Auto Pilots

Steep real estate prices force entrepreneurs to get creative with the city's existing buildings -- chiefly auto-body shops.

A Japanese spa with old brick walls. A new brewery with a huge, industrial-style rolling door. A luxury apartment building with glass walls. Scattered across neighborhoods all over the city, all the above have one key thing in common: They were all created in former auto body shops or car garages.

San Francisco’s real estate market is as tough as nails, and turnkey spots with a good price tag are hard to come across. But the city’s business owners are nothing if not creative, and those with a little extra financial backing are taking on a common architectural challenge. Vast, empty auto shops are being given new lives, and with that comes the revitalization of dead blocks across the city.

Husband-and-wife team Caroline Smith and Sunny Simmons took on the vast project of cleaning up and renovating an old car garage in 2013. The one-story brick building at 466 Eddy St. in the Tenderloin wasn’t exactly a dream location for a Japanese spa. Its past life was as City Automotive, an auto-repair shop that specialized in servicing vintage Volkswagens. It was sitting vacant when Smith and Simmons took a look, but they fell in love with it.

“The building was an open canvas,” Smith tells SF Weekly. “It was four brick walls and a hole in the ground, which meant we could make our own decisions in designing the interior space.”

Onsen’s spa, at 466 Eddy St. (Courtesy of Onsen)


The renovation wasn’t smooth sailing: The original design had to be changed to comply with the fire code, and a major earthquake retrofit was necessary, using “hundreds of bolts”. Permits for a bathhouse had to be obtained from the San Francisco Police Department, and Supervisor Jane Kim had to step in to to help the pair get a massage license.

But three years later, Onsen — a 3,200-square-foot bathhouse complete with an eight-person soaking tub, wet and dry saunas, showers, massage rooms, and a restaurant — opened its doors to the neighborhood.

Across town in the Mission District, a less drastic renovation has taken place. Mark DeVito, Paul Duatschek, and Dave Azzam spent two years looking for a home for their brewery, Standard Deviant, before they came across the former site of Ken’s Wheel Service at 280 14th St. DeVito tells SF Weekly that the location resonated not just because of the price, but also because of the location (which draws a healthy amount of foot traffic) and the square footage (which offers ample space for a viable brewery).

Standard Deviant’s owners in the old Ken’s Wheel Service. (Courtesy Standard Deviant)


Another huge perk: The shop was zoned for commercial manufacturing and distribution, and as Standard Deviant is a Type 23 brewery (i.e. one that doesn’t require a kitchen), no change-of-use would have to be filed with the Planning Department.

What did have to be thoroughly investigated, however, was the soil. The biggest risk in renting a place that’s been a former auto shop is the environmental contaminants that have leaked into the ground. Luckily, DeVito told us, all professionally tested samples came up clear.

Unlike Onsen, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to tell that Standard Deviant used to be an auto shop. The large metal roll-up door is still there, and it serves its same purpose: allowing large pieces of equipment — in this case, pallets of grain and malt — to be easily unloaded off delivery trucks.

But as anyone who’s stopped by knows, Standard Deviant isn’t all-work-and-no-play. Along with the noisy, flashing pinball machines, the big door rolls up to let in the sun, warming the visiting crowds on our rare non-foggy days.

“Aesthetically, we wanted to keep it with the vibe of neighborhood,” DeVito says. “Most of 14th Street is devoted to old auto-body shops, so we decided we wanted the decor to be vintage, and a little auto-ish. Also, we ran out of money.”

The method of converting old auto shops seems to be working for Onsen and Standard Deviant, and other businesses are catching on. On Divisadero Street, right next to Little Star Pizza, a black facade looms eerily over the block, a dirty torn curtain hanging in its window. While it’s currently quiet inside, paperwork is being shuffled through the Planning Department for its future iteration as a multi-use space, that will include Che Fico, an Italian restaurant; Boba Guys, a local boba tea chain; and a pie shop called Theorita. The building has stood empty for years, and though it has an ambitious future, it may take some work to get there: Rumor has it that old solvent tanks are buried in the foundation from its days as Body Master USA.

But small businesses aren’t the only ones eyeing old car garages and bodyshops. In Cole Valley, the Cole Garage — easily recognized by its colorful mural depicting dogs and cats — sold for around $2.85 million in 2014, and after 25 years in business, garage owner Dirk Spencer learned he had six months to vacate the premises. He told Hoodline that the 9,300-square-foot garage was once home to stables and buggies, from before the automobile became popular. Now, the spot is being considered as a future location for GoHealth Urgent Care.

The future of Volvo Centrum. (Courtesy SF Planning/BAR Architects)


On 16th and Sanchez streets, the former Volvo Centrum shop also had a hefty price tag when Steel Arc Properties bought it for $4.6 million in 2016. While many old garages — such as the Alouis Radiator shop on Divisadero and Grove streets — face demolition to make room for new housing, the original Volvo Centrum facade is being preserved as the rest of the building undergoes an epic makeover. Based on a preliminary document filed with the city, BAR Architects has designed 12 residential units, a 3,300-square-foot restaurant, and four private roof decks that will all be built behind the original storefront, with modern glass rising up from the old concrete base.

The same style of renovation will transform an old Art Deco garage on Townsend Street in SoMa. A boxy, six-story hotel may rise behind its stylish facade, keeping its historic 1935 street-level exterior intact.

If all of this news makes you wonder where on earth you’re going to get your oil changed, it’s true that many garages and specialty body shops are moving further afield. (One SF Media Co. employee who owns a pretty badass 1982 Mercedes treks across the Bay to get it serviced.)

But modern-day cars need less attention than their rickety friends of yore, and there’s still a fair share of auto garages and body shops left in the city. Now, they’re just interspersed between bars, restaurants, hotels, and the occasional sauna with a cold plunge.

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