The art of staying put

The area is thriving, but will Mid-Market arts center plan survive the tech boom?

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The place: Mid-Market is booming -- but will the arts lose out?
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the sound of whirring power tools floats down to Market and Golden Gate as office renovations surge ahead in the building next to the Warfield, which looks as if it had been shrink-wrapped in white plastic to control the dust. Before long, several tech startups and a venture capital firm will occupy three floors there.

The newcomers will be following a trend: Twitter and Zendesk, beneficiaries of a payroll-tax exclusion zone created to attract growing businesses, already have offices nearby. Further down the street, a glossy sidewalk-level billboard walls off a stretch of empty storefronts. "This is the Place," the message proclaims. "250,000 square feet of retail space, opening 2015."

San Francisco's Mid-Market neighborhood is changing fast. But this growth comes at a cost. It's driving up rents for nonprofits and small businesses — and it may scuttle the long-promised ambitious plans to create an arts center with affordable space for small performance groups at 950 Market Street.

Mayor Ed Lee, who pushed for the tax breaks and lauds the changes in mid-Market, also wants the arts center, and has asked potential developers who are bidding on the site to consider that use. But it's not the most profitable use — that would be tech offices — and there's nothing mandating that a private company comply with the wishes of the mayor, at a potential loss of millions of dollars.

Instead, the city is discussing a possible incentive package — that is, special zoning or city financing schemes to help get developers interested in the project.

BEYOND THE MILLIONAIRES

Mid-Market is still home to many people who are not bent on achieving tech millionaire status. Some are merely focused on finding their next meal, and might even dig through the trash for it. There are wheelchair-bound veterans, drug addicts, street merchants, and people living with AIDS. There are artists, actors, small business owners, serious sidewalk chess players, SRO dwellers, and nonprofit service providers. An economic development study determined that a full 31 percent of the households in the densely populated area earn less than $15,000 a year, making the neighborhood three times as poor as the citywide average.

The city's been trying for years to formulate a strategy for the economically and racially diverse, centralized, transit-connected neighborhood, which is just a stone's throw from City Hall. In recent years, community stakeholder meetings have been convened, email lists fired up, neighborhood surveys commissioned, pedestrian habits tracked, official reports generated. In November 2011, the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development unveiled its Central Market Economic Strategy, which charted a course for the Market area stretch roughly bracketed by Fifth and Tenth streets.

The report opens with a set of "guiding principles" that residents said ought to inform any future revitalization efforts. Priority No. 1: "Promote the development of a healthy, economically functional low-income neighborhood." Priority No. 2: "Prevent displacement of existing residents and businesses."

A great deal of emphasis has also been placed on bolstering the area's art scene, and the report acknowledges that efforts should be taken to "stabilize" low-income communities so they aren't forced out through gentrification catalyzed by art. The strategy "also includes an action item for the creation of artist housing," Christine Falvey, Mayor Lee's press secretary, told us, but "community feedback on the strategy directed the city to prioritize non-housing arts space in the first year of implementation."