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And yet, there's often a serial, repetitive nature to how San Francisco's various "theater district" campaigns have played out. The great romance of San Francisco is to create a city where art, music, theater, and technology all flourish together, but so far, that vision hasn't quite borne out in reality. From a city booster's perspective, that might not matter; the tech sector will generate enough money to bankroll an arts district, even if the two worlds never intersect. Rising land values may cause small businesses and nonprofits to get displaced in the meantime, but that's just the cost of gentrification.
In theory, tech was supposed to shepherd other business into Mid-Market, generate revenue that the city could siphon off to arts programs, increase foot traffic, make the area safer, dispatch employees to work in local soup kitchens or pick up trash, and forge a relationship with the existing community that was largely symbiotic.
San Francisco has seven months left to assess the economics of Mid-Market before its economic development report is due in May; meanwhile, the landscape is transforming. Mayor Ed Lee's critics say he sold out three neighborhoods — SOMA, Mid-Market, and the Tenderloin — to lure Twitter in; supporters say that was the only way he could ensure a successful revitalization. San Francisco's most aggressive, prehensile, government-endorsed gentrification campaign might also be its most fruitful. Or its most pernicious, if swelling property values drive out the very arts district that the city envisions.
Hating on tech companies has become a favorite San Francisco pastime. But it sometimes demands leaps of imagination. Since Twitter allows few interlopers within its gates, the amenities contained within — the rooftop garden, air hockey table, Pilates classes, catered lunches, and full-service cafeterias — have become the stuff of legend. In reality, few people know the inner workings of the companies in Market Square and they, in turn, seem to have little interaction with the world below. The conventional wisdom is that most Twitter employees work 16-hour days, and a recent Reuters article reported the rationale for the move to Mid-Market: that the easy-access location allows employees to go home for dinner and come back to work at night, according to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. Many San Franciscans believe that tech workers dwell in some kind of cultural isolation, even as their employers change the economy and landscape for everyone else.
That's at least the impression that neighbors glean. Nick Olivero, who runs the nearby Boxcar Theatre, says he's visited Twitter three times, and doesn't understand why the employees would ever leave. "A gym, candy store, free cafeteria," he writes via e-mail. "The tech companies won't change the nightlife, just appearances of run-down buildings."
If they're not changing nightlife, they're certainly changing everything else. Over the past year, several luxury housing projects have taken root on Mid-Market, along with a new Market Street Place Mall. Neighborhood greasy spoons shuttered to make way for fancier eateries: Pearl's Deluxe Burger took over a storefront once occupied by the Market & 6th St. Food Corner (known for its sign advertising pizza-spaghetti and lumpia burritos), and in February, four-star restaurateur Daniel Patterson signed a lease for the building that once housed the Iron Wok Chinese Restaurant. Meanwhile, a French-inspired brasserie and high priced grocer moved into the Market Square building. A craft brewery opened in the ground floor of the Argenta Building at Market and Polk streets, and a phalanx of new office condos in the Warfield Building will soon house Benchmark Capital and the music start-up Spotify. A 17-year-old Himalayan imports shop held its going-out-of-business sale last month, while the owners of Kaplan's Surplus & Sport Goods geared up to sell their building. Police even cracked down on the chess tables between Powell and Civic Center BART stations, in an effort to curb drug trafficking and make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
The list goes on and on. Around three dozen development projects are underway, in an effort to fulfill former Mayor Gavin Newsom's vision of Market Street as the Champs-Elysees of San Francisco.
That's a marked improvement for the traditionally depressed area, which was long subject to desperate, half-baked revitalization campaigns. In 2005, San Francisco's Redevelopment Agency conceived a grand plan to rehabilitate Mid-Market, using eminent domain to acquire vacant properties and turn them into affordable housing units or retail spaces. Once the agency passed its plan off to the Board of Supervisors, it foundered. For years afterward, the whole area languished, as did all investment in the city. Tenderloin Housing Clinic founder Randy Shaw contends that while the 2005 revitalization was ill-advised — it's dicey for a local government to divert taxpayer money to private developers — it may have been moot anyway, given that 2008, 2009, and 2010 were "economic dead years."
Historically, Mid-Market just hasn't had a ton of enticements to draw in the 65,000 people who flock to Powell Street BART station and its cable car turnaround each day, says erstwhile real estate mogul David P. Addington, who once owned the Warfield Building. In 2009, Addington introduced a fruitless ballot measure to install billboards on the properties between Fifth and Seventh, which, he said, would bring in revenue but also turn Market into a mini-42nd. (Needless to say, Addington owned several of those properties.) Though the measure flopped, Addington's 42nd Street illusions lived on.
"Only a limited number of people ever cross Fifth Street and go west," he says. "If they did, then you could create an arts theater and entertainment district on par with the finest in the world."
That wasn't the last gasp for abortive transformation plans. In 2010 Newsom announced plans to resurrect the redevelopment strategy that failed five years prior, holding a press conference at Show Dogs, a new gourmet wiener eatery adjacent to the Warfield. By pooling $11.5 million from city coffers with federal loans from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Newsom planned to create low-interest loans for businesses, which in turn would turn the phalanx of neighborhood stereo outlets, homeless encampments, and strip clubs into a "cultural district." Although development efforts still doddered along, Newsom saw a couple of small victories that year — namely, the opening of Blick Art Materials on Sixth Street, in a storefront that once harbored a smaller competitor, Pearl Paint. Newsom turned the ribbon-cutting into a coronation, calling Blick a new "economic catalyst" for the neighborhood.