Crammed between the Elbo Room’s former home and Hotel Tropica, 657 Valencia St. has stayed persistently vacant and persistently ill-maintained for as long as many can remember. Yes, the old sign proclaiming its earlier function — FURNITURE — still runs along the top. But below, graffiti, plywood and peeling wallpaper have taken over.  

Peering through a fist-sized hole, the curious can observe a ceiling composed of a grid of beams, some scattered wooden planks, a wheelbarrow, and –  astonishingly – a bright-pink suitcase in an otherwise empty space. 

As far back as 2008, a Department of Building Inspection report declared, “vacant building for 15 years … Homeless people [threw] food [on front] of [the] [building]. [A]nd they sleep there.” Not much had changed by 2014, when inspectors wrote, “vacant storefront. Graffiti, an eye sore.”

On June 23, 2019, a Notice of Violation and Abatement Order, declaring the building blighted, was issued by San Francisco Public Works concerning the graffiti on the property. The notice ordered the owners to remove the graffiti within 15 days. The order was finally abated on August 6, when the graffiti was resolved.

“I get more calls from people asking about that building than anything else,” said Mark Kaplan, the realtor whose name and number are posted on a sign on the building.

Kaplan said that more than 20 years ago, a fire destroyed the furniture store that once did business there – DeMello-Arons Furniture. Then, in 2002, Fatima and Usman Shaikh, the owners of the Hotel Tropica next door, bought the remains for $300,000. The family still owns it today.

View through the hole in the boarded-up entry of 657 Valencia St. property. Photo by Aleka A. Kroitzsh.

“So they didn’t pay too much money for that building,” said Kaplan, who was their realtor in 2009. “They tried to rent it out, had offers for as much as $12,500 a month,” but they didn’t take any offers. Apparently, one retail idea was a grocery store.  “They got offers from developers willing to pay $2 million for it.”

But, he realized nothing was likely to entice them after one particular meeting. 

“I remember this clearly,”  Kaplan said. “We all met in a restaurant once with the owner of 300 residential units. He offered them a ridiculous price, and just kept going up — offering extremes — and they turned it down. They said no. They clearly didn’t want to sell.” 

That was 10 years ago. And nothing much has happened on the site since. Kaplan wasn’t sure why they declined to sell the property but pointed out that the Sheikhs had a trend of buying properties and leaving them vacant. He specifically referred to the former First National Bank in San Bruno at 111 San Bruno Avenue West, which they left vacant for some 20 years before selling it to San Francisco Development LLC in 2016. 

Fatima Shaikh is curt with her explanation of why she and her husband purchased the 657 Valencia St. building, “Why do people buy buildings? The owner was selling it. We’re their neighbors. We bought it.” 

They have also owned the building housing restaurants Mau at 665 Valencia St. and Curry Up Now at 659 Valencia St. since 2002. Kaplan leased both of these spaces to the restaurants. 

Shaikh declined to elaborate on their plans for the vacant building, but Kaplan said they would like to put condos over retail space.  

Indeed, the Shaikhs have submitted three planning applications to the Planning Department since 2002. The latest one, in 2015, proposed a five-story structure with four dwelling units. 

“They keep pushing back the time they say it will be ready. First they said 2015, then 2017, now they said 2021,” Kaplan said. 

The project is currently in pre-construction and awaiting a permit. The most recent holdup in the plan occurred last month due to “missing sheets,” according to a planning document. 

Gina Simi, the communications director at the Planning Department, said that a lot of departments are involved in any project, but added, “it isn’t just Planning, and it appears to be a delay on their end.” 

This isn’t the first time the Shaikhs have been in sticky situations regarding a building’s maintenance. 

They have also owned Helen Hotel SRO on 166 Turk St. for 34 years, which has received 16 complaints since 2000, according to the Department of Building Inspection. One in 2002 says there were “no batteries in [the] smoke detectors,” another, in 2010, complained of spray-painted walls and “uneven doors to rooms.” All of these have been abated or fixed. 

Over the past 10 years, DBI has also received 10 complaints pertaining to the Hotel Tropica’s poor conditions. Again, those complaints have been taken care of. 

As for their vacant property at 657 Valencia, Peter Rzedzian, the general manager of nearby Curry Up Now, said that it’s been in worse shape. “At one point there was absolutely no ceiling and no floor. For this area, it’s a ridiculous thing to have. This is one of the best streets in San Francisco!”

Squatters, he said, probably lived there at various points. 

Jac Ruggiero, the front desk supervisor of Fellow Barber, located across the street, said of the building she sees every day, “Squatters, drugs and these old buildings don’t mix; fires happen all the time. It’s abandoned, and people need cover. I understand that, but it’d be nice if there were an actual structure made that they can stay in.”

Some neighborhood locals are less bothered by the so-called “eyesore,” however.

Jesse Parsons, who works nearby at Community Thrift with J. Lee, said he was “super surprised” it has remained vacant.  

Lee added that may be better than the alternative. “I prefer ruins and abandoned lots to luxury condos any day.”