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Omaha Beach in the Mission

Gary Kamiya | November 20, 2013 | Story Real Estate

If you thought the fight over 8 Washington was ugly, you ain't seen nothing yet.

On October 18, Maximus Real Estate Partners filed an application with the San Francisco Planning Department to build a 10-story mixed-use building, with 351 mostly market-rate apartments and 32,000 square feet of ground-level retail space, on the northeast corner of...wait for it...16th and Mission streets.

Yes, 16th and Mission, one of the grittiest, most drug-riddled, crime-plagued intersections in the entire city. For decades, it has been a notorious hangout for junkies, “smash and grab” thieves who prey on parked cars, prostitutes, the mentally ill, the substance addicted, and assorted other criminals and lost souls. It’s on turf controlled by the SureƱo street gang and has been the site of numerous murders, the most recent a shooting on October 20. And of its four unlovely corners, the northeast is the most downtrodden. The dingy open space surrounding the BART entrance abuts a singularly unattractive building, its ugly gray walls painted over, with a Burger King and a shuttered-up dollar store as its tenants, giving off the vibe of a dismal mini-mall. Protected by an incongruous metal fence is a Walgreens that extends to the north along Mission.

An urbanist’s dream of welcoming public space, it isn’t. On a recent morning, a nearby bench was occupied by an agitated-looking transvestite in a yellow wig who suddenly began screaming loudly to no one. Two police officers were standing on the corner, part of what is apparently a new SFPD tactic. (A resident said that the cops had only recently started working the corner in the morning and that street problems had greatly improved as a result.) Asked what kind of crimes are most common, one of the cops said, “You get everything here,” before he and his partner got a radio call and hurried off across the street.

Sixteenth and Mission is not only one of the most dangerous intersections in the city; it also happens to be home to one of only eight BART stations in San Francisco. That weird combination, plus the fact that every techie in the universe is willing to pay $3,500 a month to live in the neighborhood, paradoxically makes it a city planner’s ideal location for high-density, transit-oriented housing. A big market-rate development would help alleviate the city’s severe housing shortage, and the influx of middle-class renters with political muscle would have an immediate and dramatic effect on the crime, filth, and squalor that plague the intersection. From that 30,000-feet-above- the-ground perspective, green-lighting the development is an almost laughable no-brainer: If anyone 20 years ago had predicted that a developer would be willing to spend $82 million of private money on a high-end multiuse building—including not just apartments but also a much-needed grocery store—at 16th and Mission, he would have been told to go peddle some prime Florida swampland. It’s an opportunity to improve a severely blighted corner that seems almost too good to be true.

But to Gabriel Medina, policy manager for the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), the proposed development is a nightmare. “This development would devastate the neighborhood,” Medina says. “This is one of the most vital neighborhoods in San Francisco. It’s one of the last bastions for the low-income and Latino community. This development would drive rents through the roof and devastate local businesses.”

What about crime? Medina asserts that any reduction would come at an unacceptable cost. “The biggest SRO in the city is half a block away,” he says. “There are 700 SRO tenants living nearby. This is their only open space. If you go after them, you’re criminalizing this population and making it even harder for them to get out of poverty.”

For Medina, a better model for development at 16th and Mission is Oakland’s Fruitvale Transit Village, an innovative (if much smaller) public-private development that consists of 47 units: 10 affordable and 37 market rate. “We don’t need a market-rate development here,” he says.

Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the urban-planning think tank SPUR, has a far more sanguine perspective. “I hope something great happens there. Land near BART stations is rare and precious. We built America the wrong way, around the automobile. If we want to build San Francisco the right way, we need to give as many people as possible the opportunity to live near BART.”

Metcalf won’t comment in specific terms on the proposed development, saying that he doesn’t know the details, but has no problem with the fact that a majority of the units would be market rate. “What’s the alternative? It costs $250,000 per unit in government subsidies to build affordable housing. I’m a really big supporter of building as much affordable housing as we can, as well as market-rate housing. Every neighborhood in San Francisco should be adding both.”

Whether or not Medina’s dire predictions about the proposed development’s immediate impact prove true (it should be noted that no residents would be displaced by it and that it includes provisions for some affordable housing, either on- or off- site, as required by the city), there’s no question that a swanky high-rise at 16th and Mission would radically change the neighborhood. It would clear the path to the development of bedraggled, beloved Mission Street, that increasingly anomalous holdout in a rising tide of charcuteries and single-pour coffee shops. If this is D-day in San Francisco’s real estate wars, then 16th and Mission is Omaha Beach. Small wonder that Medina’s MEDA and other antigentrification organizations, like People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights, are opening fire on the landing craft filled with affluent renters before it can hit the shore.

Next, the project will have to go through San Francisco’s byzantine planning process. If the proposal is appealed out of the Planning Commission to the Board of Supervisors, the political calculus will be fascinating to watch. District 9 supervisor David Campos, the neighborhood’s representative, is running for the District 17 state assembly seat, which includes the entire eastern half of the city, against board president David Chiu. How this issue will play with voters both in the Mission and in District 17 is far from clear. So far, both Campos and Chiu are prudently playing their cards close to their chests. Stay tuned.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of San Francisco

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