Rendering of potential ground floor space at 1515 15th Street. Photo from promotional video by Polaris Pacific.

Consider the marketing language of the Mission’s newly opened mixed-use developments:

“Indie boutiques, avant-garde residences and a lively arts scene distinguish the new commerce of the area,” reads the brochure of the newly-built 1515 15th Street project.

According to its website, Vara at 15th and Mission is “a chic retreat located in one of San Francisco’s most desirable neighborhoods.”

“A balanced blend of urban living and comfortable luxury, rising above the rest” is promised at the condominiums at 19th and Valencia.

Yesterday, we looked at the economics and regulations creating challenges to fill the commercial spaces at new mixed-use developments. But there are also other factors at play when brokers select a commercial tenant in the ground floor of luxury housing. To borrow a favorite term of Silicon Valley: brokers are looking for a commercial tenant that’s a “culture fit.”

The tastes and lifestyles of the tenants who can afford the Mission’s high-cost condominiums on the top floors play a significant role in determining what businesses get leases for the bottom ones.

“We want something our residents will enjoy and use,” says Kevin Chin, the commercial broker at Vara, which has three vacancies. For one of the spaces, Chin is trying to sign a deal with a restaurant or upscale lounge, something that he hopes will be “a destination.”

For developers, finding a business that’s the right combination of “chic,” “lively,” “urban,” and “luxury,” means creating a commercial space that’s left fairly empty and requires a lot of buildout. It’s a blank canvas to be filled in by a future business tenants—but as realtors are swift to remind you, not just any old tenant.

Devil in the detailing

Prominent commercial vacancies in mixed-use developments. Map by Daniel Hirsch.

For nearly two years since it opened, 411 Valencia, a 16-unit mixed-use development at Valencia and 15th Street, had two commercial retail spaces vacant on its ground floor. The ultra-modern Samovar Tea Lounge with its minimalist design and futuristic brewing machines opened this month in one of them. Acacia, a high-end, carefully-curated home décor store opened in the other.

The refined aesthetics of the two shops seem like a perfect fit for the building’s residential marketing copy, which describe the project as a “hip and exciting community of homes.” It probably also didn’t hurt in the deal-making that the two shops are experienced retailers with existing strong businesses—Samovar has three other San Francisco locations and Acacia has previously sold its wares at the boutique Aggregate Supply further down Valencia Street.

Sabrina Haman, a business development coach at Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), says that in trying to find retail space for small businesses she’s run into brokers with stringent aesthetic demands.

“They want the look of the store to be trendy,” says Haman of commercial spaces in new developments.

A peek into many new commercial vacancies reveals an extreme form of minimalist space: there’s hardly anything in them. The hope of developers is this blankness will appeal to a wide range of tenants. “You don’t want to build something a future tenant will want to take out,” said Louis Cornejo, the commercial broker for 1515 15th Street, a 40-unit mixed-use development on the corner of South Van Ness.

Conversely, Cornejo says he’s seen a number of new developments that, in leaving a little to the imagination, leave too much out of their designs.

“You’ll often see residential developments with poorly designed space for retail,” Cornejo said. “For example, there’s times developers have spaces that could be a cafe or limited restaurant, but they haven’t even built the right space for taking out the garbage.”

And then there are the empty spaces with particular owners who want control over their tenant’s design moves. When negotiating with one broker, Haman was told that for a business to move in they would have to pay for a specific architect to design the interior of their store. The developer wanted the ground floor to fit a certain style and as a stipulation of their lease the business had to pay up front to get the space’s chic factor up to code. The deal didn’t go through.

Even big retailers can be turned off by the aesthetics of untouched new spaces. David Scanlon, the commercial broker at the new mixed-use development at 19th and Valencia says that certain lifestyle brands are coming to the Mission specifically for the neighborhood’s eclectic, funky character and may not want glass-walled modernity.

“A lot of concepts would prefer to go into old building, not some new development like ours,” Scanlon said.

If the rent is high, the space is bare and the hip-factor is stringent, the pool of commercial tenants that mixed-used developers will make deals with gets increasingly shallow.

New millenium, new street

The Mission’s trend of longtime businesses closing and sustained commercial vacancies connects to larger economic forces and generational shifts. The internet abounds with think pieces about how millennials spend money. Most reference post-Recession frugality and delayed milestones, but one factor that seems particularly salient for the Mission’s new generation (many with Silicon Valley careers) is the internet.

Thistle Juice has a shop on Valencia and an online presence. Photo by Andra Cernavskis.

The internet has decidedly altered how people, especially young people, shop and consume—which means it’s also changing the built environment of neighborhood streets.

“Small neighborhood businesses have always competed against downtown, and have always competed against big box stores, and now, on top of that, you have these small brick and mortars against the World Wide Web,” said Phil Lesser, a longtime neighborhood pro-development force.

Businesses like The Balm and Project Juice that have successfully moved into one of the Mission’s newest built retail spaces on 19th and Valencia also have robust online commerce. Businesses that are struggling to keep their door opens don’t, or can’t, exist online.

One of Lost Weekend Video’s chief appeals is wandering the aisles of cult and classic movies and chatting with the staff. Its charm comes from hanging out in physical space, not the swiftness of its commercial transactions. The tactile delights of gathering vintage clothes by the pound at Clothes Contact is one that requires an embodied, physically present shopper. Its motley array of wares can’t be easily catalogued for e-commerce.

In these longtime institutions, physicality is a must. But increasingly for new businesses coming to the Mission, digital sales come first.

Lesser worked with the men’s clothing brand Jack Spade in their abandoned attempt to move onto 16th Street, and he says they came to the Mission specifically because of its online shoppers.

“Jack Spade saw that with the exception of Manhattan, zip codes in and around 94110 were their biggest web sales in the world,” Lesser said.

It’s an increasingly common cliché that we live in an era in which you can get practically anything you want with a click of a mouse (or, more likely, the tap of a touchscreen). Jeans or juice, meals or movies, fresh groceries or first dates, click and it’s there. But these so-called seamless transactions are permanently shaping the public space in which we live. You can see it in every one of the Mission’s “For Lease” signs.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Sabrina Haman’s name. It has been corrected.

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Daniel Hirsch is a freelance writer who has been living in the Mission since 2009. When he's not contributing to Mission Local, he's writing plays, working as an extra for HBO, and/or walking to the top of Bernal Hill.

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  1. I was walking by Vida, the large development going up on Mission. They have a model in the window of the development, complete with tiny people walking by. All the people in the model are white.

    1. Yah, I agree it it totally racist and incentive to have only white people. It’s like having a small dark Latin man out front selling oranges illegally in their marketing brochure. Even worse but nearly the same level is having a black man eating watermelon whistling at a white girl in yoga pants while she has the look of utter fear in her eyes. The people walking the streets should be a reflection of the community. White people are not the community. I agree with Godzuki and Russo.

        1. Ricardo, I understand better than you know. The essence of card-playing is the attempted projection of failure, borne out of a refusal to take responsibility for your own life.

          You see race because you need it. I see only people, because I do not need your stereotypes.

        2. Sam you rosy ass-checked Baboon, whoever dropped their computer in the monkey enclosure at the zoo should be shot. The difference between me and you is that you think you can judge someone just from a couple posts. Haven’t you ever heard of the saying of not judging someone unless you have walked a mile in their shoes? I have no idea what it is like to be you so I cannot comment on that. We live in different worlds per say and view the world through different lenses.

      1. White people are not the community? Ever been to Valencia street? Plenty of whte folks around, racist.

    2. I’d rather see pictures of aliens as portrayed tiny people. All different colors. They would really make a great “culture fit.”
      “Yes, madam, we do have a $559 hat that will fit over your beautiful antennae. Right this way. And while you’re waiting, would you like a glass of single source hand-picked, hand ground pre-sniffed 1.5 oz of malamute-siphoned, pored-over by unemployed librarians, coffee-essence elixir? Only $29.95 with purchase? And shall we pack you in the back of the nearest Google express vehicle for the trip home?”

    3. Yesterday morning on KIQI I heard a commercial in Spanish in which the voice said (translated to English) “We have foreigners who are ready to buy your apartment building for up to $ 3 million.”

      Just sayin …

      1. My Take, you bring up an interesting point – a lot of the RE investment going on here in the Mission is being done with foreign money.

  2. Don’t let Sam/John get to you, godzuki. He suffers from white victimhood and is hostile to notions of racial inclusion.

    The Vida model sends a sad message to this community.

  3. This has been a terrific series, kudos to Daniel Hirsch and ML.

    I think it’s off-topic to bring race into this; the issue is really speaking to economy and class gaps, which exist across the racial spectrum. The cost of building in SF is so sky high, it’s no wonder these leases demand fancier and more well established businesses.

    1. Here’s what’s really sky high – developer profits and rents.

      Race was already injected by the vida graphics design campaign. At the very least it’s an insensitive oversight, but given the state of things and directions of change it’s not a stretch to recognize this as social engineering. Clearly, if Latinos were the affluent target audience, that graphic would not have whites.

      As for destination businesses, what kinds of businesses have made the mission a destination over the years? Taqueria Cancun? La Taqueria? Roosevelt. Tamale Parlor? El Metate? La Rondalla? Pancho Villas?

        1. Well, many places are here but I haven’t seen lines at any of the places you list … Though they do get a very white clientele.

          Why do you omit carnival, cinqo de mayo, dios de los muertos, lowrider shows, Central American dancers, the Missions 4th of July show? And countless protests against wars, immigration policies, housing policies, police brutality etc

          1. BacktotheBurbs: I’m not sure what you are referring to as we generally do cover all of the events you mention. And we list all of them in the events. But, let me know and you can also send e-mails to We’re a small staff but we’re pretty good about getting back to readers. BEst, Lydia

  4. OMG there are bigger fish to fry folks!

    And besides, I’m sure the vida people would be more than happy to sell a unit to people of any race. There are well off blacks, Hispanics, etc lest we forget.

  5. One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a big difference between new and old commercial spaces. The old spaces are deep: they are 2, 3, or 4 times as deep as the storefront. The new ones aren’t– they often seem wider than they are deep. The cause, I think, is that the deep space is now used for parking garages. The result is that these spaces are not very useful– lots of visibility but not much actual square footage. I imagine this limits the type of use pretty severely.

  6. Given the population camped or hanging out on Mission and on 15th, I think the word “retreat” is very apt. Do you think those characters are going to just leave when the units and store fronts are occupied? They’ll just hang out, poop and pee and booze and cuss and stink and throw litter, and enjoy distressing the new occupants. I wouldn’t even want to leave a trashy bicycle unattended for 10 minutes on that block. The store fronts are going to be vandalized almost daily and the filth is going to spread all over – because those characters have no reason to do otherwise.

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