Can we have cool new additions without gentrifying the Mission?

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Illy McMahan (left) and Kelley Wehman at their recent opening party for Carousel SF.
Steven T. Jones

Do livability and gentrification go hand-in-hand? In other words, as you improve a neighborhood like the Valencia Street corridor with bike lanes, wide sidewalks, parklets, and other improvements that are part of the so-called “livability agenda,” does that necessarily drive up rents and force out the working class?

That was a contention made to me recently by owner of nightclubs and small business advocate Michael O'Connor, who has been critical of the Valencia Street improvement project and other initiatives supported by the group Livable City and its Executive Director Tom Radulovich. And it's part of a larger discussion about whether neighborhoods pay a price for their own success.

O'Connor says the toll taken by livability projects is just too high in the form of rising rents and lost diversity, which is why he's focused on Oakland for his latest business ventures. Radulovich understands the concern, but he says that safety measures like pedestrian-friendly design and lighting improvements shouldn't be avoided simply because they make a neighborhood more attractive, and that the answer is making sure social justice and equity remain part of these political conversations.

Frankly, as a resident of the Mission, I had to admit O'Connor's point that the Valencia Street Improvement Project – in combination with condo conversions, the latest dot-com boom (those dreaded Google-busers), and other upward pressures on cost of living – had the the effect of sterilizing and gentrifying that once-vibrant corridor.

Now, those who want to open cool new businesses in the area have turned to Mission Street, where the commercial rents are still reasonable but also rising, and there are some people wringing their hands about that now too. It's sort of an economic development domino theory in reverse.

The Mission Local blog last month ran a post that mentioned my friend Illy McMahan's groovy new store on Mission near 20th Street: Carousel SF, a consignment store featuring the stylishly re-purposed furniture, golden flea market finds, and the works of local artists (many from the Burning Man world, where McMahan met her business partner Kelley Wehman among the indie circus freaks of the Red Nose District).

The article presented that and other more upscale new Mission Street businesses – including Hi-Lo BBQ and Mission Oyster Bar – as spilling over from their “saturation” of Valencia Street, and some comments denigrated the “yuppie real estate developers” behind the trend and said, “Will the last Latino left in the Mission please turn off the lights on the way out.”

I understand the sentiment, but I'm still troubled by it in the same way that I am with O'Connor's belief that livability improvements should be abandoned because they can gentrify an area. As I've argued before, it's up to San Francisco's political class to find a way to maintain the city's affordability and diversity and balance that against its relentless economic development promotion.

After all, McMahan is a single mother of modest means, and the fact that she has an opportunity to start a business based on her sense of style and network of contacts with artists should be a good thing for San Francisco. She and Weham went through The Women's Initiative training program to learn about operating a small business, getting a loan to open through its Working Solutions affiliate.

“Since 1988, Women's Initiative has been assisting high-potential low-income women who dream of business ownership,” reads a description on its website, noting that 99 percent of participants are low-income women and 78 percent are women of color. Combine that with McMahan and Wehman's artistic roots in the Burning Man world -- and the need for artists to have outlets to sell their works here -- and it's hard to imagine a business that is more quintessentially San Francisco than this one.

“This store represents our take on aesthetics and our mutual love for all things previous and peculiar. It also gives us the opportunity to showcase the incredibly talented artist communities we’re fortunate to be a part of, while keep the pricing at an affordable level throughout the store,” McMahan says in a press release announcing the recent opening of Carousel SF.

Will this cool new business attract other ones near it? I'm sure they hope so. Will that begin to cause Mission Street to go the way of that parallel universe a block away on Valencia, with rising rents and the calls for livability improvements that inevitably follow? I sure hope not. But our challenge now is to facilitate the dreams of low-income women who strive to be small business owners while ensuring that they can remain welcome and stable in the neighborhoods that they're helping to improve.