3100 17th Street: How One Block Changed

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When Lutz Plumbing first came to the 3100 block of 17th Street in 1982, Susie Hotarek was afraid to leave the building on foot.

Employees would drive into the building through the garage entrance and leave the same way. What waited beyond — drug peddlers, prostitutes — was more urban than made them feel safe.

“We had to pretty much have a secure building,” she said.

That has changed as a growing number of new businesses and organizations have moved in. The area has transitioned from a gritty industrial one where a cement and chocolate factory thrived to one where a few industrial survivors, such as Ocean Sash and Door, are outnumbered by relative newcomers, including cafes, artist collectives and educational organizations, attracted by low property values and rents.

“The community has gotten together, and we have really formed a good network of neighbors,” Hotarek said. “We pretty much cleaned up everything.”

The 3100 block of 17th Street, nested between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street, is in the northeast Mission, an area where the last vestiges of a once-bustling industrial area struggle to coexist with ever-increasing residential and commercial development.

Unlike most of the northeast Mission, the 3100 block never had a concentration of heavy industry, but there were plenty of factories surrounding the block.

Looking around the block in the 1970s, a visitor would find Kilpatricks Bread on 16th and South Van Ness and the Green Glen Linen Service on 18th and Folsom.

The 3100 block, however, was home mostly to wholesale suppliers, such as Centennial Electrical Distributors and J. Borg Hardware; automotive repair shops like Hans Art Automotive and Tramco; and light manufacturing, such as Ocean Sash and Door.

Much of the transition away from industrial development that began in the late ’70s and early ’80s was the result of the loss of container ship traffic, which moved from San Francisco to the Port of Oakland, and overall deindustrialization — the loss of industry due to economics and land-use policy, according to Philip Lesser from the Mission Merchants Association.

It was a harbinger of change for the area, as property values plummeted, factories shuttered and live/work spaces began to proliferate. In the ’90s, the railroad that used to run along Harrison Street to the port was torn up, and the container traffic on 16th Street gradually dwindled.

“I don’t think you can understand the Mission without understanding the industrial port,” Lesser said.

This gave an organization like the Oberlin Dance Collective an opportunity when it arrived in 1979.

Mike York at Ocean Sash and Door said that ODC’s arrival “changed the neighborhood considerably,” mainly by attracting theater-goers who in turn brought in better lighting for the streets, scaring off the criminals. But this took time.

The theater struggled for years to convince people to come to its location, mainly because the area was seedy and unsafe in the ’80s and ’90s, according to ODC’s Kimi Okada.

“There was not a lot of foot traffic,” Okada said. “We wanted [ODC] to feel like a place that people actually wanted to come to, rather than a place to avoid.”

The people who didn’t avoid the block were the prostitutes and drug dealers who would regularly line the street, especially at 17th and Shotwell. Crime bled into the neighborhood, and few people cared to walk around it.

Susette Blackwell remembers that time. She lives and has run her business, the Blackwell Files, out of a house next to Gas and Shop since 1999; before that it was a machine shop. She said when she left her house she would have to walk over people passed out near her door, and at times was solicited for sex.

“Prostitution was rampant,” Blackwell said. “It was not fun living here.”

Jose Guillen has worked at Gas and Shop since 1994, and he recalled that he used to chase down thieves with a baseball bat and had to defend himself from violent people.

“It was a little bit dangerous,” he said, “but I had to make it. I had to, because I had to protect my place.”

The catalyst for expanded residential use was a 1988 ordinance that allowed the conversion of industrial spaces to live/work uses. What followed was a gobbling up of industrial land in the northeast Mission.

On the 3100 block, there was an attempt to build live/work space next to ODC in 1998, but the Planning Commission denied the permit. This was during a period of concern over the rapid proliferation of live/work spaces in the Mission, which culminated in a ban as of 2002.

In 2003, Seven Tepees, a youth empowerment organization, set up in the space where the live/work project had been proposed. This was a year after ODC began what became an eight-year renovation project that resulted in a new space, the Shotwell Commons, which opened in 2005, and in the renovation of its theater at the corner of Shotwell and 17th streets, which reopened in 2010.

The changes that have swirled through the district since its light industrial days have transformed it into a neighborhood that is more attractive to the new wave of young, hip residents who are planting roots in the Mission.

Stable Cafe, a coffee shop, moved in around the corner on Folsom Street in 2008. Saison, a French restaurant, followed a year later. Bite Me Sandwiches, on the corner of South Van Ness, opened last year.

The old electrical supply warehouse next to Ocean Sash and Door is being remodeled into the Mission Bowling Club, a six-lane bowling alley with a full-service restaurant and a liquor license to boot.

The parking lot on 17th and Folsom streets may become a park — currently a contentious point among nearby businesses, many of which depend on the extra parking spaces. Though the city plans to establish another lot nearby, some business owners fear that the planned park and public housing project could make parking more difficult and hurt business.

“I’m really worried as a whole for everybody,” said Hotarek, who hopes the new parking lot will happen. “I hope [the city] is right, because if they’re not, we are going to have to move.”

But nothing stays the same forever. New players have joined the land use debate over the years; among the latest are technology startups.

Soundcloud, a company that’s the audio equivalent of YouTube, moved in a few blocks away. Hipmunk is in the old Hamms Brewery building. Others are following suit.

2 Comments

  1. mhc

    I’m still extremely wary around that area, especially after dark. And I avoid Gas n Shop, having been approached too many times by aggressive panhandlers. When ODC has an evening performance and there are a lot of “regular people” around I feel safer but otherwise it’s still just the shaggy unsafe Mission for this mid-life woman, and I stay away as best I can even though I live fairly close.

  2. Mister Big

    Gas & Shop is the only gas station with a liquor license in San Francisco. Until recently, they used to regularly sell alcohol to chronic inebriates, obviously intoxicated, who would stumble in to buy their $1.89 Royal Gate vodka. They maintained no control over their property. They seriously denigrated the quality of life in the neighborhood. It was only with massive community pressure that Gas & Shop changed their ways and became a more responsible member of the community, which is a good thing.

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