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Last Street Standing

May 14, 2014

By Lauren Smiley : modernluxury – excerpt

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.

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… (more)

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… (more)

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.

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.’’… (more)

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… (more)

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… (more)

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… (more)

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…. (more)

What is the game? To stop the developers, negotiate a better deal, or to find out what you can get out of them? This article covers some of those options.

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