Mint Condition
7x7, 10/06sf

Starting next year, a little patch of Europe will be colonizing SoMa's Jessie Street—that is, if the people behind Mezzanine have their way.

Anyone familiar with Italian piazzas, teeming even during the wee hours with chattering teenagers wheeling Vespas or clutching gelatos, will find it easy to picture the latest vision for San Francisco’s ever-changing nightlife scene. Visualize a plaza, buffered by a grove of trees, offering a haven from the honk and screech of trucks, the belching smog of buses and the thrust and drift of stop-and-go motorists. The gritty streetscape recedes as you pass through the cluster of trees and enter the paved sanctuary. Passersby walk their dogs; waiters weave among the outdoor cafe tables occupied by office workers, shoppers and loungers; a local musician performs an early evening concert of out-folk or psych-dub.

Strollers pass under a steel arbor draped with wisteria, across from the venerable Old Mint building, its facade now lined with restaurants, a visitors bureau and a horseshoe-shaped niche where, later that night, classic films set in SF light up the walls of the stately 1874 structure, now home to the San Francisco Historical Society’s museum. Farther down the plaza, an ever-shifting outdoor art installation, near a stand of gingko trees, grabs your attention. Perhaps it’s waxing wittily on the giant rat-wrestling matches that once took place outside the long-vacant Mint building. Or perhaps it features a somber display of images of the residential-hotel denizens and Filipino war vets living on neighboring Sixth Street. Suddenly, the history of this small swathe of downtown—and how far it’s progressed—is brought home to you.

If certain people at Martin Building Company get a chance to realize this vision—to be called Mint Plaza—everyone will be able to experience a bit of la dolce vita in the bustling heart of the city. Right now, the SF-based developers are spearheading an ambitious private-public effort to close a 290-by-54-foot stretch of Jessie Street, between Fifth and Mint streets, to automobile traffic. Should that be accomplished (hearings before the Department of Public Works and the MTA board, among others, have been scheduled for mid-October and early November), the company will fund and construct a pedestrian plaza housing restaurants and cafes. Arts and cultural programming will include outdoor music festivals, cinema alfresco, street fairs and farmers markets. Community groups such as the San Francisco Bike Coalition and future neighbors such as the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society have thrown their support behind the endeavor. The SF Bike Coalition has described the proposed space as promising “to be one of downtown’s most vibrant public spaces.”

If Mint Plaza does metamorphose into a cultural destination worth coming home to, it could become the model for an arts-and-residential mix that this city has long needed.

Martin Building already has a track record in SF, having rehabbed a string of live/work buildings in SoMa. And its founder and president, Patrick McNerney, also happens to be one of the forces behind the revitalized Mezzanine, once considered another far-too-sprawling dance club constructed at the wrong end of the dot-com euphoria but now reborn as a live music powerhouse. Once the various hearings are over, the company will still need approval from the Board of Supervisors in order to begin construction in January 2007. But even if the project doesn’t go through, it’s worth contemplating how its vision for a green space, a little slice of peace carved out of a dingy sliver of San Francisco cityscape, fits into the current wave in SF nightlife (for a look at some of the newest clubs, see Raising the Bar).

Mezzanine is, physically, slightly off the grid of Sixth Street. Reverberating any night of the week with music as stylistically far-flung as the Wu Tang Clan’s Method Man, indie rockers Album Leaf and no-wave innovators ESG, it’s located a good distance down Jessie Alley—one reason, perhaps, that the team behind the would-be anchor for Mint Plaza has had to work hard to establish its reputation as a live-music venue. Just as Martin has sought support from Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Chris Daly in creating the plaza, the company has made an effort to make the vital connections between the arts realm and entrepreneurial efforts. Mint Plaza will, after all, also include some 80 residential units, which the development firm will lease out or sell, apartments that are likely to attract culture vultures appreciative of the scene occurring at street level.

If Mint Plaza does metamorphose into a cultural destination worth coming home to, it could become the model for an arts-and-residential mix that this city has long needed. “I think San Francisco venues are always struggling to find that added ingredient that will allow them to present quality entertainment at affordable prices,” says the executive director of the city’s entertainment commission, Robert Davis. “That takes real creativity and, to some extent, real cooperation. So the collaboration that you’re seeing there [with Mint Plaza] is an attempt to do that.” Yet the balance has been long in coming to this already densely populated city that values culture but also must accommodate the high demand for housing, according to Terrance Alan, chairman of the Late Night Coalition and a member of the entertainment commission. “Many cities have areas that are more commercial or industrial in nature, but because of live/work districting, we have residential dwellings in almost every part of the city,” he explains, pointing out that clubs often generate noise complaints. “People go out to have a good time, and, as they are coming and going from establishments, that ancillary noise upsets many people who have spent millions for their island of seclusion in their mixed-use neighborhood. It’s a challenge.”

It helps that Martin has made an effort to reach out to the neighborhood in the planning and programming of the plaza, holding community workshops to gather feedback, and has attempted to keep the design as streamlined as possible in order to complement the historic buildings surrounding it. The firm plans to use pavement stone that plays off the Old Mint, to include lighting that enhances the architectural features of the structure and to limit the plantings in order to facilitate views of the museum. Green design is another consideration: The designers, CMG Landscape Architecture, have incorporated a “bio-swale” feature and permeable pavement into the plan in order to harvest storm water from the plaza pavement and surrounding rooftops and feed the space’s greenery. As Jill Helffenstein, Martin’s creative director, says, “We designated some basic principles—keeping it clean and simple, having active edges and using green design.”

For the last eight years, ever since the firm moved into offices at 54 Mint Street (long before the expanded Westfield San Francisco Centre flung open its glass doors nearby and years before the mammoth federal complex at Mission and Seventh streets will unveil its offices), the Martin Building Company has dreamed of creating this plaza. The success of Mezzanine has encouraged the company to envision the plaza as a cultural destination: not quite as grassy as—but edgier than—Yerba Buena Gardens, artsier than Belden Place and more multifaceted than Maiden Lane. Helffenstein is already in negotiations with such grassroots arts groups as Noise Pop, with an eye toward producing a regular outdoor music festival as early as October 2007. “I think really using this mix to create a cultural destination on so many levels could be a first for the city,” she explains. “That’s our focus, to bring in the art and music and keep it on the cusp of what’s happening.”

Of course, capturing the ever-changing nightlife zeitgeist of the city and winning the fickle hearts of its revelers is what everyone—promoters, observers and visionaries—is shooting for. And getting that crucial mix right, with the right intentions and careful planning—and an eye to the culture and community—could cause a seismic shift on dance floors and on the city streets.

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