Media Promotes Myth of 6th Street Revitalization

by Randy Shaw on September 12, 2006

“I always remind people that redevelopment is intended to be a long process. That’s why redevelopment plans are designed to last for 30 years.”—
-Mike Grisso, Project Manager, 6th Street Redevelopment Agency

It’s been 15 years since the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency took control of 6th Street, and the level of drug activity, public urination, and other problem street behavior is little changed. During this time the Agency has spent over $100 million on this brief stretch of 6th between Market and Howard, and the neighborhood is no safer. But Agency-funded groups have done a great job getting media stories claiming that 6th Street is experiencing a turnaround. In the September 10 San Francisco Chronicle Real Estate section, there was a long front-page story on all of the new businesses coming to 6th and of the positive changes in the area. But stories about San Francisco’s new and improved 6th Street are like Bush Administration pronouncements on the “improved” situation in Baghdad: they sound great until you step into the reality being described.

Starting in the late 1980’s, community residents, SRO tenants and nonprofit groups led a major campaign to revitalize San Francisco’s 6th Street. After years of progress, several factors prevented success. Now with the Redevelopment Agency under scrutiny for spending over $100 million on a three block area with little to show for it, it has engaged in a public relations offensive to highlight the new, improved and “revitalized” 6th Street.

The San Francisco Business Times did a story a few months ago touting 6th Street’s improvement, and an even more optimistic story appeared in the September 10 Chronicle. Urban Solutions, which is funded by the Redevelopment Agency to attract business and promote 6th Street, prompted both stories.

Unfortunately, just as the Agency’s promises in the early 1990’s to revive businesses and create a mixed-income community along 6th Street went unfulfilled, their current version of life on 6th does not reflect reality.

When the Redevelopment Agency first took control of 6th Street in 1990 as part of an “Earthquake Recovery Area,” there were fewer vacant storefronts than there are today. It’s great that Urban Solutions is attracting new business to the area, but there were businesses all along the first block of 6th before the Agency got involved.

During the past decade, new small businesses opening on 6th Street have been regularly touted as evidence of the area’s rebirth. But these promoted businesses –from the Vegetarian Indian restaurant to a bookstore—quickly failed due to the Agency’s utter failure to establish a positive retail business environment on 6th.

This past May, my organization, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, transformed an office space we created at 6th and Minna into an art gallery known as DA Arts. I have made visits to the space at various times of the day, and the scene at 6th and Minna is no different than it was prior to the Agency’s takeover. The Minna Street alley side of our space reeks of urine, drug dealers openly do business, and people still hang out in front of the 6th Street side of the space.

Across the alley from DA Arts is the renovated Rose Hotel and a pizza place, which is an improvement. The Alder Hotel further down 6th has also been renovated (with private funds), but the space between the corner and the Alder includes the same problems as in 1990.

One would think that $120 million and 15 years later, the area around 6th and Minna would be transformed. But as Agency staffer Mike Grisso told the Chronicle, we must remember that Redevelopment is “a 30-year process.”

That’s good news for the small businessperson trying to get by today. I sure don’t recall Agency advocates back in the early 1990’s saying we should expect to wait thirty years for results.

In a city and a South of Market neighborhood that has seen dramatic gentrification in the past decade, it would be impossible for 6th Street not to have improved. But what is astonishing is how small-scale the improvement has been in light of these economic boon times, particularly after the investment of over $100 million in public money.

Contrary to current media stories about long vacant storefronts and community neglect, by the early 1990’s 6th Street was starting to turn around. At that time the Tenderloin Housing Clinic had worked with tenants at the former Delta Hotel (now Bayinihan House) to successfully eliminate drug activity around 6th and Mission. SRO hotels on the street were being stabilized, an Agency-funded façade improvement implemented, and the media was full of stories about the transformation of the long-troubled street.

But three unfortunate developments occurred.

First, starting in 1996 the dot-com boom inflated rents so that SRO operators could charge rates well above what welfare or SSI recipients could afford. Suddenly, 6th Street SRO’s again housed short-term people who were in the drug game. As hotel stability declined, so did peace on the street.

Second, the Delta Hotel fire in August 1997 left the key 6th and Mission corner vacant for the next several years. This opened the door for the return of the drug activity around the hotel, a problem that negatively impacted the entire area.

Third, the Redevelopment Agency stopped listening to the community and adopted a “We Know Best” approach. The imaginative and forward-thinking Agency staff who were involved when the Earthquake Recovery Area was created in 1990 were gone.

Agency staff began acting like Soviet bureaucrats following order from Central Command. And these instructions were to do nothing on 6th but fund nonprofit affordable housing, regardless of the Agency’s original stated goal of creating a mix of incomes on the street.

This meant that anti-crime measures were out, despite the Project Area Committee (PAC) voting to fund such programs. It also meant that promises to create a mix of incomes were ignored, as the Agency sought to confine the poor to the narrow stretch along 6th.

Concentrating nonprofit and low-income housing on 6th Street led to the Agency’s third broken commitment: the revival of area businesses. The Agency’s failure to provide housing for the non-poor denied businesses access to a customer base with disposable income. The elected PAC urged Agency staff to provide at least some mix of moderate income housing on the street, but the Agency never did.

With 6th Street residents unable to support businesses, the successful ventures on the street are the after-hours clubs whereby young hipsters from outside the neighborhood come on to 6th after midnight. This hardly represents the type of neighborhood-serving businesses that the Agency claimed it would bring to the community.

Having failed to fulfill its stated goals, the Agency now flails about planting palm trees, widening sidewalks, installing historic street lamps, and funding groups to pitch stories to reporters who lack knowledge of the street’s history. The Agency still has 15 years and tens of millions more dollars to squander on 6th, but it is hard to believe that the $100 million already allocated could not have been spent more effectively.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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