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The Show Must Go On: Will Mid-Market's Dramatic Development Attract an Audience? 

Wednesday, Oct 9 2013
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And so, through many cycles of death and regeneration, the Mid-Market arts district pipe dream persisted in San Francisco.

It wasn't until Lee and a coterie of other city politicians persuaded Twitter to move into a gutted Market Street furniture store that the long-deferred revitalization plans actually took shape. And it required something of a Faustian bargain. Over the past three years, city officials have bent over backward to keep tech firms happy. In 2012, San Francisco lost $14.1 million in potential revenue from tax breaks. Paradoxically, business tax collections also increased by 12 percent, a figure that tech-boom enthusiasts link to the newly stimulated economy.

And yet, by some measures, the city's love affair with tech has the cast of a handshake deal; tech companies get to expand their workforces with impunity, and in return, they've helped fund playgrounds, kept streets clean, and bring thousands of people to a once-sterile downtown.

At the same time, San Francisco squired various arts organizations and small businesses into the Mid-Market fold, trying to create a downtown that hews to the city's self-image. Ever-mindful of rising property values, the city is taking a more interventionist approach than it has in previous years, according to Amy Cohen, director of neighborhood business development for the mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. It's used a constellation of public-private partnerships to bankroll storefront improvements and loan programs, and it helped the Strand secure a federal tax break by creating a for-profit entity under the aegis of ACT.

But it's just one of many venues. Between the Golden Gate, Cutting Ball, EXIT, ACT Costume Shop, Boxcar, and Orpheum Theaters, not to mention nearby art spaces Bindlestiff Studio and Intersection for the Arts, Mid-Market has several thousand seats to fill each night. Addington doubts that another 300 at the Strand will be the tipping point. "We have about 10,000 seats here," he says, "and then you go beyond the Strand and you have Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera House — that's another 10,000. So now we're up to 23,000."

He worries it may be a tall order to put people in all of them. To housing activist Randy Shaw, that's inconsequential. So long as San Francisco nurtures its tech sector, it can always graft an arts district on top. If that means arranging sweetheart deals for tech companies, then so be it.

"Market Street's economic function was historically theaters," Shaw explains, "but they all closed by the 1960s. ... You can't just have theater be the driving force. There has to be private sector investment." He points to the benefits that Twitter created for Mid-Market, first by inducing local real estate firm Shorenstein Company to rehab a historic building, then by paving the way for residential development, which in turn created a new tax base. "We've had a number of other booms," Shaw says, "but no one was building at 10th and Market or 100 Van Ness."

Others, like former Supervisor Chris Daly, see it differently. In his eyes, Lee's plan for Mid-Market eerily parallels the '90s-era gentrification of San Francisco's Mission District, which allowed white hipsters to effectively colonize a working-class neighborhood. Daly says he felt the effects of the Mid-Market boom firsthand, when rising property values forced him to shutter the bar he owned at Market and Gough streets. He's still bitter about it.

"When folks ask what happened to Buck Tavern," Daly says, "I just tell them I got Twittered."

NEMA, the glittering cluster of high-rises that recently opened on 10th and Market streets, purports to be something called a "lifestyle pioneer." (NEMA stands for "New Market.") With its outdoor heated pool, full-time concierge desks, saline pool, electric car charging stations, oak-paneled solarium, and abundant Apple TVs — gadgets are the doilies that decorate the architecture — the buildings seem breathtaking and aspirational, a perfect monument for San Francisco's noveau riche. The apartments have quartz countertops and roller shades on the windows; the outdoor terraces afford sweeping bay views; Siri's soothing, computerized voice wafts through the elevator. An 800-square-foot one-bedroom goes for about $3,400 a month.

NEMA sits blocks away from a homeless encampment at Civic Center Plaza that has bedeviled city boosters for years. It's a giant open expanse where people gather on squares of perfectly-manicured grass, arranging their possessions on large plastic tarps or stuffing them in garbage bags. Some particularly enterprising folks hawk packages of room deodorizer or laundry detergent, or boxes of cookies. The fountain there is a pile of stone guarded by police barricades and caution tape. On a recent Friday night, in true San Francisco fashion, a homeless man strode through the area wearing an "I Love NPR" T-shirt.

While most of the crime in that area falls in the "quality of life" category — public urination, littering, unpermitted vendors blocking the sidewalk — it's historically been enough to stymie development, according to Jim Sangiacomo, head of Trinity Properties, who says he was only too happy to see "young techie" pedestrians infiltrate Mission and Market streets in recent years. And the homeless population downtown seemed only to swell — or at least become more visible — with the 2010 closure of the Transbay Terminal, which left much of the city's underclass without an enclosed place to sleep.

The problem, according to Sangiacomo, is that two parallel universes collide at Market Street — that of the well-heeled and that of the indigent — and yet those two worlds are interdependent. San Francisco's prospective main street is surrounded on all sides by social service agencies, which, property owners say, bring more needy people to the area. "You have them on the south and on the north," Sangiacomo says. "You have Glide Memorial and St. Anthony's dining room in the Tenderloin. They get their checks from the General Services Administration on Mission and Eighth streets. It's this circular area of people going back and forth all the time."

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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