Philip Lesser walks through the 99-year-old building on Mission Street that Vanguard Properties transformed in 2005 from a bank into its headquarters. He likes stopping here to talk to agents and admire the renovations — the former vault that’s now a door leading to stairs, the safety box room that’s now the break room.
In many ways the building represents Lesser’s vision of land use in the Mission. As he puts it, Mission buildings should be transformed from their antiquated roles into what the market demands. These days that’s restaurants, as new eateries move into old warehouses, auto shops and just about any space they can find.
One of the first calls many make is to Lesser, a 61-year-old Mission native who has built a consulting business helping new businesses navigate the city’s permit bureaucracy. As the Mission increasingly becomes a destination neighborhood for the young and the wealthy, it’s a skill in demand.
Working alone from his office in San Mateo, Lesser is behind some of the Mission’s hottest new projects, including the jazz venue and restaurants at Preservation Hall West, Arizmendi, Tacolicious, Mission Cheese, West of Pecos, Pollo Campero, Juhu Beach Club and Sixth Course.
It typically works like this: someone calls Lesser with an idea and he offers immediate feedback. Later, he advises clients based on his knowledge of zoning regulations and the history of the buildings. If the idea sounds appropriate, he uses his credibility and connections within the neighborhood to help projects win approval.
Unlike some developers who conceal their projects for fear of opposition, Lesser takes pride in talking about his. Neighborhood opposition, he says, is just part of the process, and when he feels ideas are unlikely to overcome local concerns, he tells the client exactly that.
Someone recently called him with the idea of opening up a Subway sandwich shop, for example. Formula retail probably wouldn’t work in the Mission, he advised. The neighborhood is sensitive about corporate businesses and chain restaurants.
“I am a manager of expectations,” Lesser said. His historical view of neighborhood development is reflected in his resume: Mission native, landlord, former president of the Mission Merchants Association and president of Mission Street’s business improvement district.
Lesser also sits on the board of the Mission Housing Development Corporation. He attended San Francisco State University, Cal State Hayward and UC Berkeley. When he was done with the Bay Area, he went on to study at the London School of Economics. And after a stint teaching statistics at San Francisco State, he left again, to work for Sunkist and Florida Citrus.
Although he was away for years, he never lost touch. He can still point out the South Van Ness Avenue home where he was raised, and the neighbor there who remembers him as a child. His family owned Lesser Glassworks for more than 75 years, working out of several locations before closing in 2012.
His brother owns the laundromat on the corner of 20th and South Van Ness, and Lesser owns the building on the corner of 24th and Mission streets that now houses a Bank of the West branch and Taqueria San Jose.
“Business-wise, the Mission helped financially sustain us,” he said. “We’ve done business continuously in the Mission since 1936.”
That legacy helps when doing business with neighbors. The Builders Exchange on South Van Ness, for example, agreed to lease its parking lot to a valet parking company only after Lesser asked them to.
“Phil and his family used to own a business, Lesser Glass and Mirrors … we already knew him, so it was an easy sell,” Deanna Johnson, executive director of the contractor-owned cooperative, told Mission Loc@l last month.
It also helps with neighborhood negotiations. The Mission has a reputation for protesting projects, which makes investors from outside the neighborhood wary, Lesser said.
“People want to come into the Mission District who don’t know the political landscape, the community in general.”
Rajiv Gujral, a mortgage planner from the South Bay who plans to open an Indian restaurant on Mission street this summer with his business partner, “Top Chef” alum Preeti Mistry, hired Lesser to help with the approval process.
“I am not familiar with the city rules and stuff like that; he has been helping me navigate the maze and getting neighborhood approval, and he seems to know everyone,” Gujral said. “He is very, very knowledgeable.”
For developers and restaurateurs, opposition can be intimidating, Lesser said.
“You are [at a community meeting], you don’t know anyone, and all of a sudden people are yelling at you — people who don’t even know you. A lot of people don’t want be put through something like that.”
When Amparo Vigin, owner of the Mexican restaurant Puerto Alegre, opposed the opening of West of Pecos because its cuisine would be too similar to hers, Lesser suggested his clients yield to her concerns. They agreed, and changed their concept to comfort food.
“I am kind of a senior statesmen,” Lesser said. “You can get away with that if you have gray hair in your head.”
Improving the Mission
Lesser left San Francisco for about 25 years, first for school and then to work for Sunkist in Florida and Los Angeles. He returned to the city in 2001.
“The Mission had become very tawdry,” he said. “There were lots of vacancies and I didn’t remember the crime [being nearly] as chronic as it had become when I came back.”
From 2003 to 2006, he served as president of the Mission Merchants Association. The group is one of the oldest of its kind in San Francisco — Lesser’s grandfather had belonged to it — but membership had dropped to around 50. Lesser and others built it up to 150 members.
As he worked to build membership, people began asking Lesser if the organization could endorse their projects. That hasn’t stopped: on the group’s January endorsement agenda is Fresh & Easy, Juhu Beach Club and Sixth Courses Chocolates.
Lesser has an independent streak and isn’t afraid to support controversial developments. He worked to get Pollo Campero’s space on Mission Street approved despite strong opposition from neighbors.
He also endorsed the Shambahla Healing Center, a medical marijuana dispensary, even though the Mission Merchants Association opposed it, because he was approached by founder Al Shawa, a former tenant. “Yes, landlords and tenants can have good relations,” he said.
Lesser spearheaded the effort to declare the 2500 block of Mission Street, between 21st and 22nd, a business improvement district, with the authority to levy additional taxes on the block’s 20 businesses. That includes Vanguard Properties, on the corner of 21st Street.
“We don’t take that lightly,” Lesser said.
The extra tax revenue and donations pay for services like frequent street cleaning, graffiti removal and maintenance of security cameras and floral arrangements. In 2010, the city extended the program for another five years.
“When people ask, ‘Where is that block?’ I do not have to say the block on 2500 anymore,” Lesser said. “I can just say the block with all the floral baskets — everyone knows it now.”
The goal is to expand the business improvement district to encompass all of Mission Street, but that plan was delayed by the 2008 economic downturn, he said.
Politics of Development
In addition to negotiating with neighbors, developers have to navigate the city’s politics.
Lesser recalls what his boss at Sunkist used to say about fertilizer: “’My number one expense in citrus growing is fertilization. I hate buying this stuff, but if I don’t, I don’t get a crop.’”
“Same thing is true with politics,” Lesser said. “I’d rather not get involved, but if you don’t get involved … sometimes projects won’t even get started.”
So he goes to the lunches for the Rotary Club, the community meetings and the Merchants Association gatherings. It’s all part of understanding the neighborhood’s development climate. But his real love is seeing concrete changes — sometimes literally.
Back at Vanguard, when Lesser was ready to leave, he stood outside for a minute, looking down at the sidewalks.
“Look at how clean they are,” he said.