It’s been nearly three years since a notorious Lower Haight landlord evicted Lo-Cost Meat and Fish Market from the ground floor of his building. The small, Black-owned grocery at Haight and Fillmore streets wasn’t showy or sleek, but its faded yellow awning and friendly staff were an asset to the neighborhood for three decades.
Soon, like many of Lower Haight’s other ground-floor retail locations, it will become offices.
It’s a common San Francisco tale. Landlord Robert Shelton — who has had a whopping 60 complaints filed against him with the Department of Building Inspection for one building alone — allegedly raised the rent far beyond what owners Pierre Pegeron and Ken Kwang could pay, forcing them out. The space at 498 Haight St., which needs significant work, has sat empty ever since — no doubt in part because after Lo-Cost Meat and Fish vacated in 2016, Shelton tried to lease the place for $25,000 a month. It’s dropped steadily ever since; the most recent listing on LoopNet shows it coming in at $6,000.
A tenant appears to have bitten. The longstanding “For Lease” sign is down, and work on the interior has begun. A review of Planning Department documents shows that a “professional design office” is moving in, after construction wraps up on two bathrooms, two conference rooms, and two private offices. Unless it’s a walk-in-friendly design business, chances are the large windows will be fogged or curtained off to protect the privacy of those working within its walls.
It’s a loss for the neighborhood, in more ways than one. Corner shops have the ability to provide an anchor of sorts to a neighborhood. If done well — think La Boulangerie in Hayes Valley or Rare Device on Divisadero Street — they lure people across intersections and along to mid-block businesses. They also can act as a form of neighborhood watch. When the large apartment building above CVS caught fire in 2011, it was Pegeron who first spotted the flames, dashing out of his meat store to bang on residents’ doors.
But Lower Haight is losing these hot corner spots. On the corner of Scott and Haight streets, for example, the former San Francyclo space has sat empty since late 2017. Kitty-corner to that is Smith-Karng Architecture, which designs hospitals and medical equipment. That leaves only the ever-resilient Santa Clara Market to hold down the intersection.
Two blocks away, on Haight and Steiner streets, Edo Salon, Maven, and Wild Feather are going strong, but HSM Realty, Finance, Management has occupied the northwest corner for years.
And those are just the big corners. Lower Haight has been particularly hard hit by seismic retrofits, with stores having to shutter for a year then reopen, or move locations while work is done. It’s left a lot of storefronts vacant, many for years. And as startups boom, it’s not impossible that the spaces that used to house Cove or D-Structure may soon turn into tech offices.
There’s a reason Lower Haight sees more of these sorts of transitions than, say, Upper Haight. The neighborhood is zoned as NC-2, which means companies who want to open an office in what used to be a retail space don’t have to go through a conditional use hearing with the Planning Commission.
In contrast, Upper Haight is zoned as a Neighborhood Commercial District, requiring a hearing for any changes of use — something that may be a causal factor in its plethora of long-empty storefronts.
It’s an odd conundrum. The Lower Haight has always operated slightly outside of the typical gentrification march of the rest of the city. There have been a few typical cases — swanky Reveille Coffee replacing crunchy Bean There being one of the most obvious — but the neighborhood has held onto most of its nail salons and cheap, mediocre food joints. It’s got four record stores, a handful of rotating small galleries, murals galore, and one of the oldest craft beer bars in the city.
But if the city continues apace, the residents and small-businesses owners of Lower Haight may have to have a reckoning: At what point will the neighborhood have too many offices?