The haves and have-nots of San Francisco's mid-Market district | KALW

The haves and have-nots of San Francisco's mid-Market district

Jan 17, 2013

The mid-Market district of San Francisco is undergoing tremendous change. Construction cranes literally cast shadows over the businesses and charities serving long-time residents of the neighborhood. This is an area filled with supported housing and Single Room Occupancy hotels. Homeless people and panhandlers traverse the wide sidewalks. One of the food pantries that serves them is run by The Quaker Meeting House. It’s on 9th Street, just south of Market, and has been around for nearly 20 years. To date, Twitter has run its global operations around the corner for about half-a-year. Which means these two entities with similar sounding names and strikingly different purposes are unlikely neighbors.

Where Twitter and Quakers meet

Every Saturday morning more than 100 people gather outside the Quaker Meeting House to get bags of free food. Volunteer Paula Stinson says it’s an effort to reach out to the community.

“Most of the people who come to the food pantry are from our neighborhood,” Stinson says. “A lot of people from 6th street and a lot of seniors from the Tenderloin.

There didn’t used to be a lot going on in this part of San Francisco, a block south of Civic Center Plaza. But things are changing. More specifically, it’s the neighborhood. Mayor Ed Lee signed off on a tax exemption for businesses with $1 million or more in payroll, and Twitter moved its growing operations to 1355 Market Street, about half-a-block from the Quaker Meeting House. Where long lines of people once gathered, there’s now cyclone fencing. Contractor trucks and cranes fill construction zones, where workers are building new high-rises. It makes congregating outside pretty much impossible.

“This part of Market Street is really hot,” says Stinson, appraising the towering building quickly rising next to the Meeting House. “I know there will be stores on the bottom, I think, and condos I don’t know how high.”

Stinson says developers didn’t exactly ignore the humble two-story Quaker headquarters, which have been here since 1994. “We got a lot of money to reinforce our building,” she says, so it wouldn’t be damaged by the deep foundation going in next door.

Twitter’s new building is different – because it’s actually old. It was formerly the San Francisco Furniture Mart. When the tax exemption passed, the building’s owner, Shorenstein, paid $80 million to modernize it. Twitter added another $20 million. And now, when you emerge at its offices on the ninth floor, you see a sleekly redesigned facility, heavily branded with the company’s iconic bird, featuring a perfectly framed view of San Francisco City Hall’s golden dome outside the massive windows behind the receptionists’ desk.

Karen Wickre, Twitter’s editorial director, says, “I think the idea is that the city and private developers are putting a lot of effort now and there’s a lot of interest in renovating the whole area and rehabilitating it on lots of fronts. Not just this building. Not just this block. We have yet to see where it’s all going, but you see construction all around us now and new business coming in.”

Five years ago this kind of energy, in this part of the city, was practically unimaginable. Generations of mayors had taken turns trying to draw tourists and business to mid-Market, each failing to revive what had been a thriving theater district and had become, as columnist Herb Caen called it, “le grand pissoir.” Today, it’s a centerpiece of civic development visions.

“It’s exciting to see foot traffic and activation on Market St,” says Supervisor Jane Kim, who oversees this district. “It’s exciting to see buildings that have never been used being utilized again. And these are beautiful buildings coming back online. It certainly helps with commercial office space, where we’re not just building new offices but we’re repurposing existing ones. But on the flip side, we’re seeing rent pressure both for small businesses and for residents. And that is problematic on the other side, so as we as a city do better, folks that used to find the neighborhood affordable aren’t going to find it as affordable in the future. And that is our challenge. How can you do both?”

It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in a city that is simultaneously one of the nation’s most famous tourist, and homeless, destinations. Market Street happens to have a concentration of both. And with the emergence of tech companies, there’s a palpable potential for displacement of low-income and no-income residents.

“I hear the concern,” says Twitter’s Karen Wickre. “I think there’s a lot of definitions on what gentrification is. To steam-clean the sidewalks, I think, would be a good thing for everybody. In the case of a commercial building in a commercial district, I think we’ve seen some evidence of fairly positive gentrification around Fifth and Market for example. And now I think moving a little bit to Sixth. The character of the neighborhood doesn’t really change. It doesn’t become a different animal altogether. There’s more interest from visitors and tourists who of course bring in the money that helps support a variety of local programs without it becoming false fronts – something too fake and not relating to the neighborhood.”

What would it mean to relate to this neighborhood? This neighborhood that, for decades, has been disconnected and gritty. a place people walk through or avoid entirely and a sort of “living room” for occupants of the many SROs. Stephen Matchett, head of the San Francisco Quakers, knows that well.

“There’s residences here,” he says. “There are a couple of hotels right next door and across the street actually, recently, Mercy housing has built subsidized senior housing.”

There’s also Episcopal Community Services, Catholic Charities, and the Quakers, among others. They’re here in the part of the city where they’ve been most needed, and where money has been scarce.

“My hopes would be kind of a revitalization of the street, of the block,” he says. “We were in conversation with each of the developers to try and come up with some plans that would kind of enliven the street life and serve the neighborhood a little bit. Encouraging them to have maybe some retail on the first floor of their buildings that would serve the neighbors. Not high-end retail and that kind of stuff but things that might actually be useful to folks that actually live here. What my hope would be is kind of an integration of the new folks moving in and the new companies really being able to be part of the community here.”

Supervisor Kim has the exact same hopes of the incoming tech firms.

“So they’re not just working here, but they get to know the neighborhood, get to know the existing community, and also contribute back,” she says. “So the prosperity that they’re helping to bring for themselves gets to extend out into the neighborhood.”

That’s not just a wish. It’s a mandate. Kim helped craft legislation that requires companies qualifying for the new payroll tax exemption to sign a Community Benefit Agreement. The 2013 draft for Twitter requires a variety of things: it encourages employees to volunteer in the community; it asks the company to buy tickets to local performances; to plant trees; to donate $50,000 in IT equipment; $60,000 in promoted tweets; and more. Adherence to the CBA is monitored throughout the year by a 15-member citizens advisory committee made up of Tenderloin and SoMa residents along with nonprofit workers and organizers in the area. People who have a direct interest in ensuring the incoming businesses follow through with their paper promises.

Kim says ZenDesk, for one, has been actively engaged, looking for local hires and getting involved with food justice issues. One King’s Lane is finding ways to provide furniture – it’s stock in trade – for SRO common rooms, among other things. And Twitter?

“With Twitter I was a little bit worried about their willingness to engage in the community,” says Kim, “but soon after they were able to hire a team of community outreach folks who were dedicated to the work. I started to see Twitter out in the neighborhood a lot.”

City officials expect Twitter to rise from 1,000 to more than 2,000 employees in the near future. Editorial director Wickre says that will translate to many volunteer hours in the company’s new neighborhood.

“The main thing at the moment is our Twitter employees. They’re sort of our greatest resource,” she says. “So we have organized days where teams of people would go out and basically have a fun day volunteering and it’s typically very local. We call it ‘Friday for Good.’ We are given a bunch of local organizations that have identified tasks and need so many people to come and do it, whether it’s to interact with local kids at a school, paint some rooms in a residential hotel, or to do something else that requires a number of hands to do it. So you go down the list and pick what you want. And on a day like that a team would do it so 15 or 20 people would say, ‘Oh, let’s all go do this one.’ And so we’ll be fanning out on that day, all around the area.”

That kind of effort is voluntary work for Twitter employees, but they’re paid as if they’re on company time, when they do it. “We haven’t had a regular schedule of it,” says Wickre. “It’s been more intermittent. We’re gearing up to have a more consistent schedule but as I say in between those we’ll say, ‘Hey, we need 20 people to serve at Glide today. How many want to go?’ We’ll fill that up typically. So those things happen intermittently.”

According to the draft Community Benefit Agreement, “Days for Good” will happen at least twice in 2013.

“We intend to do more,” says Wickre. “We want to do more. We will be doing more. I just don’t know what form it all takes, and I don’t know if it’s one kind of thing or another. It may be a mix of things that we do over time.”

Corporations don’t have to be good neighbors. In mid-Market, according to the draft Community Benefit Agreemet, they can meet 80 percent of the CBA’s goals and still be deemed “successful.” The global audiences for these companies won’t know any different. But the local residents will. Like the people who wait in line at the Quaker food pantry. The “improvements” in their neighborhood, so far, haven’t done much but displace their line.

Quaker head Stephen Matchett says they’re adapting.

“We’re actually working on a different way of getting people registered so they don’t have to wait so long and can come in shorter time periods. And so that’s something we’ve been doing recently and that’s really taken up a lot of the time of the volunteers and the energy. But when we get that system in place and the dust settles a little bit, I think we might be looking to see if we can reach out to our neighbors to see what ways they might contribute to that part of this neighborhood effort.”

On Twitter’s blog, the company concludes its section on local engagement by writing: “For those we have yet to meet, our paths will cross eventually.”

The Quakers are waiting.

Click the audio player above to listen to the complete story.