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.”
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.”