Plaza creators envision dining in the open air
San Francisco Business Times, May 12-18, 2006. By J.K Dineensfbt

The Martin Building Co.'s vision of transforming a Mid-Market alley into an enchanting European-style piazza is about to spring to life.

After an epic public process that took two years and included 15 public hearings, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom signed off April 20 on the closure of a portion of Jessie Street, a cut-through between Fifth and Mint streets, just to the west of the old U.S. Mint building.

With the mayor's signature, the Martin Building Co. can close the street to traffic and start construction on the $3.5 million plaza as soon as May 21.

The 18,000-square-foot plaza will be 54-feet wide and will feature three restaurants, each of which will have 1,000 square feet of outside seating. An arbor will run along the edge of the cafe seating and the center of the quad will be free of permanent features and big enough to accommodate art shows, films, and musical performances.

"Most of the buyers are forward-looking, work downtown, and want to be part of the downtown vibrancy," Riddle said. "They are the young urban hip — or trying to be."

"Our object is to activate the plaza — there are some public spaces in San Francisco that don't work particularly well," said Patrick McNerny, president of the Martin Building Co.

Work on the plaza starts at a time when the Martin Building Co. is beginning sales of 52 live-work condos along the alley. While the first open house for brokers was April 18, 25 of the units have already been reserved, according to Kurt Riddle, the company's asset manager. The units range in price from $470,000 to $1.2 million.

"Most of the buyers are forward-looking, work downtown, and want to be part of the downtown vibrancy," Riddle said. "They are the young urban hip — or trying to be."

Just 14 of the units have assigned parking, and all but two of those have been reserved.

Thus far, one of three large restaurant spaces has been leased, a 5,400-square-foot space in the bottom of the Station House No. 1, a former firehouse. French bistro Chez Papa will occupy that space, according to Jill Helffenstein, creative director for the Martin Building Co. Chez Papa plans to begin construction in June. Rents for the commercial spaces range between $42 and $48 a square foot.

Helffenstein compared the alley with dowtown's Belden Place between Pine and Bush streets, famous for its string of outdoors French eateries. "It's Belden Place on steroids," she said.

On the south side of the plaza, the San Francisco Museum & Historical Society is raising money to convert the old U.S. Mint into a new San Francisco museum. The museum's main entrance will be on Mint Plaza.

The project is being financed through Mello-Roos bonds, tax exempt bonds issued under the Mello-Roos Community Facilities Act of 1982. Mello-Roos payments are collected with property taxes and go toward paying off the bonds' lien on the property. Only one neighboring property owner has opted to be a part of the special community facilities tax district, according to development director Michael Yarne.

"It's a bit of a gamble — the assessment is not insignificant," said Yarne. "It's the classic freerider problem."

But in the long run, creating a plaza in front of the Martin Building Co. property will increase value.

"There is no science to that, but we think the benefits and value of building will increase with the passing years," Yarne said.

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