Seemingly Abandoned Mission Building Actually Under Construction

A perpetually unfinished eyesore has brought blight to 21st and Mission, even as the neighborhood goes upscale.

It’s amazing how quickly buildings are constructed in San Francisco these days. The Salesforce Tower, the city’s tallest building, went from breaking ground to opening for business in less than five years. In the Mission District, a decrepit Giant Value 99-cent store was demolished and turned into the luxury condo complex Vida in less than two years.

But on one of the trendiest blocks in town — right across the street from Vida and the popular Alamo Drafthouse cinema —  a rusted husk of a construction project seems to have made little visible progress in nearly two decades. What looks like the frame of a three-story parking lot has been a long-time eyesore, sitting right next to the bar formerly known as Balançoire, the Blue Macaw, and 12 Galaxies. (It’s now the Mission Street Sports Bar.)

Despite appearances, this unfinished building is not a parking lot, and never has been. The movie palace originally opened in 1913 with the unfortunate name Wigwam Theatre. As Mission Street turned into a high-end retail thoroughfare with plenty of cinemas, it became the New Rialto Theatre in the 1930s, the Crown Theatre in the 1960s, and then Cine Latino, before shuttering in 1987. The building’s’ been empty ever since.

Like many of Mission Street’s former movie theaters, it had a giant marquee that stayed up for years after its closure. The words “Cine Latino” were still visible on that marquee until its removal in 2013. It was the only big change in what looks like an abandoned building.

Contrary to appearances, however, there are actually plans afoot to transform 2551 Mission St. into a 20,000-square-foot health club and gymnasium, but it isn’t going smoothly. After years of starts and stops to the current construction, SF Weekly has learned that the project has once again had all its building permits suspended.

“There has actually been construction going on for a long time on this property,” says project architect Charles Hemminger. “Yes, the current permit is temporarily on hold, while the S.F. Planning Department determines how they want to proceed.”

Hemminger has a pretty impressive and credible resume. He’s the architect who designed San Francisco’s Mission Cliffs location, renovated the Mission restaurant flour + water, and who’s currently involved with the State Bird Provisions expansion.

But he’s not the owner of the 2551 Mission building. That would be Vera Cort, owner of more than a dozen properties in San Francisco, including the Mission’s Southern Exposure art gallery and the building that houses Central Kitchen and Salumeria.

Cort has generated some controversy over the years, having tried to evict a cancer-support nonprofit from the U.S. Bank building just a block away in 2015 — they reached an agreement where the nonprofit moved to another floor — and for painting over a Chuy Campusano mural at 17th and Harrison streets in 1998. But she does not have a history of leaving building projects half-finished for years on end, which makes the saga of this old movie theater particularly curious.

Cort’s owned the vacant building since the late 1990s. In 2012, she announced plans to restore the old structure into a gym, with a built-in franchise of the Washington, D.C.-based restaurant Busboys and Poets. Six years later, those plans are still supposedly in effect.

“The owner has met with a number of gyms over the years,” Hemminger tells SF Weekly. “There is clearly a strong interest for a health fitness facility to move into the Mission, and it would be a real amenity to the Mission neighborhood. There is currently no full-service health fitness facility within the Mission.”

Acknowledging that not everyone may view this as a boon, he notes that “it will not be some fancy, unaffordable health fitness facility. I am sure the eventual tenant will get the vibe and demography of Mission and create something appropriate.”

That said, the plans to add a Busboys and Poets — or any kind of restaurant — have been shelved.  “Right now, I do not believe a restaurant will be one of the tenants,” Hemminger says. “If a restaurant were to be a tenant, they would occupy a relatively small portion of the overall building.”

But none of this explains the decades of delays. So slow is the progress, it leads the casual eye to conclude that nothing has been done to the property. Oddly, that’s not true.

The place has been an active construction site for more than 10 years. The old marquee has been torn down, and the front facade has been completely torn off. As of this week, one can plainly see that new aluminum roofing has been installed on several floors, and sprinkler systems — which are no small investment — have been put in recently on each level.

Yet the location’s building permits are all currently suspended as of Jan. 31, 2018. The Department of Building Inspections classified this as an “interdepartmental” suspension ordered by the Department of City Planning, and would not publicly acknowledge the reason for the suspension nor its length.

But an SF Weekly investigation into other DBI documents found nearly a dozen neighbor and resident complaints about the property and its construction dating back to 2005. Some of them included gripes about steel beam contractors performing loud construction work at 3 or 4 a.m. without a night noise permit. Other complaints were exactly what you’d expect on a project that has been frustratingly unfinished for more than 10 years, like “job site abandoned” and “excessively slow construction process.”

To be fair, some of the delays have been perfectly reasonable. Cort’s husband passed away in 2003, and she took substantial time off for bereavement. The building’s foundation engineer died in 2005 with that component still unfinished, necessitating a lengthy search for a replacement engineer.

And Hemminger contends the project is a lot closer to completion than it appears. “Though it does not look like it from the front of the building, the shell of the building is approximately 85 to 90 percent complete,” he tells SF Weekly. “We are awaiting final approval from the Planning and Building Department to complete the building.”

The property has eight building permits currently suspended, but Hemminger is optimistic they’ll all be restored in one fell swoop. “Like most large construction projects, the actual building permits are issued through a series of addendums,” he says. “Addendums of this project include the interior finishes, HVAC and electrical systems, and the building of the front facade.”

This is all still waiting for Planning Department approval, and then has to be reviewed by DBI. Hemminger predicts that with those approvals, this busted old building will be a beautiful new gym within a year.

“Once a permit is issued, I would anticipate approximately 12 months to complete work associated with the building shell,” he says. “Simultaneously, interior work will be underway.”

Still, it’s incredibly odd that a city block attracting so much new high-end development  — the Vida condos, the Alamo Drafthouse, the El Techo rooftop, and a proposed Foreign Cinema expansion — is also home to one of the most blighted-looking, perpetually unfinished projects in town. A review of building department documents indicates the developers are honestly trying to put in a gym. But given all the delays, it’s fair to wonder if this fitness facility will ever be working out.

Joe Kukura is an SF Weekly contributor. |  @ExercisingDrunk

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