With little land left in San Francisco for new buildings, a handful of developers are rolling the dice on the underused area around the city's Old Mint that for decades has been home to a collection of parking lots, pigeons and many of the city's down-and-out.
The neighborhood — loosely referred to as the Mid-Market area and home to The Chronicle among other businesses — has received a boost from projects like the expanded Westfield San Francisco Centre, the federal building on Mission Street and plans to turn the L-shaped alleys around the abandoned mint into a cafe-lined plaza.
Next up are high-end hotels, million-dollar condos and ultra-modern apartments.
"In a place that is as compact as San Francisco, there are very few neighborhoods that are up and coming -- there are many that have up and came and a few has-beens," said Chip Conley, founder and chief executive of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, a San Francisco boutique hotel company that has contracts to run four hotels on Seventh Street and is also providing services to a condo project called the Soma Grand. "The fact is that area still has more affordable prices."
Yet even as the developers move in and new buildings and businesses open up in the area bordered by Market, Howard, Fourth and Eighth streets, it's impossible to escape the fact that the neighborhood is what the developers like to call transitional.
Sixth Street, with its residential hotels and empty storefronts, still divides the area between the federal building and the new Bloomingdale's so that even with the changes, the neighborhood has a hard-edged, gritty feel.
"There's a juxtaposition," said Patrick McNerney, president of the Martin Building Co., whose series of refurbished apartments and condos called the Mint Collection opens this spring. "This is never going to be, nor should it be, a suburban-like environment. It's a leading-edge neighborhood."
The Mint Collection's 77 apartments and condos run along a dirty pair of alleys behind the Old Mint, which itself is a magnet for homeless people, who congregate on the steps out front. The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society is raising money to turn the mint into a museum that it expects to open in 2010 or 2011.
The new residences at the Mint Collection span two buildings and play on the neighborhood's edginess with exposed pipes running along the ceilings and stainless steel bathtubs. Market-rate rents on the apartments begin at $2,300 a month and the condos range from under $600,000 to $1.5 million. The Martin Building Co. also owns an office building and an older apartment project behind the mint.
But perhaps the most striking piece of the Martin group's project is a plan to clean
up the alleys that abut its buildings. Architectural renderings paint an idyllic area
with grass, trees and restaurants that may open by fall, according to McNerney.
His company is awaiting approval from the city — which could come by the end of the month — and the company is targeting completion by Labor Day.
"These are small steps," said McNerney, who lives in one of the Mint Collection's apartments. "But it's going to be terrific when it's finished."
The renovation of the area around the Old Mint is just one of a handful of projects
that are changing the shape of the neighborhood. Others include the giant federal
building on Mission Street, the 22-story Soma Grand hotel and the blue-glass shell
that will become the Intercontinental Hotel at Fifth and Howard streets.
While New York developers such as Tishman Speyer and Millennium Partners are drawn to neighborhoods such as Rincon Hill, many of the projects going up in the Mid-Market area are being backed by smaller, local players.
One, Alexis Wong, who founded a San Francisco real estate company called AGI Capital, said she was drawn to the neighborhood because it offered relatively affordable land in a central location.
"With the development mix, you get true downtown living," said Wong, who's firm backed the Soma Grand. "One of the reasons we went in to begin with is that we see untapped potential."
Like Wong, Leonard E. Blakesley Jr., executive vice president at Continental Development Corp. in El Segundo (Los Angeles County), began seeking to build in the area when the space that is now occupied by the gleaming new Bloomingdale's was a boarded-up shell, vacated by the Emporium.
It took a decade, but Blakesley says his company's Intercontinental Hotel is due to open early next year.
"All these experiences — the museums, the shopping, the Metreon, the new theaters in the Bloomingdale's project, the restaurants — they make it much better for our hotel guests," he said. "It is excellent timing."
As developments pop up, the neighborhood's contrasts become even more pronounced.
Despite efforts to draw businesses to Sixth Street, developers acknowledge that the residential hotels aren't going anywhere. At the same time, neighborhood groups emphasize the importance of balancing the needs of the rich and not-so-rich, stressing that new businesses and projects also need to cater to the area's longtime residents.
"That is the population which is most vulnerable," said Jenny McNulty, executive director of Urban Solutions, a nonprofit group that is working to bring small businesses to Sixth Street. "There's a balance of housing stock in the neighborhood and I hope that there can be some increased spending and support for neighborhood services and businesses that benefit everybody."
Developers say there is still a lot of underused land in the Mid-Market neighborhood. They point to the low-slung buildings that sit on land that includes at least 23 parcels belonging to The Chronicle and its parent company, Hearst Corp. Spokesmen for both Hearst and The Chronicle declined to comment on these holdings, which real estate developers say they have long eyed as possible sites for condos and other projects.
The land alone, excluding the value of any buildings on it, is assessed at $28.14 million, according to county records. But the real value is much higher, according to brokers who work in the neighborhood.
The property includes the 23 parcels that cut a swath that is more or less contiguous and stretches over 4 acres starting at Fifth Street and Mission and running south and west along four separate blocks. The land is home to The Chronicle itself as well as a collection of surface parking lots and other squat buildings.
"It's a great opportunity," Tom Christian, a partner at NAI BT Commercial in San Francisco, said of the land "It's worth more as developed property. The ideal would probably be residential or a hotel. You could build 15 or 16 stories on part of the property."