There are many reasons why one real estate developer succeeds where others have failed, but when Avant Housing broke ground in mid-October on a 202-unit complex at Mission and 15th streets, one of its principals credited the help of businessman Michael Davos.
Davos arrived in the United States from Greece in 1949, 19 years old and virtually penniless. Two years later, he began working at the Louis Roesch printing plant and warehouse, and eventually worked his way up to buy the company in 1986. It closed in 2003, and in the years that followed, developers tried twice to purchase the site. When Avant Housing LLC principal Eric Tao became the third party to meet with the Greek immigrant in 2008, Davos was interested but skeptical.
“Eric,” Davos said, according to Tao, “I want to know that you guys are going to be able to build this project.”
What convinced him was the financial group behind Avant — the California Public Employees Retirement System, known as CalPERS. With some $100 million in pension funds to invest and — according to Tao — an interest in urban infill projects, the group had just been successful in San Francisco at the SoMa Grand with two of Avant’s partners, AGI Capital Group and TMG Partners. CalPERS public affairs spokesman Wayne Davis cited managers who bring a unique set of skills to their investments as one thing they generally look for in a development partner. The organization doesn’t publicly discuss investment strategies.
The site at 15th and Mission fit Avant’s own investment strategy, however. Like many other Mission neighborhoods, 15th and Mission has been stuck in developmental limbo since the late 1990s — no longer industrial but not quite Market and Powell. Condos and Bay Blend Coffee and Tea replaced R.B. Roofing Co. and Spencer’s Car Radio. Across the street looms the turreted San Francisco Armory, now home to fetish website Kink.com. A San Francisco Planning Commission resolution in 2004 identified a need for high-density housing in the area.
In spite of its complicated history, the shuttered remains of the Louis Roesch Company thus presented a unique opportunity.
With meticulous attention paid to the needs of cyclists, the backing of CalPERS and the eventual blessing of the Davos family, Tao hopes this local developer’s upcoming apartment complex — as yet unnamed — will stand apart for a new generation of bicycle-riding, environmentally conscious Missionites. The project is set for completion by the summer of 2013.
Tao believes his company “gets” the Mission, which he credits for many of the building’s design elements. During the design process, Avant sought out and interviewed Mission residents about the issues that matter most to them. Greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels, the Missionites cried.
And bicycles. Encouraged by bicycle advocates, 1880 Mission promises a design feature known as “one-to-one bike parking.” In other words, a bicycle parking space will be provided for each of the 202 residences, although a two-bedroom apartment will still have only one spot. The building will include just 155 parking spaces — enough for 65 percent of the apartment units.
Each of the 202 bike parking spaces will be located in a secure, fenced-in area inside the apartment garage. After cyclists go through the automatic bike door, they enter into this space with an electronic key fob.
The garage is a point of pride for Tao, particularly its automatic side door for cyclists.
“You can’t trigger the roll-up gate, because you’re not heavy enough,” Tao said, referring to traditional gated garage entrances. “It’s always very frustrating.”
Also included in the garage will be a workbench and tools for residents to maintain their bikes — or, as Tao puts it, space for people to tinker. Squeezed into a claustrophobic apartment in the past, he identifies with how many San Franciscans are restricted in their amount of personal workspace.
Avant is also seriously considering incorporating 1880 Mission’s bicycle outreach features into its two other communities under construction — 900 Folsom and 260 Fifth in SoMa.
Although Tao claims Avant is in touch with the needs of the San Francisco community, the developer is only one of three that have attempted to redevelop 1880 Mission. Developers have pursued this piece of 15th and Mission for over a decade.
The Louis Roesch factory’s days were numbered once the 1998 dot-com boom brought the Internet technorati to the Mission. As early as 2000, with only 10 workers still employed on site, Davos decided to retire and sell his property for a new development, according to a 2005 Planning Commission resolution.
Developers were quick to pounce. On March 1, 2001, Armax International filed an application for Mission Gardens, a 183-unit condominium complex with 176 off-street parking spaces (no bicycle parking is mentioned).
The Planning Commission rejected Armax’s proposal.
“[The project] is not designed or oriented to the needs of the neighborhood and community,” wrote commission secretary Linda Avery.
Armax went back to the drawing board and filed another application on July 10, 2003. Following community hearings, a reduction in commercial space and an increase in below-market housing from 12 to 20 percent, the commission and Davos gave their approval on October 6, 2005.
It was a short-lived victory. Armax failed to purchase the lot in the amount of time agreed upon with Davos, and promptly lost its contract, according to a 2008 letter from city zoning administrator Lawrence B. Badiner. A second party — 1884 LLC — entered into contract to purchase the property.
Rather than complete the negotiations with Davos, however, both developers filed a lawsuit against Louis Roesch and Davos in 2006.
By the time Tao sat down with Davos in 2008, one lawsuit was settled in his favor and one was still ongoing. After nearly a decade, the 1880 Mission permit was still open, the financing gone, the permit fees unpaid. Davos was less than receptive to the ideas of another interested developer.
Tao expected some resistance, but he persisted. The two discussed their common immigrant backgrounds and the role of CalPERS with Avant Housing. Davos admired their commitment to restoring urban blight.
“And he somehow, some way said, ‘I’m gonna help this guy,’” Tao said.
Davos enthusiastically signed an agreement with Tao. A couple of months later, on October 9, 2008, Davos passed away, which Tao still recollects with sadness in his voice.
Nonetheless, Davos’ family continued to support Tao and Avant in their project, and helped push 1880 Mission through.
In October 2009, the Planning Commission finally awarded Avant its desired two-year extension on redeveloping 1880 Mission.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, Avant presented the Davos family with a brick from the demolished factory. The inscription reads: “L R 1906-2011, presented to the Davos family on this groundbreaking, 10/19/2011.”
“This is more about CalPERS and Davos than us,” Tao said. “They’ve been very good to us.”
In homage, Avant wants to incorporate the original building materials into the apartment complex, Tao said.
“The hipsters appreciate this,” he said with a laugh.