San Francisco’s mid-Market corridor is in rapid transformation. Will the changes jibe with the post-gentrification vision of its performing-arts stakeholders?
One evening last December, a hundred or so activists marched down Market Street, San Francisco’s central thoroughfare, through the long-blighted but recently rising mid-Market corridor, just a stone’s throw from City Hall. They had come from a rally not far away, outside 1355 Market, the new headquarters of the tech giant Twitter, where they sought the attention of local and state politicians with signs carrying slogans like “Twitter Too Cool for School” and a vocal call for more equitable distribution of public funds—away from corporations and toward students, families and public education. At least one politician was among them: City Supervisor Eric Mar carried a sign reading “Stop Corporate Greed.”
The demonstrators’ route took them by American Conservatory Theater’s Costume Shop at 1117 Market, a black-box stage for ACT’s MFA students and—thanks to grants from the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Collaborative and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation that make it available without charge to qualifying applicants—local companies, too. As the protesters paraded by singing pointedly modified Christmas carols, ACT artistic director Carey Perloff was inside convening the second in a series of discussions with members of the local arts community. The topic: hopes and fears surrounding the opening (scheduled for early 2015) of the Strand, a long-shuttered former porn theatre situated practically next door, at 1127 Market, and now being transformed into ACT’s stylish new two-stage venue.
The scene on the sidewalk and the scene inside the storefront theatre unfolded separately, but they were intricately related. Along this core stretch of Market Street, a civic drama is underway that encompasses not only new neighbors Twitter and ACT but many other arts organizations, including theatre companies, and other newly arriving tech companies, like Zendesk, Square, Yammer and Spotify. Both the arts groups and the techies are looking to secure space in a neighborhood that as recently as 2011 had the highest commercial vacancy rate of any in the city. This takes place amid a diverse population of mostly low-income residents, a sizable homeless population, small businesses, social service agencies and municipal government offices—all surrounded by the affluence, opulence and construction cranes of boomtown San Francisco.
Call them dramatis personae or call them stakeholders—all these groups are playing dynamic roles in the city’s ongoing revitalization of mid-Market, a neighborhood that has come to epitomize the rapid transformation of San Francisco at large, as well as the uncertain place of the performing arts in it.
From an overarching perspective, the issue is not just securing a place for artists and arts organizations in a rapidly gentrifying and increasingly expensive city, although that has already amounted to a serious challenge amid widespread displacement of San Francisco’s most financially vulnerable residents. It’s also about discovering a meaningful relationship between arts and development—one that does not cast the artist in the role of unwitting handmaiden to gentrification, but puts the arts at the center of community development, balancing a social mission with the workings of a roiling real estate market. To this end, several models have emerged from the mid-Market struggle that will help shape the city’s culture in the future—and should be of interest to anyone concerned with the place of performing arts in urban planning today.
Fifty years ago, Market Street, an historic artery and major transportation hub, brought people from miles around into what locals used to refer to as the city’s own Great White Way, a row of theatres and entertainments that was second to none among San Francisco neighborhoods. Several of the big theatres remain: the Warfield is a 2,300-seat music venue; the Orpheum and the Golden Gate, operated by SHN, bring in touring Broadway fare. Many smaller theatres live nearby—the EXIT Theatre, the Cutting Ball Theatre, Bindlestiff Studio,Boxcar Theatre, KUNST-STOFF and New Conservatory Theatre Center among them. But for years now, the mile-and-a-half of this downtown track known as mid-Market (or, in an attempt at rebranding, Central Market) has stood as an anomaly in a city shimmering with wealth and commerce—several long blocks’ worth of liquor stores, check-cashing places, head shops, strip clubs, street crime and vacant storefronts and lots, with the Tenderloin and SoMa (South of Market) as the deeply impoverished if vibrant flanks to the north and south.
Recently, partly as a result of actions put into motion by the mayor’s office, that picture has been noticeably changing. In January 2010, then Mayor Gavin Newsom charged his Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) with drawing up a plan for a public/private initiative that would guide a revitalization effort in the blighted mid-Market corridor (defined as that stretch of Market from Van Ness Avenue to 5th Street, and including a small swath of the Tenderloin and adjacent parts of South of Market). This effort was dubbed the Central Market Partnership. In November 2011, under Newsom’s successor Ed Lee, OEWD published the Central Market Economic Strategy. The report identified the arts community as one of seven neighborhood assets on which to build the revitalization effort.
Among those invited to join the Central Market Partnership’s regular meetings was Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area (TBA), the region’s performing arts service organization. “They wanted to know how many arts groups would be interested in moving into mid-Market,” explains Erickson, seated by the window in his office, which, as of last August, looks out onto the same shifting stretch of Market Street as ACT’s costume shop, TBA’s downstairs neighbor.
TBA obliged by conducting a survey of its membership. A large majority of respondents said they were interested in moving into mid-Market. “There was a lot of need for both venue and rehearsal space. This is before the big boom of now. So that was interesting. And out of that we got some money to go deeper.”
Erickson was invited to more meetings—with the City’s Grants for the Arts and Arts Commission, and the Northern California Community Loan Fund, a major regional lender and technical assistance provider targeting the neediest communities, which had been hired by Grants for the Arts to connect nonprofits with spaces (it was an NCCLF consultant who helped TBA relocate to its current rental on mid-Market).
Erickson says the city and its allies wanted to use the arts—the performing arts, in particular—to establish a beachhead and transform the neighborhood. Why? “Because we were the bravest foot soldiers around. If you couldn’t get bars to go in, and you couldn’t get restaurants, send the artists in, because they’ll go where no one else will,” he recalls with a laugh. “So theatre was really at the center. I was amazed that the mayor’s office was actively talking and worrying about where companies like PianoFight were going to find a home—that they even knew what PianoFight was!”
Amy Cohen, director of neighborhood development for OEWD and one of the mayor’s more prominent liaisons with the arts community, says her office first approached arts leaders against the backdrop of a “huge vacancy problem” in mid-Market: “We had vacant lots and vacant buildings. So we started working with the arts community to figure out who’s looking to expand.” Early on, Cohen met with Perloff and learned ACT was being priced out of their rental property at 30 Grant Avenue, in the congested shopping district just east of the corridor. ACT wanted to consolidate its conservatory and administrative offices in a building that would also house a second theatre.
“Now we had some square-footage need and an organization that might actually be able to raise money,” Cohen explains by phone. “[We’d been working] in concert with the Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts, which are other city agencies who do arts work. We all knew—it’s not just a matter of figuring out who’s looking for space, but who can afford a building. That’s been the challenge. ACT is in the unique position of being able to afford more than your average performing arts organization, and they still have a bunch of money to raise.”
ACT was lucky to buy when it did. Since then, the dynamic in mid-Market has changed dramatically, thanks to the city’s success in wooing the area’s tech firms into the neighborhood with a payroll-tax break unveiled in 2011. When tech started moving in, theatre and performing arts found themselves in a newly reshuffled deck of players, says Erickson, as real estate prices in this heretofore low-rent area began to climb steeply.
“The Twitter deal happened, and things changed amazingly fast,” recalls Erickson. “If what you wanted to do was to fill up empty spaces and raise commercial rates, it’s been hugely successful at that,” he laughs. “But here’s the problem now: Is there room for the arts nonprofits in general, theatre in particular? The vision of what Central Market could be is becoming a bit of a victim of its own success.”
The aforementioned PianoFight, a small company devoted to new plays and comedy, also got into mid-Market just before the real estate market took off. It secured a 10-year lease, bank loans, investors and private and public contributions (including a $75,000 development grant from OEWD) to acquire and renovate a legendary Tenderloin establishment, Original Joe’s, at 144 Taylor Street—a sketchy skip-and-a-jump north of Market Street. The two-stage, 5,000-square-foot complex, due to open in 2014, sports a restaurant and bar.
And PianoFight is not alone. Rob Ready (who co-founded the company in 2007 with Dan Williams and Kevin Fink) ticks off the performance stages old and new on the surrounding two blocks. “In a two-block radius you’re looking at 10 venues [including commercial establishments as well as nonprofit theatres and arts organizations] and about 20 different stages by 2015 or 2016. To my knowledge, there’s no other area of the city that can say that.”
Richard Livingston, co-founder with Christina Augello of the EXIT Theatre, one of the venues in Ready’s tally and active in the Tenderloin for 31 years, stresses that this surge of arts development, while significant, merely extends a much longer renaissance.
“If you go back 40 years to the early ’70s, starting at 3rd Street [and Market], there was no museum row…noYerba Buena [Center for the Arts], the Warfield was closed, the Golden Gate was dark, the Orpheum was dark, there was no Davies Symphony Hall, there was no SFJAZZ Center, there was no ballet. If you add that up, you have over 10,000 seats. We’ve created a Lincoln Center in the last 40 years. At the same time,” Livingston continues, “there was no EXIT Theatre, Bindlestiff, Cutting Ball, Boxcar, Phoenix Theatre, Luggage Store Gallery—so we’ve also created an East Village in the same location. That’s unique in the United States.”
Livingston also points to the real and potential symbiosis between storefront theatres like the Exit and the plethora of nonprofit agencies in the Tenderloin that own such buildings. “What is overlooked in all of this is the idea of having small performing arts in commercial retail spaces in nonprofit-affordable housing buildings. We’re an example of it,” he notes. “The basic agreement is that we’ll take total responsibility for the build-out, which we do with our sweat equity; we’ll take responsibility for the maintenance; and we will provide positive nighttime activity, which is something these organizations have not been able to do in locations like this,” he says. “In return, we get long-term, low-cost rentals in a building that’s not owned by a speculator.”
Such an arrangement, he argues, is an underappreciated option for smaller arts organizations in need of space. “I think it’s a model that really should be explored and pushed.”
Two of PianoFight’s new neigh-bors also merit special attention as models of community arts development. The 950-974 Market project is by far the most ambitious—and a complex story that can only be touched on here. Birthed by the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, and led by former TEDP executive director Elvin Padilla, it envisions a mixed-use, high-rise center on the block of 950-974 Market and Turk Streets, containing a hotel, mixed-income housing and retail businesses as well as the 950 Center for Arts & Education. The latter will include performance spaces, administrative offices, rehearsal space, studios and classrooms. Among the theatre companies currently considering residence at 950 are the Magic, Lorraine Hansberry and Crowded Fire. Choreographer Alonzo King (whose LINES Ballet currently resides in a building at 7th and Market) is also part of the conversation.
Having acquired the property, Padilla and the developer, Group I (Joy Ou, president), are working closely with the city to create (through legislation affecting the city’s planning code) a Special Use District that will incentivize the development of the arts component. The project has received pre-development assistance from major foundations. While still some way from construction (projected to start in 2016), the 950 Project has survived the recent vicissitudes of the real estate market and moved steadily forward, recently unveiling stunning plans developed by Danish architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).
The second venue, the new CounterPULSE space at 80 Turk, comes with a promising story of its own. On Nov. 13, 2013, Mayor Lee announced the formation of CAST, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust. A partnership between NCCLF and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation—a relative newcomer to the local arts funding scene and a major mover-and-shaker, which is providing $5 million in seed money to the venture over the next five years—CAST aims to support the City’s Central Market Economic Strategy by providing long-term security to arts groups in the neighborhood. In its first act, CAST stepped in to purchase two buildings on behalf of two vital arts organizations who will eventually pay it back: the Luggage Store Gallery (at 1007 Market) and CounterPULSE, the latter a sharp and vital dance and performance incubator currently running out its lease on Mission Street near 9th, just a block off mid-Market.
For CounterPULSE, the purchase of the building (another old porn theatre, as it happens) fulfilled many needs in terms of space and long-term security, but the arrangement goes even further.
“Part of the CAST structure is that we agreed to put deed restriction on our property,” explains executive and artistic director Jessica Robinson Love of the momentous deal. “So when we own it outright, which we will in seven years, if we ever want to sell it, we have to sell it at a lower rate to another nonprofit arts organization. I imagine that CounterPULSE will be there forever, but even if we aren’t, 50 years from now there will be this space for risk-taking emerging artists. It’s permanently secured.” The point bears emphasizing. “This doesn’t happen,” Love stresses. “It’s a radical idea that a grassroots arts organization would own its own building and have guaranteed security. None of the other spaces our size is owned. It’s a really big deal.”
Deborah Cullinan, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ new executive director, sits on CAST’s five-member board. As the former longtime executive director of Intersection for the Arts, Cullinan led that organization’s 2011 move into the San Francisco Chronicle Building, on the edge of the mid-Market district, bringing Intersection into the 5M Project, a major development project of Cleveland-based real estate developer Forest City Enterprises that claims to be building “a synergistic community of artists, makers and entrepreneurs” on 4.5 acres at 5th and Mission. She is a persuasive advocate for having arts organizations at the table when it comes to development, and expands on how CAST is approaching its task.
“We believe it’s going to take a textured approach to come up with a new model for how we stabilize arts organizations as cities change,” she says. “It’s going to be a combination of buying buildings and recycling financial resources, and utilizing things like New Markets Tax Credits. It’s also going to probably include us coming up with some kind of master leasing program, and also building capacity in these organizations to manage real estate. The idea is, you put all that together, and you create enough density where it actually makes a difference, where you are actually impacting gentrification. You’re working with artists and organizations that are maybe indigenous, or that are working in community. It’s really about trying to come up with a solution to this thing everyone’s fighting about.”
But bridging for-profit development and nonprofit community-based arts is already proving an ambiguous strategy. As this article was going to press, Intersection announced a drastic downsizing of its activities. As of June 1, the city’s oldest alternative arts space would lay off most of its staff and suspend its own work as well as that of all four resident companies in favor of a fiscal sponsorship and space rental model. Intersection’s board chair Yancy Widmer and interim executive director Arthur Combs said in a press release that the “restructuring” was necessary in light of serious financial challenges.
In her office at CounterPULSE, Love maintains a skeptical view of the more inflated rhetoric around arts-based development. Having moved CounterPULSE to Mission Street in 2005 after its former incarnation, 848 Community Space, was priced out of the gentrifying Western Addition, she remembers sitting in this very room listening to someone relate a plan to revitalize mid-Market. “At that time it was a bunch of developers who wanted to basically sell billboards and make it like Times Square,” she recalls. “That was just one of the many iterations of this. It’s been a long time coming.”
Still, CAST is something else, a model for maintaining community-based arts in an otherwise hostile real estate market. “We can go to other organizations, and other cities, and say, ‘Look, there is a way to preserve affordability, and this is how you can do it,’” explains Love, who says she will be consulting with CAST on its future projects. “I’m a systems thinker,” she adds. “I love what I produce in my theatre, but it’s 15,000 people a year. I have my sights set on a much bigger impact.”
Having worked hard to secure a seemingly permanent space amid a wildly volatile landscape, Love expresses measured confidence about the possibilities for community arts development in mid-Market and beyond.
“Being part of this has made me so much more optimistic about the future of San Francisco than I would be otherwise,” she says. “A lot of my friends are living in that anger and frustration [over gentrification]. I have lots of critiques of how this change is happening—but also a lot more hope.”
She pauses before adding a crucial caveat. “But if we can’t also solve affordable housing, and keep artists living in this city,” she warns, “it will be for naught.”
Originally published in American Theatre, July 2014.