Reviving Mid Market
San Francisco's Mid-Market Neighborhood, defined roughly as the stretch of Market Street between 5th Street and Van Ness Avenue, together with the adjacent blocks, deserves to be a great San Francisco neighborhood vital, livable, diverse, and sustainable.
A brief history
Market Street's role as the city's main transit and civic street began in the 1840's when surveyor Jasper O'Farrell laid out Market Street as the grand promenade for the Mexican town of Yerba Buena. Market Street was aligned at a diagonal to the north-of-Market street grid, visually connecting Twin Peaks to the waterfront. It is over 100' wide from the Embarcadero to Castro Street. The south-of-Market Street blocks are much larger than the north of Market blocks; the SoMa blocks between 1st and 8th streets are 825' by 550', four times larger than the north of Market blocks, and eleven times larger than the 200' square blocks that give downtown Portland and downtown Seattle such a walkable scale.
Market Street soon emerged as the city's primary ceremonial street, hosting parades and civic processions. It also became the city's primary transit street, first for cable car lines, and later for electric streetcar lines.
The 1906 Earthquake and Fire gutted or destroyed most of the buildings on Market Street between the waterfront and Octavia Street, although some fire-gutted buildings were repaired.
Mid-Market still has many fine buildings from the period before and after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. The Civic Center's ensemble of Beaux-Arts buildings is considered one of the finest of its type in the world. Market Street itself has many handsome buildings, including the former Hale Brothers Department Store (901 Market, at the corner of 5th), Warfield Theater (982 Market, at the corner of Taylor), Golden Gate Theater (42 Golden Gate Avenue, at the corner of Market and Taylor), Eastern Outfitting Co. Building (1019 Market, between 6th and 7th), Hibernia Bank Building (1 Jones Street, at the corner of Market and McAllister), Odd Fellows Building (corner of 7th and Market), 9th District Court of Appeals (corner of 7th and Mission), Orpheum Theater (1192 Market Street, corner of 8th), and the Merchandise Mart (south side of Market between 9th and 10th).
During the early 20th Century, Mid-Market emerged as an important theater district, first for Vaudeville and other live entertainment, and later for cinema. By the early 60's, the theaters were in decline. The 1962 report "What to do about Market Street?" noted that television was increasingly competing with cinema, and that many of the theaters were closing. Today, the Orpheum, Golden Gate, and Warfield theatres still offer live theater. The Market Street Cinema and Crazy Horse (formerly the Newsreel Theater) offer 'adult entertainment'. The Strand and St. Francis theaters still stand, but have been closed since the 1990s.
The report also noted the degeneration in the street's once-disinguished architectural character: "Story-and-a-half tall signs that obliterate buildings", "ground floor remodeling unrelated to the rest of the building", "roof-top billboards", "fine old buildings defaced with tinny signs", "unhappily remodeled buildings that try to look like new ones" were called out in the study as detriments to Market Street's character and vitality.
The mid-60s saw the beginning of BART construction, which ended with the opening of BART in 1973. Construction of the Muni Metro subway continued until the later 1970s. In 1968, San Francisco voters approved a $10+ million dollar bond to widen and improve Market's sidewalks, plant street trees, and build Hallidie and United Nations plazas. The Market Street design underwent three major changes. In the 1970s, the city decided to retain trolley buses and their overhead wires, and in the mid-1980's, the city decided to retain historic streetcars on Market Street. The impact of nearly two decades of construction on Market Street was severe, and many blame the construction for Market's decline.
Sign controls were introduced in 1970, which banned billboards but continued to permit theater marquees and other business signs, subject to certain restrictions, such as restricting signs from covering windows.
From the 60s to the 80s, Mid-Market saw the construction of many large new "back office" buildings. Mid-Market didn't enjoy the prestige of the Financial District, and companies generally located call centers and other service functions in Mid-Market buildings. The mid-century planning controls for height and bulk, together with large SoMa blocks and the desire to maximize building square footage for large-floorplate back-offices, created many blocky office buildings. As corporate back office functions moved to suburban areas in the 1980s, and later to rural areas or overseas, these buildings became white elephants, unattractive to most office tenants and difficult to convert to other uses.
The planning controls that prevailed until the 1980s also permitted huge slab-style high rises, like the Automobile Club (100 Van Ness Avenue) and Fox Plaza (corner of Market and Polk streets), which block sunlight and views, and create uncomfortable ground-level winds.
The neighborhood's assets
The neighborhood has many assets. Market Street is the Bay Area's most important transit street, with buses and streetcars on the surface, Muni Metro and BART underneath. Market Street was rebuilt in the 1970s and 80s with wide sidewalks paved in custom bricks, rows of London Plane trees, historic light standards, and broad granite curbstones. Mission Street, one block south, carries the important 14-Mission Muni route as well as SamTrans and Golden Gate Transit buses.
The neighborhood has three subway stations Powell Street Station (BART & Muni) at its eastern end, Civic Center/UN Plaza Station (BART & Muni) in the center, and Van Ness Station (Muni only) at its western end.
The neighborhood also has some important public spaces. Hallidie Plaza, lying north of the Powell Station at 5th and Market streets, is an important gateway to San Francisco, and connects the Mid-Market, Tenderloin, Union Square, and Yerba Buena neighborhoods. United Nations Plaza, at Market and 7th Streets, connects Market Street to the grand public buildings and public spaces of San Francisco's Civic Center.
The neighborhood has many fine buildings from the early 20th Century. Some have been meticulously restored, but many others have been incompetently renovated over the years, or are in complete disrepair.
The neighborhood's weaknesses
Despite its assets, Mid-Market struggles against a number of factors which harm its livability and vitality. Some are related to larger shifts in the economy, and have affected urban neighborhoods across the country the decline of single-screen movie theaters, relocation of back-office and support jobs from city centers, and the problems associated with chronic homelessness. Other factors are specific to Mid-Market, in particular the nearly two decades of construction disruption on Market Street, and the decision to channel high-speed traffic through the neighborhood.. Other factors, some a consequence of the factors listed above, include:
"Not only has time brought larger and fewer buildings, it has changed the way they address the street and are seen by people. Until at least the late 1940's, a pedestrian walking on Market Street saw stores. Regardless of what was going on above, the street level had stores, with windows and doors and signs. One could and did look into them. Access to upper-story offices might be through simple rather than elaborate entrances. For the walker, it was a procession of shops and each one was more different than the next. Above all it was busy, eye-catching. Contemporary office buildings are more likely to have entrance lobbies or banks or other large, nonpublic space along the sidewalk. There is less to catch the eye and less of interest.
"Above street level, the change is at least as striking, maybe more so. While once the view might have been of stone and stucco or tiled buildings with individual windows and individual blinds, and of individual people or their implied individual presence, today's views are largely of anonymous patterns, usually of vertical or horizontal bands that may make identification of individual floors difficult, to say nothing of the windows or of what or who might be behind them. In short, it seems that the most severe changes, the ones that have made the difference between a great street and a less great one, are those that have lessened community focus on Market Street while at the same time diminishing individuality and interest."
A plan of action
One often hears the lament "we have tried everything in Mid-Market, and nothing works". That's nonsense. While much has been talked about over the years, little has actually been done.
There isn't a silver bullet solution for Mid-Market. Its problems are various, and will require coordinated action of government, private, and civic actors across many different areas. Livable City's action plan involves much 'urban acupuncture' small, direct interventions aimed at getting energy flowing, with the area's residents, businesses, and stakeholders as active and engaged participants, rather than passive patients being acted upon by government and/or capital.
A great example of what is working in Mid-Market is Mint Plaza. Located behind the Old Mint near 5th and Mission Streets, Mint Plaza, which converted a stretch of Jessie Street into a vibrant urban plaza, brings together the elements that will make Mid-Market as a whole thrive: pedestrian-oriented and well-designed public spaces; good maintenance and programming with concerts and events: lots of seating, both outdoor restaurant seating and public seating; active, people-oriented ground-floor uses; human-scaled buildings which frame the space, without overwhelming it; thoughtful and dignified restoration of historic buildings; and use of historic monuments as an asset and center (the Old Mint, which is scheduled to be renovated and transformed into a museum and visitors center). Mint Plaza is a public street, but was built and is maintained by the Martin Building Company, who used an innovative financing tool (Mello-Roos infrastructure bonding) to build the plaza.
Another great project in Mid-Market is the Art's Commission's Art in Storefronts Program, which opened in the Mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods in October 2009. It gets to the heart of what makes a walkable neighborhood the street level experience.
Property Owner David Addington has been promoting the idea of a Mid-Market Sign District, which he paid to get on the November 2009 ballot as Proposition D. Proposition D was solidy rejected by the voters.
Proposition D would have permitted large new general advertising signs (aka billboards) along Market Street between 5th and 7th streets. Signs could have been up to 500 square feet in size, with no limit on the number of signs per building. Signs may project up to 10 feet over the sidewalk, as much as 25 feet above rooftops, and be 50' or more in height. Signs can be illuminated, flash, and rotate, and can be brightly visible from outside of the district.
Whether or not you think a billboard district has merit, Proposition D had some evident flaws. It is ballot-box planning, written in such a way that it can't be amended without another ballot measure. The Planning Department's analysis calls out the 'unprecedented' transfer of approval and regulatory to a private entity, which creates legal liability for the city. The approval authority for signs would have been transferred to the Community Benefit District, a private entity representing property owners. Proposition D created an unreconcilable conflict of interest for the CBD; it represents the property owners, whom it also would regulate; the CBD is also a financial beneficiary of the signs it approves. The CBD was supposed to disburse public benefits, in the form of grants to arts from a small percentage of billboard profits, but Prop D didn't guaranteed a minimum percentage be obligated to go towards arts programs.
Despite the voters' rejection, the billboard district proposal may come back. A more public process of review and hearings would probably clear up some of the worst planning loopholes, conflicts of interest, and provide more transparency and accountabilty.
That would leave the question of question is whether enormous illuminated billboards will make Mid-Market a great and livable San Francisco neighborhood, and an attractive place to live, work, eat, walk, drink, shop, or go to school. While the billboard district may allow some property owners to make existing properties profitable as sites for huge billboards, it will not renovate those buildings, enliven the street at ground level, or attract new residents or businesses. Billboards would compete with the architecture, historic marquees, artworks, historic light standards, and other character-defining elements of Mid-Market. In an era where sustianability is perhaps our greatest challenge, enormous billboards, which foster heedless overconsumption of energy and resources, are not an expression of San Francisco's current values or civic aspirations, nor do they help the city transition into the era of sustainability.
The City's Planning Department and Redevelopment Agency spent several years discussing a Redevelopment Plan and some zoning changes for the Mid-Market neighborhood (the area bounded by Market, Mission, 5th & 10th Streets). Livable City was involved in the development of this plan for over the past several years, and some of our suggested improvements to the Draft Plan were included. The plan ultimately foundered because of its lack of political support, and individual property owners cutting individual development deals (or trying to).
Many folks say that redevelopment is the 'answer' for Mid-Market. Whether redevelopment is the answer or not depends on the question the question being, "What kind of neighborhood do we want to create"? Redevelopment can be a powerful tool for revitalization, but is not a revitalization strategy. Redevelopment has an unsavory history in San Francisco. In the 60s, redevelopment was used to displace low-income residents from many neighborhoods, and rebuild them in accordance with the often-flawed planning notions of mid-20th Century modernism. The redevelopment agency will argue that they have moved on since then, but many current redevelopment projects, like Mission Bay South, are being built out as unsustainable, auto-oriented, suburban-style developments.
Mid-Market Redevelopment was conceived chiefly as a financing tool for affordable housing, delegating the zoning and planning controls to the Planning Department and the Planning Code. This was a superior strategy to that typical of San Francisco's redevelopment areas, which typically bypass the Planning Code and Planning Department in favor of inflexible Design for Development (D4D) controls, which are seldom updated, and generally grow increasingly stale and obsolete as the decades roll on.
Livable City was critical of Mid-Market Redevelopment's approach to transportation, which heavily favored the automobile; its domination by property interests and lack of community stakeholders; and the weak commitment to building and rebuilding parks, plazas, and public spaces, restoring historic buildings and improving facades, and reclaiming streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. We remain concerned about the pace of change; Mid-Market needs love, and needs change, but too much change all at once can be cataclysmic to a neighborhood. The wholesale disruption that redevelopment can bring to neighborhoods can often take decades to remedy, because the social and commercial networks which make neighborhoods livable and convivial take time to grow, or to heal.
Redevelopment has been a powerful financing tool for affordable housing, rehabilitation and renovation of buildings, and public infrastructure. In 2011, decisions by the California Legislature and Supreme Court ended redevelopment in California. Livable City is working on strategies to retain some of the benefits of redevelopment through other tax-increment financing tools (Infrastructure Finance Districts and the Transit Village Planning Act) and through incentives and requirements of the City's Planning Code.