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Alleys of Transformation
San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 2007. By Carl Noltesf

A European-style plaza is emerging from gritty area of Old U.S. Mint

For years, the two alleys that border the Old U.S. Mint in downtown San Francisco were cautionary tales in urban planning as they gradually declined into seediness after the Mint museum closed its doors in 1994.

The little stub of Mint Street, and the block of Jessie Street that runs from Mint into Fifth Street near Mission Street, had nothing but potential. The reality, however, was grim. There were drugs, there were derelicts, there was public urination. The two little alleys were a big mess.

But now, the two streets are being reborn into something called Mint Plaza. Cars have been banned from a block of Jessie, and it will be transformed into a small plaza, like something in Europe, with restaurants, green trees, outdoor dining and a new atmosphere.

Mint Street, which runs off Fifth into Jessie, will get a new look, too — with new pavement, new parking arrangements, and a cafe or two.

"This is the greatest thing that ever happened around here," said Joey Chait, managing partner of the Provident Loan Association.

Provident is kind of a San Francisco classic, housed in a building faced in white terra-cotta at the corner of Mint and Mission. It had a cameo role in "The Maltese Falcon,'' Dashiell Hammett's famed detective novel.

The little alley complex around the 1874 Old Mint was once one of the brighter corners of Hammett's San Francisco. Hammett himself worked around the corner on Market Street and knew the little alleys well.

Up the street at the corner of Mint and Jessie was a five-story brick candy factory, and next to that, on Jessie, was the San Francisco Fire Department's Station One, the busiest in the city. The firefighters there thought of themselves as elite. "Alley Cats," they called themselves.

“We want to do something here that will be a part of the city for a hundred years, a special public place that will be part of San Francisco public life”

The fire station was relocated some years ago. A kind of urban bleakness gradually set in, and the two streets went downhill.

About 1997, the Martin Building Co. started managing various properties in the area -- mostly along Jessie. An old department store warehouse is being converted into offices and residences, and so is the 10-story building over the old firehouse.

People started looking at urban alleys with new eyes. A block or so away, the old Emporium store was turned into a shopping and movie complex. An Intercontinental Hotel is under construction at Fifth and Howard.

The change is dramatic. One Jessie Street building that was covered with graffiti only a year or so ago has a new coat of paint, and some handsome urban apartments were built inside.

The most dramatic change is on the street, where construction on the plaza began May 16.

The idea of a new look for the alleys has been around for years. Why did it take so long?

"Money," said Patrick McNerney, president of Martin Building, "and the political winds."

The whole project is possible under provisions of the state Mello-Roos Act, which allows for the creation of a Community Facilities District. It is a complex undertaking – the city retains the ownership of the street, but the plaza will be operated by a nonprofit group called Friends of Mint Plaza. The nonprofit will charge fees for temporary use of the facilities.

The total cost of construction is $3.5 million, paid for by the developer.

The trade-off, of course, is that the developer's adjacent property will see values increase because of the plaza.

All of this has gone through the mill of the San Francisco permit process, where the bureaucratic wheels grind exceedingly fine. The Mint Plaza has been approved by the Board of Supervisors and nearly every city regulatory city agency. There were 14 public hearings on the plan. "God," McNerney said, almost to himself, "it's tough to get anything done in this town."

When it is done – and Labor Day is the target date – the 18,000-square-foot Mint Plaza will be turned over to the city with the proviso that the nonprofit organization pays for maintenance.

"We want to do something here that will be a part of the city for a hundred years, a special public place that will be part of San Francisco public life," McNerney said.

The centerpiece of the whole block around the alleys is the Old Mint, which the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society hopes to turn into a museum. That project is much grander and more expansive -- one that will cost at least $89 million.

Though the Mint Plaza will be open by September, the Old Mint museum's target date is four years in the future.

"It's a great project," Jim Chappell, president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, said of the Mint Plaza. "They are closing the streets and giving them back to the people."

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