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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.
1. “COMMUNITY” COMES FIRST
In late October, an email from a developer’s public relations person popped into Paula Tejeda’s in-box. The email was written in Spanish—an obvious ploy to curry Tejeda’s favor. The writer claimed that she used to live in front of Tejeda’s shop (another ploy, local cred being crucial to doing business in the Mission). She wanted to meet with Tejeda to discuss a 10-story, $82 million, 351-unit luxury apartment building that her company was proposing for the corner of 16th and Mission, looming over the BART plaza.
Tejeda runs Chile Lindo, a cozy takeout empanada joint at 16th and Capp that attracts the full spectrum of the modern Mission, from working–class Latinos to street food-fetishizing hipsters. Why did Maximus Real Estate Partners—a name that conjures visions of a merciless legion of Roman centurions—come to kiss her ring? Tejeda is a feisty fifty-something Latina woman, born in New York with a megaphone in her fist, who has resided for the last 30 years in the Mission district. Her shop sits across the street from the proposed development, and she will receive notifications about its city hearings, which will provide her with a very public pulpit. If anyone threatens her survival in the neighborhood, she’ll make sure that everybody—and she means everybody—hears about it.
In short, Tejeda represents something before which even almighty Maximus must bow: the Community.
When Tejeda agreed to meet with the emailer, two eager representatives showed up. They "alluded to the fact that we’re in a position to get something from this," Tejeda recalls. "That this is the time that we, as a community, have negotiating power." The reps explained that in addition to the Walgreens and the Burger King, three small businesses on the plot—a greasy spoon Hunan restaurant, a Vietnamese market, and the Latino-frequented City Club bar—would be bulldozed, but would have first dibs on retail space on the tower’s ground floor. Tejeda replied that she doubted her neighbors could survive a two-year hibernation. But while standing up for her fellow merchants, the street-smart entrepreneur couldn’t help thinking about what was in it for her. The construction would inevitably drive away customers, and the more upscale corner could send her rent sky-high. But it could also be a golden opportunity. The developers were talking about bringing in local businesses. Could she cut a deal to lease some retail space and finally realize her original vision of Chile Lindo—a Dean & DeLuca–style market of high-end Chilean goods?
It would be a game changer for her. But it would also carry risks, not the least of which was the possibility of harming her image in the community, a word that she uses in every third sentence. “In this community you can be a prostitute,” she says, “but you can’t be a bourgeois capitalist, or they’ll all turn against you.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone steamrolling Tejeda. She once outflanked an ADA lawsuit filed against her shop by serving her empanadas out the door (her landlord settled). When an attorney attempted to evict her from the nearby Victorian flat where she has lived for 16 years, she refused to leave. And in December, she stood in a pickup truck blocking an Apple commuter bus at 24th and Valencia, railing to the crowd of activists and reporters: “So many people think that gentrification is good for business! It is not! Your community is the one that supports your business! It’s now that we’re in a position to make demands!”
In the great Mission gentrification chess game, the developers were moving their queen to 16th Street. And Tejeda was sure not going to be a pawn.
2. THIS HAS ALL HAPPENED BEFORE
For decades, Mission Street has resisted gentrification. Even as parallel Valencia Street has become permanently yuppified and high-end shops have crept onto staunchly Latino 24th Street, Mission Street has remained the city’s largest and densest proletarian boulevard, a multicultural equivalent of Chinatown’s Stockton Street. But now, the vital low-rent artery that pulses between 16th Street and Cesar Chavez has become the hottest—and most controversial—frontier of speculation in San Francisco.
A microcosm of the gentrification wars that are racking the city, the Mission Street battle pits developers against community activists and has a volatile ethnic and class dimension: rich white people coming in and displacing poor Latino ones. But in another sense, it’s strictly a money hustle—and the people doing the hustling on Mission Street don’t fall into neat ideological or ethnic categories. If the street does radically transform itself, it won’t be the first time. It’s hard to believe now, but after the 1906 fire destroyed the northern end of Mission Street, the rebuilt boulevard was San Francisco’s most important and competitive retail strip outside of Union Square: a continuous corridor of storefronts like Woolworth’s and J.J. Newberry, with furniture factories and showrooms (nine between 18th and 19th Streets alone) and movie houses bearing grandiose names like El Capitan as anchor tenants. When the street’s prosperity was threatened by post–WWII suburbia, the Mission Merchants Association promoted the stretch between 16th Street and Cesar Chavez as the “Mission Miracle Mile.” (The sign above That’s It Market at 23rd and Mission still reads, “The Center of the Mile.”)
By the ’60s, though, the Mile was far from miraculous. A declining customer base and the rise of malls spelled the end for many of the largest tenants. The working-class whites who had dominated the neighborhood since the 19th century—Irish, Scandinavian, German, Scottish, and Eastern European—were fleeing to the suburbs, replaced by Latinos from Mexico and Central America. In 1950, the Mission district was only 11 percent Latino; by 1970, it was 45 percent Latino—and beset by the problems of other American inner cities: crime, blight, poverty, and a lack of social services.
In 1966, as part of the BART construction to excavate the stations at 16th and 24th Streets, the city planned to create a futuristic highrise village for middle-class commuters along Mission. To that end, it “upzoned” the street to 6 stories—and up to 10 stories at the 16th Street BART plaza. But a growing contingent of Latino activists, having witnessed how redevelopment had gutted the Fillmore, quashed the city’s bid. Bankers and developers, already wary of the Mission—a 1960 community study spoke of its “lack of a wealthy residential class” and “no view that is going to raise the rent”—stayed away. Mission Street remained motley and down-market.
Despite the developer-enticing height zoning, most buildings on Mission still stand at one to three stories. In a city becoming more boutique by the day, it’s here that you find U-Save Discount Furniture, a 99 Cent Bargain Store, and Thrift Town in the course of a single block. They’re joined by Jim’s $10.25 country-fried steak, rhinestone-adorned tops at House of Jeans, photo studios with portraits of quinceañera sweeties, and Siegel’s emporium of zoot suits. Asian fish markets, payday loan sharks, hair salons, and smoke shops line the street like a replicating DNA code. Down toward 16th Street, storefront churches are packed with evangelicals shaking tambourines, while a parade of SRO residents shamble outside. At this sketchy end of the Mile, there are frequent muggings and smash-and-grab robberies, along with occasional shootings.
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.
Which brings us to the savvy way. San Francisco developer Dean Givas knew that he had an uphill slog in front of him to develop Vida, luxury condos in the heart of Mission Street, near 21st. The project had been controversially gifted 20 feet over the 65-foot zoning height limit in a haze of high-profile allegations of city hall cronyism with the initial developer, Gus Murad.
Before he even bought the property, Givas met with Supervisor Campos and a number of community nonprofits. “I’ve never met another developer like him,” says Hernandez, who ended up presenting the project alongside Givas to neighborhood groups. “He’s a man and a developer who was willing to think outside the box and work with us.” Really, such a saint? “He’s a smart businessman. C’mon, we know that.”
Very smart. Givas hired a former Mission nonprofit director as his land-use attorney and commissioned associate architect Sandra Vivanco to imbue the design with Latin influences. Over two years of negotiations with community groups, Givas agreed to buy a plot on nearby Shotwell Street for the city to develop 40 units of affordable housing, dwarfing the 14 units that would have been required within the Vida building. He was already on the hook to pay $1.4 million in city-mandated impact fees, yet the community got him to agree to much more. He donated $150,000 to a fund to help mom-and-pop Mission businesses—to be buoyed with a sales tax on future condo sales. Then, in what the project’s attorney called an unprecedented move by a developer in the Mission, he donated $650,000 to 23 community groups, a strategy that drew sellout criticisms from purists in the nonprofit community and shakedown charges from pro-development forces worried that his philanthropic palm greasing would set a precedent. Next, Givas donated $1 million for the Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain to renovate the long-shuttered New Mission Theater next door into a five-screen dinner-and-a-movie cineplex. The Texans agreed to hire 50 percent of its staff from the neighborhood and to let nonprofits host at-cost benefits at the facility.
The result? Last year, the tallest condo complex yet seen in the Mission—all market-rate—was approved unanimously by the Planning Commission, with 44 letters of community support and one phone call of community dissent.
The building is already under heavy construction, with a crane circling overhead. Asked if it will indeed set a new bar for developers coming into the Mission, Hernandez nods avidly. “Yeah. Oh yeah.”
4. THE ONLY COLOR THAT MATTERS IS GREEN
In December, Louis Cornejo—wingtips, DayGlo tie, a nose that looks like it caught a few right hooks during his childhood in Queens—unlocks the padlock to the vacant Tower Theater. Closed since the early ’90s, it’s a ghostly dump: sloped concrete floor, faded conquistador wall paintings above scrawled graffiti. Cornejo’s Urban Group Real Estate, which he heads with Foreign Cinema landlord Colleen Meharry, handles many of the neighborhood’s larger deals. He forbids me from snapping photos: It would be just his luck, he says, if someone saw something of historical interest and stuck him with a preservation battle.
With Cornejo’s client asking for $13,900 in rent, the building already has enough challenges. The size of the building footprints on Mission—and the specter of a money pit like the Tower—creates a paradox: It takes very rich people to develop a downtrodden commercial street. Cornejo heard that the Jang family trust, which had owned the plot at 16th and Mission, got $25 million out of Maximus. (The sale is not yet final.) “In the last three years, what’s changed in the Mission is that you have big outside money going in,” he says.
That was hardly the case when Mark Kaplan started dealing in real estate in the neighborhood in 1989. National investors were scared away by what they perceived as a near ghetto. “I worked here because nobody else wanted to work here,” Kaplan says. He recalls that the street attracted “mercenary landlords”: low-grade investors who covered the mortgage and made a modest profit from a rotating cast of dollar stores and hair salons. A different type of landlord buying along Mission in the late ’90s was the Cort family, which snatched up the vacant Cine Latino theater and the nine-story bank at the corner of 22nd, the tallest building in the Mission. After the family ousted several Mission nonprofits to move in a tech company called Bigstep, protesters slingshot paint balls at the side of the building—the marks are still visible. “We just call it artwork,” deadpans landlord Vera Cort.
It wasn’t until three or four years ago that a new class of speculators began showing up. Buoyed by low interest rates and a red-hot neighborhood that was gentrifying almost everywhere except for Mission Street, these investors weren’t interested in the street’s grimy status quo—they wanted to see it go upscale. From 2011 to 2013, 17 properties sold on Mission Street, compared to 7 in the three years prior. Kaplan says that the purchasers are betting on rents that haven’t yet materialized—Mission Street rents are about $3 per square foot, as compared to an average $7 on Valencia— with long-term plans to build up to the street’s 55- and 65-foot limits and then sell. Investors are especially interested in one-story, retail-only buildings, because any attempt to demolish the rent-controlled units that exist above many Mission Street retail stores would draw Planning Commission scrutiny.
Phillip Lesser, a major pro-development player whose family roots in the Mission go back generations, has pushed through permits for upscale venues like Tacolicious, West of Pecos, Urban Putt, Ken Ken Ramen, and the Valencia condos with Mission Cheese on the ground floor. He’s waiting to develop his own 85-foot-zoned property, neighboring the 24th Street BART plaza, until he sees if the Vida condominiums are successful. (Its units are expected to sell for close to Valencia Street prices.) Kaplan concurs that Vida is key. “If those succeed, that’s going to wake up a lot of people,” he says.
The market is hot enough already that some people who are rich by most standards are getting outbid. Former San Francisco port director Doug Wong has scooped up five buildings in the Mission. He eyed one at 19th and Mission, but “because I blinked, a guy came and paid $2.3 million. A normal person,” he says (referring to himself, a man who says that he owns 17 buildings in the city), “can’t buy that much real estate. It’s in all cash. I don’t buy in all cash.”
The building’s buyer, according to sellers tracked down by San Francisco, is former Facebook COO Owen Van Natta. Van Natta was briefly on record as manager of Mission Street Ventures LLC, before being replaced by Tom Van Loben Sels, a Silicon Valley tax consultant who is the agent of the LLC that bought Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg’s Palo Alto mansion for him. A property deed lists the corporation’s contact as a woman who identifies herself on LinkedIn as the personal assistant for the Van Natta family.
Van Natta has bought four buildings on or near Mission Street in the last year and is set to buy another. Four of the properties are on the block between 18th and 19th Streets, including the 99 Cent Depot, the Christian Science church, and the Bollyhood bar around the corner on 19th—leaving the Beauty Bar and adjoining Little Baobab bar as the only holdouts on the corner. Kaplan says there’s a plan to turn the 99 Cent Depot into a ramen restaurant. The fifth property, currently under construction, is between 21st and 22nd, directly across from the Vida condos. It’s set to become an office space—a tech incubator, some say.
Van Natta’s broker, Bennett Mason, says, “His idea is a cool thing, contributing to the community and doing something that would make his two daughters proud.”
Jorge Perez, who works at the 30-member Christian Science church, says that he had approached Kaplan about finding a new space for his church. The brokers brought in Van Natta. Perez relates a tale that in any other market would seem unlikely: that Van Natta and the brokers not only looked at the property, but also attended two or three church services. They ended up paying $2 million for the building, according to county records. Perez says they also made a “five-figure” donation to the church, are charging him “modest” rent, and have promised to help with renovations at the church’s new location.
“It’s not just the money involved,” says Perez. “It’s the goodwill they are showing to us.” He opens Miscellaneous Writings by Mary Baker Eddy, the Christian Science founder. “I just want to read these two lines to you. ‘When the heart speaks, however simple the words, its language is always acceptable to those who have hearts.’ I feel they are speaking through their heart to us. I’ve been very blessed by them.”
The Christian Science church isn’t the only long time Mission staple to be so blessed. Take the long-vacant discount store next to Gracias Madre at the corner of 18th, its clock tower stuck at 5:36 for three years. Even in-the-know onlookers have been puzzled as to who owns it. The answer walks into the Tower as Cornejo is inspecting it: Guadalupe Hernandez.
Hernandez wears a crocodile belt, Velcro shoes, and a handlebar mustache (none ironically). Since emigrating from Nayarit, Mexico, in the late ’80s, he and his brothers have accumulated an empire of four produce markets, including El Chico Produce Market #4 on 24th Street. “You can’t hide your money under the bed,” Hernandez says. In 2010, they bought the 20,000-square-foot property at 18th, planning to create an organic produce spread rivaling the Berkeley Bowl to lure in the gentrifiers—plus a bakery, butcher shop, and taqueria, like a Mexican market. They’d turned at least 10 speculators away over the past two years.
Then came Mark Kaplan, who saw the potential of the corner lot to draw people down the 18th Street gourmet gauntlet from Dolores Park and protect Van Natta’s expanding empire down the street. He tracked down Ricardo Hernandez, Guadalupe’s brother, at the 24th Street market and made several offers before landing on $5 million—for a blighted property that the Hernandez brothers had bought for $1.4 million.
Guadalupe Hernandez is cautious with words, but his eyes sparkle as he sits in the back office at the 24th Street market, a wooden rendering of the Mexican flag on the wall, two cash trays stacked before him on the desk. Was he surprised to receive an offer that he’d sell for? “You know, I was. I don’t regret the decision.”
5. EVEN NEWBIES CAN WIN OVER THE NEIGHBORS
For every tale of local fortunes being made, there are many more like those of Acaxutla, Charanga, and El Herradero— Latino-owned restaurants that closed after their rent was hiked or they were required to make renovations that they couldn’t afford. Mike’s Fashion, a fluorescent-lit shop sandwiched between a liquor store and Bruno’s bar that sold discount jerseys and spandex tops, was one of the many businesses on the street held on a month-to-month lease when the landlord put up a Craigslist ad for the property.
Fresh out of a low-income women’s business incubator program and with a small business loan in hand, Kelley Wehman and her business partner thought the place would be perfect for a new type of store on Mission Street—a furnishings shop with a vintage, hipster aesthetic: Carousel Consignment SF.
Wehman, a slight, friendly 36-year-old personal assistant, is part of the artistic crew that gravitated to the first hipster bars pulling into the Latino Mission: Pop’s, the Make-Out Room, Amnesia, the Latin American (“before it became super-über-hip”). But like early fans who move on when their favorite band goes mainstream, she’s grown disillusioned with Valencia. She says that Mike’s landlord told her he was looking for a “cool” or “interesting” business—but she suspects that was code for “Ka-ching! This cool new business is going to come in and help gentrify the Mission.” (The words that he used over the phone to me were “stable” and “permanent.”)
Wehman started drawing visitors as soon as she exposed the old tin ceiling that had hung over Mission Villa (the longest-running Mexican restaurant in the city, it predated Mike’s) and painted her turquoise Valencia-esque facade under Mike’s sign. “A lot of the neighboring businesses looked at us and saw a couple of white chicks,” Wehman says. So she started a subtle public relations campaign—keeping her door open, letting old folks sit on her vintage chairs to wait for the 14 bus, allowing kids to use her phone to call their parents. The store’s price points are much lower than those on Valencia, and she sees herself as helping out locals trying to make a buck—many consign furniture as they move out of the city. Little by little, the neighbors have warmed up. The liquor store owner next door advised Wehman to board up her storefront for the 49ers play-off game in case the neighborhood rioted.
Sometimes Wehman’s landlord—a guy who grew up two blocks away, his Polish father running a furniture shop on Valencia—will come up from San Mateo to tour the revamped store. “He says, ‘This looks really good, girls. We should have charged you more rent.’”
6. MONEY AND FLOPHOUSES DON'T MIX
Peter Chin had had enough at the Radha Hotel: the drug dealers, the prostitutes he suspected of paying off the manager to admit johns. “I couldn’t deal with those people,” Chin says. The Hong Kong–born immigrant had worked his way from line cook to landlord of 10 buildings in the city. He bought the SRO, smack-dab in the center of the skid row near 16th Street, with partners in 2006. The building was making good returns between its SRO rent, Marian’s Apparel on the bottom floor, and apartment tenants above, yet Chin envisioned turning it into a gold mine in the future by demolishing it and erecting condos.
Ask people what has caused 16th and Mission to be a holdout against gentrification—why, before a fire closed Maverick, its staff told tourists to avoid the stretch altogether—and they’ll tell you it’s the down-and-out SRO residents who gather on the sidewalks and in the BART plaza. Along with violent gang members and other criminals, they were the reason that local property owners launched a Clean Up the Plaza campaign last year.
The city’s hotel conversion laws protect SRO units by making it prohibitively expensive to turn them into tourist hotels. Yet without fanfare, some SRO owners in this patch are seeking upward mobility too. Chin removed the furniture from the Radha’s 12 units, installed new carpet and sinks, and turned the manager’s kitchen into a communal one for all the residents. He started writing long-term leases for about $800 a month—competing with bedrooms in shared apartments on Craigslist. The rent is lower than that of typical SROs in San Francisco, which charge about $60 a night. Yet because Chin now had full occupancy—previously the rooms had been only 50 percent occupied, and SROs often kick residents out before a month is up so they won’t get tenant rights—the money was a wash. More important to Chin, the building attracted a different variety of tenant: art students, interns, and techies, the type who don’t hold stock options or enjoy lavish perks.
The new resident manager is Leanne Davis, a 31-year-old graphic designer with red hair sculpted into a faux-hawk. She says that the crowd outside hasn’t liked the demographic shift. “We’re starting to get some push-back from the crackheads. A little bit of mean-mugging. They can smell all the changes happening, and we’re part of that.”
Housing advocates have watched the Radha trend repeat across four SROs in the area—raised prices, online ads, some marketing to tourists. The 50-unit Sierra Hotel above T-Mobile was vacant for years, prompting Homes Not Jails squatters to invade in a 2011 protest. Two years ago, it became home to 20Mission, a tech and artist live-work space. Still an SRO on the city’s books, the very symbol of downtrodden San Francisco has become a different kind of symbol: a techie dorm.
7. “The future is a toss-up.”
Here’s the latest from Mission Street over the last few months:
In late November, police stepped up enforcement to move transients out of the 16th Street BART plaza.
On December 2, Davis posted news of the possible apartment building at 16th and Mission on the Radha Facebook page, drawing comments like “Dislike!”
On December 19, 20Mission had an ugly sweater party.
Also in December, the school board voted to hand over an empty gravel lot near 16th Street for low-cost housing.
In late December, news broke that the Tamale Lady—a vagabond peddler of Mexican savories who had been ousted from Zeitgeist bar for not meeting health codes—had found a brick-and-mortar location right across from the proposed apartments at the BART plaza.
On New Year’s Day, anti-gentrification protesters marched down Mission and chanted at Vara residents who recorded their invective on smartphones: “We hate you! The Mission hates you!”
Construction continued apace on Vida.
On February 1, a group of Mission activists held their inaugural Plaza 16 Coalition protest at the BART plaza. Holding “Maximus: Leave the Mission” signs, they laid out demands for “resources and services that create healthy neighborhoods” and demanded a hiatus on market-rate housing until more affordable places are built. Tejeda, her activist star having risen in the months since the tech bus protest, was among the first community members that the organizers called.
What does the future hold for Mission Street? There are as many opinions as there are experts.
“The reality is, I don’t think Mission will ever change the way people think,” says realtor Cornejo. “You’d have to have such a critical mass of change, I don’t think you’ll ever lose the color here. It’s impossible.” “The future of Mission Street is a toss-up right now,” says Erick Arguello, president of the 24th Street Merchants Association.
“Mission Street in 10 years?” Paula Tejeda asks, perched on the counter at Chile Lindo after closing on a Friday night, surrounded by her local empanada awards. “I think that there will be maybe 20 percent of what exists today. You never lose the essence completely, but look at North Beach: What’s left of the Beats in North Beach? It’s all touristy. The approach of coming and pouring a lot of money in, gentrifying a community, and thinking that you won’t destroy that spirit—it’s completely ridiculous. There’s something being lost every second that this goes on.”
Tejeda’s future is also up in the air. She rejected the constantly shifting terms of a $40,000 buyout offer to vacate her apartment, writing the attorney that Chile Lindo “gives the community the charm that makes this very house prime real estate.” The negotiations continue. Her business future will inevitably have something to do with the business card of Bert Polacci that’s sitting on the counter at Chile Lindo. During the protest in February, Tejeda urged the community to ramp up its demands: “We have to make as much of this opportunity as we can!” That could include giving Polacci a chance to resolve both her headaches. “I could move [Chile Lindo] into the ground floor—and they need to include a penthouse apartment for me,” Tejeda says, hooting with laughter. “I’m just kidding.”
Tejeda locks up and strides across 16th to the giant Victoria Theatre, where the marquee glows with the words “Save the Waves”—it’s a film festival aimed at protecting surf breaks endangered by coastal development. Tejeda focuses her charm on the ticket clerk with a true tale: “I was invited by the director of the film on Chilean surfers that’s just starting... I own the business across the street... I know the sister of the star… Yada, yada, yada...”
And bingo, she talks her way in.
Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco