If a new building project slated for Bryant and 18th Street is approved by the Planning Department, the largest housing development to come to the Mission yet could bring 276 rental units, including 44 below-market-rate ones. But a plan of that scale comes at a cost — the project would require the demolition of most of a city block.

The city block in question represents a particularly diverse cross-section of longtime neighborhood institutions and businesses. Buildings that currently house the art space formerly called CELLspace (now Inner Mission), the Mexican restaurant Flats Cafe, a landscape design studio, an auto-garage, a metal working shop, American Conservatory Theater’s prop warehouse, a brand new film studio and at least four apartments would all be gone should the project go through.

The San Francisco-based Nick Podell Company is the developer behind this project. Podell, who has been building apartment buildings for 30 years, said he’s been wanting to build apartments of this scale in San Francisco his entire career — his company’s work has mainly been in surrounding Bay Area cities.

“Frankly, I’m an apartment builder and I’ve been dying to do one in the neighborhood for years…when the city rezoned this site for high density housing, I jumped on it,” Podell said, referring to the Eastern Neighborhood Plan. “I hope it’s a great building…I take my job of adding to the built environment very seriously. I like to do unique work.”

For the block’s current tenants, most of whom have leases expiring before the end of the year, no building plan, no matter how unique, can ease the sting of displacement.

“I’m furious we’re being pushed out,” said Gary Siegel, the owner of the San Francisco Auto Repair Center which has been in business on the block for 36 years. “I’m looking for another location, but chances are we’re not going to find anything in this neighborhood.”

Big, Preliminary Plans

The site of the potential project sits on 18th Street between Bryant and Florida and stretches three quarters of the way down the block towards 19th Street. Podell said that the six-story apartment complex, containing a mix of one and two-bedroom units as well as studios, will be split between two buildings with an inner courtyard.

Podell also said that 100 percent of the units will be for rent and not condos. To comply with the city’s inclusionary housing law, Podell plans to allot 44 of the 276 units to on-site affordable housing.

“I’m in the business of renting units,” Podell said, explaining that none of the units will be condos. “Rental units are great long-term investments.”

Though Podell said he doesn’t yet have any preliminary designs to show the public, he said the architect Richard Beard of BAR Architects is on board to design the new buildings.

“He’s got a great touch,” Podell said of Beard’s work, whose firm’s previous projects have included 38 Dolores. “I hope to do fun, unique architectural ornamentation, but we’re still working on it.”

In addition to the 282,906 square-feet of residential units, Podell’s current plan also includes a garage, 4,300 square-feet of ground-floor retail space, and 22,189 square-feet of open space with an inner courtyard and balconies.

In terms of what might go into that ground-floor retail space, Podell said it’s a long way off before having to make that determination, but he “wants something good for the project.” He plans on talking to merchant groups like Calle 24 about the idea of having a marketplace of several businesses.

“It will not be formula retail,” Podell said. “I’m from here, I know better.”

Parties on the Block

Closeup of street art on Inner Mission's exterior.

Close-up of street art on Inner Mission’s exterior.

Since the founding of CELLspace in 1995, the 2000 block of Bryant Street has been a destination for artists and revelers seeking a slightly underground place for electronic music parties. Murals, wheat-pastes and subversive stencils cover the exterior of the large warehouse space, which also contains prop storage of the American Conservatory Theater and the metal shop Production Specialists.

Much of that activity at CELLspace was unregulated and not properly permitted, prompting the art space’s landlord not to renew their lease in 2012. When Eric Reid and his partner Mike Gaines, longtime members of CELLspace’s community, took over the business and renamed it Inner Mission they wanted to give the institution legitimacy — bringing it up to building code, making it a nonprofit and getting proper permits for throwing parties and events.

In March of 2013, the day after Reid and Gaines appeared at a successful meeting with the Entertainment Commission and the Police Department to make Inner Mission a viable, completely legal community event space, they received some surprising news from their landlord Lloyd Klein. He had sold the building and their month-to-month lease would not be renewed.

“We had just received a blessing from the Police and Fire Department and the very next day, our landlord said: ‘Sorry guys,’” said Reid, who also explained that he and his partner had spent $70,000 of their own money renovating the space to bring it up to code.

Reid believes the parcel of block that included Inner Mission sold for $17 million, but Podell would not confirm the sales price, saying the sale has yet to be completely finalized, which he says will be closed in September. The proposed site of the project sits on two large parcels that have been owned by the same two landlords for many years, John Handa and Lloyd Klein.

Under their new landlord, Reid and Gaines were granted a year-long lease that ends in September of this year. Once they found out the building was being sold, they halted their renovation projects but continued to provide rehearsal and event space for various community groups, including the Aztec Dancers and SF Roller Disco. Reid said that Inner Mission is still open for these event. On a recent afternoon, a Burning Man Leadership Conference held an event there.

Inner Mission also rents out a large studio space that is the home and workplace of five artists. They’re still there for now, paying a rent-controlled rate of between $600 to $700. Reid fears they’re unlikely to find anywhere nearly as affordable.

“We’re looking for a new space, and trying to find ways to fund it,” Reid said. “That $70,000 we spent is gone and never coming back but we’re trying to figure out how to continue our mission of creating an arts space that is a model for community.”

Down the block from Inner Mission, owners of the film and audio production studio Earwurm Studios have a similar story. The tenants there had spent thousands of dollars converting the small office space into production studios for filmmakers to rent. Just as they were nearing completion of their renovations, they got word the building would be sold. Like Inner Mission, their lease expires later this year.

“We’ve continued operations for the last couple of months, but now we’ve been slowly tearing it down,” said Earwurm’s general manager Israel Luna, as he worked to clean out the now-vacant studio. “It sucks that this happened.”

On the other side of the block on Florida Street, Gary Siegel, owner of San Franciso Auto Repair Center, said he’s not going anywhere yet and that he’ll be running his garage until the very last day of his lease, which lasts until December of 2014. But he’s worried about the fate of his nine employees.

“My employees aren’t doing minimum wage jobs, they are middle-class employees. What’s going to happen to those jobs and this city when service businesses like mine are pushed out?” asked Siegel, who thinks that there won’t be opportunities for businesses like his in the retail space planned for the property. “I wish he would build a space for me, but I doubt it.”

Just the Beginning

In its initial review of the project, issued February 28th, the Planning Department offered some guidance as to what should go into the ground-floor retail spaces.

“For many years, the project site has been a significant venue for community art and cultural events. The Mission Area Plan places a high value on such spaces as an essential part of the area’s character and identity,” the review states. “The Department encourages the Project Sponsor to consider incorporating a sizeable community arts space or PDR [Production, Distribution, and Repair] space to support the continued presence of creative activity at this location.”

In terms of the likelihood of an arts space like Inner Mission being incorporated into the project’s future, Podell said, “It’s not very likely.”

“My job is to make a good building… I’m going to do everything I can with the building’s architecture to create art,” Podell said. “The retail space comes secondary to housing.”

The Planning Department’s review also recommends that a project of this scale undergo a process of community feedback. Podell stressed that this is just the beginning of the conversation and that he has only just begun the outreach effort, which he said will be extensive and include a community meeting about the project in May.

“I doubt this is the last conversation you and I will have,” Podell said.

For the longtime tenants of block, there’s a lot still to say.

Gary Siegel believes the neighborhood isn’t going to let the plan go forward quietly and it would fight Podell on the proposed height of the building.

Eric Reid of Inner Mission is more sanguine.

“We’re living in an interesting time where we have this clash of cultures with developers coming in and providing space for housing, which is sorely needed,” Reid said. “But these people who have lived here and made the city attractive are being pushed out…We can’t stop development and progress from happening, but it can’t come at the expense of people living here for so long.”

Update: A Mission Local reader sent us the preliminary project plans of this development. You can view them here