It’s Back! Tenderloin Tourism Returns

by on April 18, 2017

Three decades after tourism fled the Tenderloin, tourists are coming back. And no longer needing to fear the Tenderloin’s “touristification,” residents see benefits from tourists patronizing restaurants, bars and cultural attractions, with jobs for local residents’ part of the mix.

The Tenderloin’s tourist rejuvenation is an untold story of the neighborhood. It follows years of tourist decline, which saw failing Tenderloin tourist hotels selling off to nonprofit buyers (e.g the Midori and Cambridge). Union Square hotels began warning guests to avoid the Tenderloin at all costs.

Since the 1980’s only outside the box investor Chip Conley built a successful tourist hotel business when he opened the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin. Yet other than Simon Sin’s Cova Hotel on Ellis and Larkin, even Conley’s remarkable success did not prompt additional investment in tourist lodgings

The Tenderloin’s 1985 rezoning banned new tourist hotels. When existing ones were converted to low-income housing, some second-guessed the tourist ban.

But fears in the early 1980’s that luxury hotels could dominate the Tenderloin were justified. I describe in my book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, that while the city’s other working-class neighborhoods were battling gentrification, Tenderloin activists saw a different threat. They saw the spread of the tourist industry south and west from Union Square and Powell Street as endangering the Tenderloin’s working-class residential character.

That’s why activists banned new tourist hotels. And also made tourist occupancy a use it or lose it noncomforming use, forever lost if not used for three years.

These anti-tourist hotel provisions were vital in preserving the neighborhood.

Mistaken Fears

But Tenderloin activists were 100% wrong about the new highrise hotels’ impact. The Tenderloin was not swamped by T-shirt stores and other tourist-specific businesses—which was happening to Powell Street at the time. No tourist-specific business even opened. Instead, hotel guests stayed away from the Tenderloin in droves. And its restaurants, bars and entertainment venues suffered.

I describe in my book how Glide, TNDC and other Tenderloin groups felt by the mid-1990’s that the Tenderloin needed the tourist industry’s help. They struck a deal with the Hilton for a tourist pavilion at the corner of Eddy and Taylor. Fortunately, that project never happened, and TNDC soon breaks ground on affordable family housing on that site.

A New Beginning

Today, Tenderloin tourism is roaring back. Consider what has occurred in the past year alone:

In 2016, the outdated Mark Twain Hotel at 345 Taylor was upgraded and renamed the Tilden. That restored the hotel’s original name (the Mark Twain was actually of recent vintage, as in the 1950’s the hotel—once owned by the legendary Harry Handlery– was named “the Don”).

The long rundown New Pacific Hotel at 706 Polk (at Turk) underwent an even more dramatic upgrade. Renamed the Epik, it will soon include a bar in its retail space. Its legal tourist units are bringing tourists into Tenderloin restaurants, bars and cultural attractions.

2016 also saw the Planning Commission approve a dazzling new tourist hotel at 950-974 Market. Developed by Joy Ou of Group I, this project included an historic agreement for hotel jobs for Tenderloin residents.

In the next six months, the Proper Hotel at Market and McAllister (formerly the Renoir and for much of its history, the Shaw) will open after a $40 million historic renovation by the Kor Group. The Yotel Hotel across the street at 7th and Market should also bring new customers to Tenderloin businesses.

Planning Commission approval is also expected this year for a new hotel to be constructed by Pacific Eagle on Market next to the ACT Strand. This too will bring tourists in close proximity to Tenderloin bars, restaurants and cultural and entertainment venues.

As I wrote in 2011, Mid-Market and the Tenderloin have linked fortunes. They boomed until the 1950’s and then began a long decline. Those bemoaning recently failed Mid-Market restaurants should know that Mid-Market has never had successful eating establishments; Mid-Market theatergoers ate and drank in the Tenderloin.

I suspect once tourists in the new Mid-Market hotels sample their hotel restaurants they will try eating at the Black Cat and other Tenderloin dining spots, reviving this historic pattern.

Eddy Street Tourism

A surprising development for 2017 is the emergence of Eddy Street tourism.

Dipak Patel and Satish Patel, who just completed a beautiful renovation of the historic Hotel Petaluma in Sonoma County, are now restoring the long neglected Regency Inn at 587 Eddy Street at Larkin (the name will be changed). Along with partner Manishh Gajiwala, the new owners have ambitious plans for their 48 tourist rooms. Their guests will increase business to adjacent restaurants in Little Saigon as well as elsewhere in the Tenderloin.

The 587 Eddy property occupies a key corner. Its Eddy Street storefront spaces have long been covered with cardboard, which has not been a good look for the Tenderloin. The new owners are completely transforming this ground floor space and it will turn a neighborhood eyesore into an asset. The new hotel could have a soft opening as soon as May 15.

The Phoenix, the longtime shining spot for Tenderloin tourism, also plans a major upgrade. I know nothing about the specifics but given its track record it will not doubt leave the Phoenix—still the favorite hotel for rock stars— even more cutting edge.

The long dowdy Red Coach Motor Lodge at 700 Eddy (across the street from the Hotel Epik) will also soon begin a major renovation. New owners Sam Patel and Sam Devdhara have a track record of improving properties, and  now can upgrade a hotel only a stone’s throw from the popular restaurant, Brenda’s.

Tenderloin Museum

Since opening in July 2015 the Tenderloin Museum has actively sought to attract tourists. The museum has gotten great support from nearby youth hostels and tourist hotels, as people staying in or near the Tenderloin are more interested in learning about it.

In recent months there has been a sharp upsurge in tourist industry interest in the museum. Museum Director Katie Conry notes, “Tourists have enjoyed the museum from the start and now we are getting more. Hotel concierges are increasingly suggesting their guests visit and Airbnb recently had 80-100 hosts attend a nighttime museum event.  They came away eager to promote the museum to their visitors.”

The hop on and off buses are not yet dropping people off at the Museum, but museum staff are in talks to make that happen.

More hotel business means more museum attendance and more people eating and drinking in the Tenderloin before and after they visit the museum. It also means increased attendance for other cultural institutions in the neighborhood, as people having a positive experience at one Tenderloin venue are more likely to try others.

I remember fearing in 1980 that “touristification” would destroy the Tenderloin. 37 years later, tourism now offers a big boost for the Tenderloin’s future.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is also Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which he co-founded in 1980.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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