been very positive, the SF MTA says. Sustainability advocates say even this will change the tenor of the street, and could lay the groundwork for a major public space project akin to the Broadway pedestrian zone in Manhattan — a public space that San Francisco sorely needs.
Still, says Radulovich, it’s not all about cars — other holistic infrastructure improvements are needed. “It’s always been some gimmick,” says Radulovich. “We’ve tried everything but making this a really great livable San Francisco neighborhood.”
A veteran of several planning and neighborhood commissions, Radulovich suggests street-level additions to create a more welcoming environment: a return of metal benches, landscaping, a revitalization of facades and filling storefronts, getting rid of roll-down gates and metal shutters and creating a full and lively streetscape and life more conducive to pedestrians.
“Green-pods, landscaping at eyelevel, places to sit,” Radulovich rattles off examples. “We do need some major interventions here but we need a lot of smaller interventions that start dealing with these sad public spaces.”
For their part, San Francisco Beautiful lays the blame for mid-Market’s current state squarely with the city. “This neighborhood requires political leadership that transcends an opportunistic initiative.”
Perhaps this is why a new promise from the mayor’s office to partner with local property and business owners to facilitate change in the form of $11.5 in federal grant moneys on mid-Market is especially meaningful to some. The grants would make it easier for small businesses to open and run on mid-Market.
“People are pretty much in agreement in the notion that this area needs additional resources,” says Planning Director Rich Hillis. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s stated longterm plan is to have mid-Market redevelopment resurrected and rolling in about two years.
Other city hall plans include adding more space for the arts by helping existing institutions to expand and finding space for new groups, and possibly adding an art or antiques market to U.N. Plaza, in an effort to recreate the Heart of the City Farmer’s Market magic. “The biggest hurdles will be where tax increment funding is focused,” says Hillis. “And,” he adds, “making everyone happy.”
But creating that idyllic central city artery, the one a nave Jasper O’Farrell dreamed up more than 150 years ago, might come down to one variable missing from the equation, one that has eluded both uninterested politicians and opportunistic private developers for decades: housing.
“I don’t know if there is a way to make (Mid-Market) happen without people living there,” says Radulovich. Compared with the rest of San Francisco, the area is relatively devoid of housing. The majority of mid-Market’s buildings are zoned commercial — retail, office space.
There are a few hundred units between life-work lofts, single room occupancy (SRO) hotels and rent-controlled apartments, many with long-time tenants. These relatively few tenants aren’t enough of a presence on the street, though, or in the mid-Market economy, to sustain restaurants and other “positive nighttime uses.”
“I think the City needs to develop good family housing or high-end downtown professional housing on both sides of Market in order to make it desirable to better businesses, round the clock,” says Proefrock.
With the addition of 4,000 new units in the forms of Trinity Place, the Fox Plaza addition, Crescent Heights and other planned projects, an influx of new San Franciscans might move in to the surrounding neighborhoods, people who inherently care about what happens on mid-Market after dark, people with the dollars to lure in those elusive cafes and bars.
Unfortunately, even when those units go up, it might be a while before they fill; the San Francisco new luxury condominium market is all but flooded with empties going for lower and lower prices.
Mid-Market has been patient this long — why not just a few years more? But for his part, David Addington won’t be waiting. He’s moving his family to mid-Market next month.