Is SF’s Mid-Market Turning a Corner?

by on May 6, 2024

City Help Needed

I could make a strong case that no neighborhood in the nation has suffered a bigger reversal since COVID began than San Francisco’s Mid-Market. A neighborhood rising when 2020 began lost its office workers, retail, and new grocery store. Its housing became harder to fill, as did rooms in its luxurious new LINE hotel.

The city compounded Mid-Market problems in 2022 when it opened what became a de facto safe injection site in UN Plaza. Open air drug markets took over Mid-Market. Those not in the drug trade tried to avoid the neighborhood. It became a virtual ghost town.

I’ve been hoping to be finally able to write about some good news about Mid-Market. And while Fernando Pujals of the Mid Market Business Association & Foundation cautions that the work the area needs is far from done, he agrees there is finally some light on the horizon.

The Good News

IKEA is now fully open. Its new food court (known as Saluhall) is jammed at lunch. A new street facing bar will open on the 900 block and long vacant office buildings are attracting buyer interest. Buyer interest is not the same as a purchase and re-occupancy, but it’s a start.

On May 16 from 4-7 pm there will be music, food and a grand opening of the Holy Stitch Retail Store at 1059 Market. It returns artists and designers to Mid-Market. These type of openings were customary in the area before COVID but have been rare in recent years.

Core neighborhood institutions like ACT-Strand, the LINE Hotel, the Proper Hotel, the Warfield Theater, the Orpheum and Golden Gate Theaters and the Hibernia Bank are holding on. All will tell you they are in Mid-Market for the long haul. That assessment can change with faltering revenue but their perseverance through the most difficult days is a good sign.

How can an area can be in such crisis with all of these hotel/entertainment venues? The answer is that not enough theatergoers patronize nearby bars, restaurants or clubs. Plus the hotel business is way down in neighborhoods like Mid-Market that are associated with drug activities.

A huge part of the good news is Park and Rec Director Phil Ginsburg’s positive transformation of UN Plaza. When I wrote “SF’s Bold New Plan to Clear UN Plaza Drug Markets,” August 14, 2023, skepticism abounded. Many claimed Ginsburg’s plan to open a skateboard park in UN Plaza and move the Farmers Market across the street would be a disaster.

It instead proved a huge success.

The Remaining Challenges

Drug Markets Continue

Clearing drug markets from UN Plaza was essential for Mid-Market’s revival. But the massive evening drug market at 7th and Market and McAllister continues to hold Mid-Market back.

Drug markets deter legitimate patrons. They also send a message that City Hall tolerates what happens after dark in Mid-Market. Dealers and users are out on the street as theatergoers leave their venues. Patrons do not walk from theaters to  the Proper and LINE rooftop bars and other restaurants and bars if they have to pass people shooting up.

7th and Market is a transit hub. People won’t come to the area if they lack confidence that the area around that hub is safe.

Social Service Takeover?

Mid-Market also faces a challenge from publicly funded agencies seeking low-cost office space for social service and behavioral health needs. Agencies whose client base generates opposition in other neighborhoods see Mid-Market as an easy to enter market.

The conversion of Mid-Market offices to social services will not boost the area. To the contrary,  it’s inconsistent with the arts, theater, entertainment, restaurant/bar direction the area has been moving. Bringing in more people who may raise concerns among theater or hotel patrons and/or office workers offers little hope for Mid-Market’s future.

Nonprofit groups are aggressively acquiring sites for programs that will negatively impact Mid-Market’s historic business and entertainment character. City leaders need to put a hold on this. It’s well past time for the “geographic equity” in services Mayor Lee talked about in 2017 to be implemented.

A Misguided War on Cars

Mid-Market’s revival also requires car access. Why is a neighborhood in dire financial straits deprived of having cars, even for solely delivery purposes? San Francisco allows cars everywhere outside of parks—except in Mid-Market.

I’ve already written two stories this year on restoring cars to Mid-Market—-“Should Uber, Lyft Be Allowed in Mid-Market?” and “Momentum Grows to End Mid-Market Car Ban.” Opponents  ignore that the car ban was passed in an entirely different Mid-Market world than we have today. It’d be like keeping plans made for areas under the Embarcadero or Central Freeways even after they were torn down.

Bike advocates have suffered some big reversals. San Francisco has done a poor job installing truly protected bike lanes. But Mid-Market businesses shouldn’t be paying the price. Businesses pleading for car access should not be told to just stuff it.

Next Steps

A full recovery still requires the city to both restore cars to Mid-Market and replicate the tax incentive plan that propelled the area over a decade ago.

I encourage Mayor Breed to hold a meeting of stakeholders to come up with a tax incentive plan for Mid-Market. We must accept that it’s not coming back on its own and that it wouldn’t have come back post-2011 but for the city tax incentives.

Mid-Market is a barometer for San Francisco. It ‘s fortunes are closely linked to adjacent Downtown, SOMA and the Tenderloin. In my book on the Tenderloin I chronicle its parallel history with Mid-Market; they have prospered and regressed together for over a century.

The alternative to the city offering more help to Mid-Market now? Wait for more prominent businesses to leave.

That’s what will happen if the city does not throw Mid-Market a life raft soon.

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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Filed under: Mid-Market / Tenderloin