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Last Street Standing
Lauren Smiley | Photo: Stephen McLaren | February 24, 2014
The scruffiest thoroughfare left in S.F. is transforming—one contested high-rise and storefront at a time. But the battle of Mission Street is far from over.
The turnaround on Mission Street started with the most insidious of Trojan horses: food and booze. In 1999, Colleen Meharry leased a building to sleek Foreign Cinema, across the street from her father’s ’50s-era Miz Brown’s Country Kitchen diner. “The district was so horrible at the time that I needed to put something in so that people couldn’t shit, sell drugs, or hook in front of [the building],” Meharry says. “It was the first decent thing that had gone into the Mission in 25 years. The big complaint was that the Mission was getting gentrified. I asked my sister, what does ‘gentrification’ mean? She said, that means it’s getting better.” Not everyone agreed. An activist self-christened the “Yuppie Eradication Project” urged people to key the SUVs of dot-com diners and vandalize newcomers like the Beauty Bar, which had replaced a working-class dive bar at 19th Street. In 2005, Maverick became a beacon of pork belly and mimosas at 17th Street; restaurants like Gracias Madre, Commonwealth, and Southpaw BBQ followed. “They’re like, ‘Maverick did all right, we can hang on Mission, too,’” says its owner, Scott Youkilis.
It wasn’t a smooth ride. In 2011, only a block from Mission, Gaspar Puch-Tzek, a line chef at Youkilis’s Hog and Rocks, was shot and killed while standing outside on a break, apparently mistaken for a gang member. Youkilis was shaken, but undeterred. “I’ll take a stance and say I’m on the side of safety and the well-being of others,” he says, “and if I have to open a restaurant to do that, that’s what it will take.” He opened the soft-glow Hi Lo BBQ in a former Filipino community center on 19th Street last year.
Rent on Mission is still much lower than on Valencia Street, a block away, but it’s climbing, and some see Mission Street as the retail equivalent of an endangered species preserve. One neighborhood activist calls it “our Nile,” a fertile river sustaining the low income residents in the neighborhood. Chris Block, of a citizens’ advisory committee for the eastern neighborhoods, admits that the street could use some gussying up, but he stops at that. “Mission Street,” he says, “isn’t broken.”
But it could be much more profitable. The new money that has made the Mission the city’s gentrification ground zero (tech moguls have moved in, and it has the most evictions in the city) is starting to encroach on the street. Joggers—yes, joggers—stride by the jingling ice cream carts and pawn shops. Landlords are holding businesses to month-to-month leases if they’re lucky, and pinging them with $3,000 rent increases if they’re not. Mission Chinese and Stuffed are peddling the street’s gritty-chic cuisine. The Touch furniture store, fresh off a Valencia rent battle, glows on its seedy block like Cate Blanchett in her sister’s low-rent Blue Jasmine apartment. Hacker spaces and startups have popped up next to fruit stands, luxury condos next to taquerias. And techies have networking drinks in the U.S. Bank building at 22nd Street.
The Mission’s Latino population dipped to just 38 percent in the 2010 census, and some longtime merchants are seeing their business decline as the district becomes whiter and wealthier. “They’ll eat and drink in this neighborhood, but they’re not going to shop in this neighborhood,” says Siegel’s owner, Michael Gardner. Aside from a few holiday parties, techies don’t wear suits, let alone zoot suits. In the era of Instagram, they don’t take glamour portraits at Dore Studio, and they don’t buy sparkly high heels at Bonita Trading Company. O.K. Corral has started carrying American Western wear to appeal to white customers, as the Latino patrons who bought Mexican brands have moved out of town. Marco Senghor says that the exodus has also included the bohemians who frequented his three funky Senegalese bars at 19th Street. He sold one to a restaurant called Dr. Teeth. The higher-end clientele flocking to the Bollyhood Cafe throws down more money—but is also pickier. “You had a classic car, now you have a Ferrari,” Senghor says. Or, in his case, a soon-to-launch food truck.
Calls are coming into formerly dusty Mission real estate offices from speculators who used to ask about SoMa or mid-Market, but now want Mission. “One buyer says, go find sellers—I’m interested in this building, this building, this building,” comments longtime Mission real estate broker Mark Kaplan.
If the first dot-com boom was “a slow Southern Pacific,” as community organizer Roberto Hernandez puts it, “this is the high-speed rail.” The question is whether the city’s most fascinating street will be rolled over in the process.
3. PLAY BALL OR PAY THE PRICE
On a November afternoon, Bert Polacci, who handles public relations for Maximus Real Estate Partners, ambled into Lolinda, the cavernous steak-and-ceviche house that recently replaced Medjool as the grandest culinary outpost on Mission. With his gray mustache and a sweater vest buttoned over his ample girth, he could have been central casting’s version of a robber baron.
In recent weeks, Polacci had been working the Mission to pitch the 16th and Mission project. He’d met with Tejeda at Chile Lindo and with community groups recommended by District 9 supervisor David Campos, who himself had showed up at one of the meetings. Polacci had come to Lolinda to make a PowerPoint presentation to the Mission Merchants Association. His speech was met with applause from a couple of pro-development attendees and a torrent of dissent from community organizers.
The Mission’s community groups are among the most formidable foes that developers face anywhere in San Francisco. Tim Colen of the Housing Action Coalition, a pro-development think tank, says, “It’s the rare [Mission] project that doesn’t get opposition— much of it quite vehement and quite bitter.’’
Community groups and nonprofits across the city have long tried to extract a pound of flesh from developers by lobbying progressive supervisors and making use of planning hearings, environmental appeals, and ballot initiatives. If they can’t kill a project outright, they can try to stall it until it runs out of money. What makes Mission activists particularly effective is that they hold potent race and class cards and are experts at using the city’s tools for dissent. Many cut their teeth with the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition (MAC), a response to the first tech boom, in the late ’90s. “There’s an army of us,” says Hernandez, the fedora-clad producer of the Carnaval parade. His activist bona fides date back to the ’80s, when he led Mission Street low-riders to fight a police crackdown on their cruising strip. “After the dot-com industry came like a train wreck, we learned a lot. So we know the process really, really well now.”
That leaves developers two paths: the hard way and the savvy way. Vara, the gleaming 194-unit apartment complex at 15th Street, started the hard way in the early aughts. The initial developer, Armax International, “didn’t give a damn about the community—[it] just went forward full force,” says Hernandez.
After MAC opposition, the San Francisco Planning Commission rejected the project. In 2005, Armax was forced to make 20 percent of the onsite housing affordable instead of the 12 percent then required by law. What did it get in return? “That we supported it,” chuckles Christina Olague, a former District 5 supervisor who was the Planning Commission president at the time. When Eric Tao’s Avant Housing bought the faltering project in 2008, he agreed to repave the parking lot of the nonprofit next door and redo the playground at the nearby elementary. “You’re doing what the community wants so they don’t fight it,” Tao says.