Auto Repair Shops: Two Views of the Tech Boom

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En Español.

The Mission District’s tech boom has produced unlikely winners — the owners of automotive repair shops. Although rent hikes have pushed some out, others have long leases and loyal customers while another has closed and is marketing his buildings at the top of the market.

“I could sell this building, but I think I will lease it,” said Jesse Henry, who recently shut his 32-year-old business, Superior Automotive, on 16th Street at Albion. Nearby on Valencia Street near 14th, Nissim Ninio, founder of West Wind Automotive, said business was tough after the 2008 recession, but it has been strong for the past two months and he’s feeling secure with a 15-year lease that he signed this year.

Henry and Ninio offer different views of the tech boom. They are among 27 automotive shops in the Mission — a number that is down approximately 10 percent in the last five years. A winnowing of the field means more business for Ninio and concern for those with short leases. For owners like Henry, the boom demonstrates that light industrial buildings offer size, functionality and, of course, location that makes them hot properties.

Ninio knows exactly what a tech boom looks like. The last one pushed him out of South of Market at the boom’s peak in 2000.

“I came over here from an area that had gone through the same scenario as the Mission District,” Ninio said. “It was all industrial — nothing but printers and sewing shops — then the dot-commers started moving in, and then the developers started buying all the buildings and empty lots and started putting in condos.”

As the neighborhood transformed, his rent more than doubled. He couldn’t buy the building and he couldn’t afford the rent. He had to move.

Now, he’s watching it happen again.

Bill Bennett, who owned Bennett’s Automotive on the 400 Block of Valencia Street, shuttered the business and moved down south, Ninio said. Now, 16 condos at 411 Valencia St. fill the site. John’s Jaguar Service moved from the 700 Block of Valencia to Cesar Chavez Street to make room for The Abbot’s Cellar, Dandelion Chocolate and Craftsmen and Wolves.

West Wind Automotive

Ninio, now 60, left Israel for San Francisco in 1969. “I had the choice of joining the army or going to San Francisco to be a hippie,” Ninio said. “And let me tell you, I was a real good hippie.”

He worked independently for years before opening West Wind. Of the 30 cars at the shop, Ninio points out that about 90 percent are from repeat customers — the grace of being in business for decades. On the side, he’s started his own food truck, La Falafel.

West Wind’s 15-year lease secures its spot on Valencia Street and although Ninio has tried to persuade his landlord to sell him the building, he knows that is unlikely. “I’m not sure if it’s worth it anymore,” he said. “I have a good lease.”

Nowadays, Ninio worries less about real estate and more about changes in his own industry. Insurers, he said, now want clients to use shops that they select, cars are totaled out instead of being repaired and repair costs are climbing.

“Modern cars simply cost more to repair,” Ninio said. “The price of parts is going up. Even cheap cars have fancier, more complicated parts than they did ten years ago.”

No matter, he’ll keep repairing cars as long as he can and he understands that he’s likely to be the last auto-repair shop on that property. “If I had to close this business tomorrow, it would not be a shop ever again,” Ninio said. “It would be condos.”

Superior Automotive

For Henry, owner of the former Superior Automotive, on 16th Street at Albion, real estate is a new preoccupation.

Henry closed shop in September and has since become the most sought after property owner in the Mission. Acquiring it was wholly by chance, said Henry, who grew up in the projects in Hunters Point.

Now 56, he joined the Air Force a few years after high school to end up working on cargo planes. When he returned from duty in 1981, he opened Superior Automotive in the Bay View, but his business grew and he needed more space.

Walking on 16th Street one day in 1994, he passed by the two-story, 1920 Beaux Arts complex and saw the owner place a “for rent” sign on the door. He inquired about renting the space that day and ended up renting it for years before paying $2.5 million to buy the building in 2004.

In recent years, Cornerstone Church on 17th Street near Guerrero had been after him to buy the building and use it for 46 stalls of parishioner parking. The church offered a nice $6 million and Henry closed his business in anticipation of the sale. During the due diligence period, he discovered that the church was trying to resell the building.

“It was kind of upsetting,” Henry said. “People called me saying that they were trying to sell.”

That deal fell through. The church said their attorneys determined it would not be as advantageous as they had once thought. However, for Henry, the offers have only gotten better. “It’s a very unusual predicament I’m in,” Henry said. “I really miss my business but I’m going to move on to the next level.”

Among others, Rainbow Grocery, Southern Pacific Brewery and one downtown gallery are knocking on his door. One realty group has offered $7 million to buy it.

On a recent Thursday in October, a representative from an art gallery examined the building, Henry said. Dressed in a suit — a rare site on 16th Street — the man took measurements and wrote figures on a leather bound clipboard.

“They’re very serious,” Henry said of the offer. Sounding more like an agent than an auto repair man, he pointed out his property’s desirables — its proximity to the 16th Street BART station and Muni lines. “They’d rent the whole building. I’d love to rent it to an art gallery to tell you the truth. It would be very interesting for the neighborhood.”

13 Comments

  1. Your friend

    Nicely written. When can we expect the next story on the law of unintended consequences?

  2. two beers

    Just say No to Condos. Just say No to Anything Artisanal.

  3. Pamela

    Good article. Smart move on Mr Henry’s part that he owns the building. It is a beautiful building. Perfect to convert to condos. Even if he leased it out, he’d receive an excellent amount. A gallery would be a good fit as the neighborhood is upgrading. If he sold the building, he’d make a lot more money, & retire nicely. Lucky Mr Ninio that he secured a 15-year lease; he has a good landlord. It will be interesting to see what the next new, improved will be moving into the Mission.

    • John

      Yes, there are real opportunities to build wealth with the upgrading of the neighborhood. My building in 94110 is now worth three times what I paid for it a dozen or so years ago, while rents have doubled in the same period.

      More generally, it doesn’t surprise me that some of these auto shops are doing well. A more affluent local populace means more people with cars and, of course, better cars which are more profitable to service, fix and customize.

      It’s always good to see local people doing well.

    • two beers

      Pamela,

      Is now a good time to buy?

  4. Your friend

    Immediately opposite the new Adobe bookstore site on 24th St is a former garage that has been converted to condos.
    Even if shops, including Adobe and Modern Times, move to the other side of the district, the new trend follows them.
    In the meantime, Mission Street in the Excelsior draws the less attractive element: Net Stop (internet gaming) and other gambling sites and so many pot clubs that John Avalos draws a line in the sand and says, “Enough”.

    • lj

      Ironically, Adobe Books and similar businesses are the early wave gentrifiers. They create the “cool” that young people with money buy into.

      • ThatGuy

        once again proving that we’re all “gentrifiers”

      • two beers

        What crap.

        For most of Adobe’s twenty-plus years there, there was most definitely no gentrification on that block.

        Quit trying to justify your own behavior by trying to accuse others of the same douchebaggery.

        • lj

          Merely stating the obvious. Look at the pictures on their donor page: primarily white, college educated gentrifiers.

          We have met the enemy and he is us..

        • InSF

          Bitter much?

          Article nicely illustrates two important points:

          1- auto shop guy, probably w/o a college degree, makes smart move by buying his bldg 10 years ago. If he didn’t buy it, he’ could easily be just like the bitter whiners that infest this site. Good job Henry!

          2- Nissim, who did not/could not buy his building, signs a long term lease. He’s 60 now, has a growing business, and will probably retire when his lease ends in 15 years. He’s also set, and without buying.

          Both these guys made good moves.

          Rene Yanez didn’t.

          Simple as that.

Comments are closed.