The surge in high-priced development along San Francisco’s long-neglected Mid-Market corridor may be a boon to city finances, but the rising prices that growth has fueled is a threat to the local arts community.
A years-long effort to build a performing arts and education center at the intersection of Market, Turk and Mason streets could collapse now that an out-of-town property owner has ended talks with the project’s backers and put the lots up for bid.
“I’m hoping that whoever ends up with the property is willing to do an arts component and not just make everything market rate,” said Will Thacher, whose family has owned the rest of the proposed project, the adjoining property at 950-964 Market St., since 1937. “But San Francisco is one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation and Mid-Market now is one of the hottest areas in the city.”
It wasn’t always that way. Just a few years ago, Mid-Market was a seedy urban desert plunked in the middle of the city’s signature boulevard. Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and current Mayor Ed Lee worked to create tax breaks and incentives to bring in businesses to replace the empty buildings, boarded-up storefronts and cheesy retail shops that contributed to the area’s dangerous, down-at-the-heels vibe.
Against that background, the plan for a mixed-use arts center that would transform three-quarters of one of the sketchiest blocks on Market Street was a gift from above. City officials, the arts community and neighborhood groups from the adjoining Tenderloin quickly embraced the plan.
“Theater groups are getting priced out of the city, even as people are coming to the city for the arts,” said Carmela Gold, president of the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, which has put together the proposed arts project. “If you talk to anyone in the arts, even an organization as big as (the American Conservatory Theater), they’ll say they’re going to be priced out of the city in five years.”
The plan for the 950 Center for Art and Education calls for four small theaters, rehearsal space, meeting rooms and public areas that could be shared by several performing arts groups, along with office space. ACT, which is converting the nearby Strand Theater into another performing space, would also use the new center for administrative and education efforts, according to a January 2013 report on the project.
“We want to provide affordable space for arts groups that are being squeezed out of the city because of what’s happening in the real estate market,” said John Clawson, founder of Equity Community Builders, the development consultant on the project.
With the arts activity on the second and third floors of the proposed development, there would be room in the sprawling building for street-level restaurant and retail space, as well residential or office uses on higher floors, making the project more attractive to a developer.
Ideal for small groups
The shared space idea is perfect for small local theater groups, which wouldn’t be burdened with the day-in, day-out costs of running their own performance spaces, said Steven Anthony Jones, artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.
“We can share office and rehearsal space and put the money we save into the artistic side,” he said.
But, except for Thacher, property owners’ early interest in the arts plan waned as the price tag rose on Mid-Market property. The Lone Star Fund of Dallas, which now owns the other three Market Street parcels earmarked for the arts center, turned down an offer by the project’s backers and opted to put the properties up for bid late last month.
City officials, however, continue to see the arts as a major part of Mid-Market’s revival. On Jan. 30, the mayor and Supervisor Jane Kim sat down with the arts center’s sponsors and potential bidders for the Lone Star property and made it clear the city would work with developers to get the deal done.
“We’re excited about the economic growth we’re seeing,” Kim said. “But the concept also was to recognize the existing community that had always been there … and continue to protect services and the arts who were the area’s original tenants.”
Trying to stay in S.F.
If the arts plan dies, it will be a loss to the city and the artists who make it home.
The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre has been the Bay Area’s signature professional black theater company for 32 years, all of it spent in San Francisco. But after losing their theater a few years back, “we’ve been barnstorming, making plans and then looking for a venue,” said Jones. “This would mean we’d have a permanent home.”
Without the new arts center, “I’m not sure we can stay in San Francisco,” he said.
For now, there’s not much Gold and other supporters of the arts hub can do.
“We’re just waiting for Lone Star to pick a winner and then talk with whoever gets the bid,” she said.
But Gold remains confident. The arts center has both political and financial backing and is the type of project that could transform the adjoining Tenderloin neighborhood.
“We want the Tenderloin to benefit from the extraordinary growth of business along Mid-Market,” she said. “We want development to increase to where people are happy to walk down Turk Street.”
John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org