Has SF’s Mid-Market Street Turned A Corner?

by Randy Shaw on June 10, 2013

I wrote about San Francisco’s Mid-Market on June 19, 2012 that “much of the area looks little changed” since Twitter famously announced its plans to move to 9th and Market. But I predicted that “by this time in 2013, Mid-Market’s progress will be apparent.” This has proven the case. The past three months have seen the largest visual transformation of Mid-Market in decades. This includes multiple buildings under renovation in the key stretch between 5th and 7th Streets, demolitions for the future Market Street Place shopping center at Market and Mason, and the destruction of the last vestige of the former Del Webb Townhouse at 8th and Market for the new Trinity Plaza. Crime in the area is also down, as Mid-Market police staffing is up 30% and the nearby Sixth Street police substation has opened. While challenges remain— the north side of Market between Jones and Sixth is as bad as ever— Mid-Market has clearly turned a corner.

A flurry of activity in recent months has greatly advanced the transformation of San Francisco’s long troubled Mid-Market. In addition to the projects noted above, the Renoir Hotel at 7th and Market is undergoing a $40 million upgrade, a CVS is under construction at the southwest corner of that intersection, the long vacant site at 950-970 Market finally has a new owner, and the street was repaved last weekend.

While none of the Mid-Market building renovations are completed, there is visible progress. And I have heard from enough people that the increased police presence on Mid-Market is making a difference to put aside my skepticism, though, as noted above, the area from the check cashing site at Jones to the vacant former Hollywood Billiards site is still plagued with drug dealers.

Key Signs of Progress

The most important development in recent months is the moving forward of the Market Street Place shopping center. The long vacant buildings on the south side of Market at Mason Street has hurt the area, and its dramatic transformation has finally begun. In addition to adding a people attracting and job creating new use, the project also eliminates the atrocious former Social Security building, a longtime Mid-Market eyesore.

For all the historic renovations underway in Mid-Market, the demolition of both the Social Security building and the curved building that was part of the former Trinity Plaza will do just as much to improve the look of the street. It’s called addition by subtraction.

Another major sign of progress is the purchase of the 950 Market site, in limbo since ownership was taken over by a Dallas-based hedge fund. The new owner is a group headed by Joy Ou, who recently bought and is renovating the Warfield building. It will be at least three years before construction of the planned “950 Market Center for Arts and Education” breaks ground, but this is another long troubled site now on the road to revival.

The Mayor’s Office on Economic and Workforce Development is working to bring “pop-up” arts and retail uses to Mid-Market to activate ground floor space while building renovations occur. This is a great strategy for activating the street, and pop-ups could be in place by fall.

Less Visible Developments

Other positive developments are less visible.

The ill conceived plan to convert the historic Grant building at 1095 Market from offices to an “adventure travel/youth hostel/restaurant/nightclub was approved by the Planning Commission in 2010, but could be shelved as the building has either been sold or soon will be. A new owner may rethink spending millions to create a youth hostel in a great historic office space, particularly as the area has a demand for such uses. A quality ground floor restaurant fits better with office uses—those staying in youth hostels more likely prefer bargain eats— so if logic prevails the historic Grantbuilding could return to its longtime use.

Since the scaffold at 973 Market has been up for several years, passers by may not realize that the building has yet another new owner. Conversion of one of the city’s most beautiful buildings from offices to condos began years before Mid-Market’s transformation, and the new owners will finish the job. That means that another long vacant space (it is across from the Warfield Theater) will be reoccupied.

I’ve been surprised over the lack of positive publicity about the closing of the Market Street Cinema at 1077 Market. Behind its horrific blue exterior false frontage is a true historic theater that preservationists should be raising money to acquire. The Market Street Cinema was perhaps the worst blight in all of Mid-Market, and its closure creates a golden opportunity to restore an historic theater to contemporary arts or theater use.

Remaining Problems

Those unhappy with the transformation of Mid-Market should be cheered by what they see on the north side of Market between Jones and Taylor: it looks exactly as it did before Twitter announced it was moving to Mid-Market.

This stretch is being held back by two factors: the check cashing outlet at Jones and Market dominated by drug dealers, and the multi-year vacancy at the former Hollywood Billiards site.

When Mayor Lee highlighted reviving Hollywood Billiards last August at the opening of the nearby Machine Coffee, the site was tied up in bankruptcy court in a dispute between owner David Addington and one of his creditors, the Shorenstein Company. I do not know the property’s current legal status, but its vacancy is holding back the block.

In 2001 and 2002, the SF Weekly anointed Hollywood Billiards the “Best Pool Hall” and “Best Place to Chalk Your Cue Stick.” Here’s a 2008 Yelp review: “Been to over 30 pool halls all up and down California. This is hands down one of my favs. Tightest pockets I’ve seen, open 24 hours, always a money game going on.” Another in 2007, “Good times, great memories. They had some colorful characters hanging out there, great players, old style pool room atmosphere. Sad that it is gone.”

Had Hollywood Billiards closed after Twitter’s announcement, it would have been seen as a “victim” of the area’s “gentrification.” But the truth is that working-class hangouts like Hollywood Billiards and the Strand movie theater failed under the longtime Mid-Market status quo.

So while the long closure at the former pool hall site is a negative, it offers a critical reminder why a tax incentive program to attract businesses to Mid-Market was necessary. Even the “best pool hall” in San Francisco could not attract enough customers to the area to survive.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron. Hollywood Billiards is the best pool hall he has ever seen.

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