Reassessing San Francisco’s Tenderloin

by Randy Shaw on July 24, 2006

In 1980, the area between Union Square and City Hall in San Francisco commonly known as the Tenderloin was slated for high-rise tourist development, with its many SRO hotels facing either tourist conversion or demolition as part of “urban renewal.” Few believed the area would still be primarily housing low-income people in 2006, as the forces pushing gentrification appeared too strong. But Tenderloin activists defied conventional wisdom, and the neighborhood has become permanently secured as a predominately low-income, racially diverse community. Now the Tenderloin faces new challenges. The combination of irresponsible property owners and the continued expansion of services in the neighborhood has stymied neighborhood improvement efforts, and transformed such work into a Sisyphean struggle. Mayor Newsom has helped improve the area’s streetscape, but now must help persuade property owners to boost rather than hinder the Tenderloin’s progress.

From one perspective, these should be the best of times for San Francisco’s long maligned Tenderloin neighborhood. The community has the highest level of permanent tenants in its history, the risk of gentrification is gone, and a sharp increase in Latino families presents positive new opportunities for resident involvement in the city’s civic life.

But if you talk to those who have worked or lived in the Tenderloin for at least five years, you will hear grave concerns. Many believe that neighborhood drug dealing has sharply increased, while more homeless people spend the day sleeping on Golden Gate Avenue than ever before.

Why have these problems now emerged?

Consider the steep decline of Golden Gate Avenue, which until the late 1980’s was a very successful commercial strip. Today, problems on Golden Gate have never been worse.

In 1989, Hastings Law School demolished two SRO’s between Hyde and Larkin. One housed Knights, a successful lunch spot and catering business. The other storefront was Merchandisers, a discount sporting goods and shoe store. Since the demolition, the space has been a parking lot, and a favorite sleeping spot for those without homes.

At the corner of Golden Gate and Hyde, a Bank of America was replaced with a Post Office housing P.O. boxes. This building has no staff onsite, is a physical blight, and its sidewalks are a leading 24-hour a day sleeping quarters for the homeless.

Until the mid-1990’s, the headquarters of the San Francisco Fire Department was located on Golden Gate between Hyde and Leavenworth. When the headquarters relocated, Mayor Brown insisted that the building be transformed into a family shelter. This conversion replaced people with money to patronize local businesses and lunch spots with those with insufficient funds to even obtain housing. The conversion also kept the building without any ground-floor retail use.

Adjacent to the former Fire Headquarters is the home of SEIU Local 87. Until the 1990’s, the hiring hall was at the premises and the building brought people with jobs into the neighborhood.

But the hiring hall was relocated, and the building’s population has sharply declined. Meanwhile, the union has resisted all efforts to build housing on its parking lot at Turk and Hyde, allowing the sidewalk next to the lot to be a major refuge for drug dealing.

Keep in mind that neighborhood activists did not sit silently as the above three events transpired. We fought Hastings over the SRO demolitions, pleaded with Mayor Brown to find a different site for the family shelter, and begged the union to act responsibly toward the community by selling its parking lot for housing with ground-floor retail. On the latter, one of our developer allies even got into escrow to buy the drug dealing haven only to have Local 87 back out.

Across the street from the family shelter is a long abandoned facility that until the 1980’s housed KGO-TV. KGO got a huge tax deduction for donating the property to Hastings, which then never used it, and then sold it to the Panco Corp. which has kept it vacant for years. So a building that once brought money into the neighborhood has now become a prime sleeping location for those without homes.

As with the notorious owners of the long vacant Hibernia Bank landmark at Jones and McAllister, the Panco Corp is content to allow its building to sit idle for years. The building is allegedly “for sale,” but at many times its fair market price.

Moving down Golden Gate to Leavenworth, we have the former United Artist building, whose owner has kept all of the retail spaces on Golden Gate vacant for nearly a decade.
This owner has expressed great displeasure at people sleeping and dealing drugs in front of his vacant retail spaces, but has not attempted to rent the storefronts whose lack of operation is causing the problems.

Staying on Golden Gate heading past Jones, the Shorenstein Company closed down its ground floor retail businesses near Taylor. The office powerhouse also vacated an entire office building at 25 Taylor more than 15 years ago, and has kept the building vacant.

Based on these changes on Golden Gate alone. the massive loss of purchasing power in the neighborhood attributable to irresponsible property owners and bad government decisions becomes clear.

As the customer base for retail businesses dried up, social services became the chief market for commercial space. The Tenderloin may be the only neighborhood in San Francisco where residents typically do not oppose new social service uses.

When the transformation of the Fire Dept building to a family shelter was opposed, Mayor Brown threatened to cut city funding to any nonprofit challenging the conversion.

That’s one surefire way to avoid future opposition to projects.

Rather than get into fights with more politically potent neighborhoods, San Francisco city officials figure it is easier to just direct all services to the Tenderloin. We will soon have what may be the city’s largest methadone center opening up on Turk between Hyde and Larkin, a project that few activists even knew about before it was approved.

So what is to be done?

We know from two decades of experience that the Tenderloin’s problems cannot be solved through the criminal justice system. Our sidewalk problems are not the fault of the police, district attorney, probation department, or the many other agencies that routinely get blamed.

Rather, a twofold approach is needed.

First, San Francisco must stop relying on the premise that because low-income people live in the Tenderloin, stand-alone services must be headquartered there. The Tenderloin deserves an indefinite moratorium on new service uses—we have more than our fair share.

Second, since our problems are largely due to irresponsible property owners, concerted action to address their conduct must be taken. Mayor Newsom’s help is essential here.

Since taking office, Mayor Newsom has succeeded in ensuring that the Tenderloin’s sidewalks are cleaner than ever before. The Mayor helped facilitate the Tenderloin Community Benefits District, but his assistance is also needed in meeting with problem property owners to urge them to help rather than hurt the community.

For example, the worst corner in the Tenderloin is the northeast corner of Turk and Taylor, the site of the Warfield Hotel. The Warfield owner leases porno shops and allows drug dealing in front of his building day and night while profiting from renting rooms as part of the Prop 36 drug diversion program.

This is crazy. The Mayor imposed a policy that city-funded SRO’s cannot rent to medical marijuana dispensaries, and even if the Warfield program is not city-funded, it is hard to believe that the Mayor cannot prevail on state authorities to condition use of the Warfield on its owner replacing the porno shops with retail outlets that do not foster drug dealing and better serve Tenderloin residents.

The Mayor has the staff to engage in the site by site troubleshooting that solving the Tenderloin’s problems demands. Community activists are eager to join the Mayor in this effort, and remain optimistic that, with help from City Hall, the problems that have arisen in the Tenderloin can be turned around.

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