Vacant property on 657 Valencia St. Photo by Aleka A. Kroitzsh

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.” 

Aleka A. Kroitzsh

Aleka A. Kroitzsh grew up in Mumbai, India and now lives in Berkeley, CA. She is an English major at Dartmouth College and is passionate about poetry, hiking, and travel.

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10 Comments

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

    Everything wrong with this city summed up in one sentence. Phony “progressives” would rather their city rot & collapse than respond to the economic growth of the area. It also shows a lack of understanding of how gentrification works: Stopping “luxury condos” from being built doesn’t magically make the rich people go away — instead it forces them to buy existing units out from under middle- & working-class people. In this way limiting housing supply screws over the poor first, and accelerates displacement and homelessness. But J. Lee loves squalor, so he/she probably has no problem with that!

    1. I don’t think there’s a need to get so personal. It’s a misguided statement, because it’s true that having a rundown building there hasn’t prevented gentrification and displacement in the area. It’s true that just saying no to new construction (and doing nothing else) only creates a bigger incentive to evict people and flip existing apartments upscale. But the comment is coming from a place of pain that is real. If I believed that stopping a condo building from getting built would stop my friends or family from getting displaced, I would say the same thing.

  2. You know what another ridiculously derelict building is? 3200 Harrison at the corner of Precita and Harrison. It’s owned by the very wealthy Phan family, the restaurateur family who own Slanted Door. It has been siting vacant for a generation now practically. Every now and then someone will show up and bang some nails for a day or two, and then it sits vacant and derelict again for another six months. It’s pathetic. And now the sidewalk in front of it is dangerously uneven. People trip all the time. It’s all marked up by public works or whatever, all green x’s on it where they’re supposed to fix it. But they can’t even do that. It’s a disgrace.

    1. Anyone know why the old Dooley’s Pub on Lombard is still vacant? It’s been 20 years or so by now, prime real estate!

  3. “I prefer ruins and abandoned lots to luxury condos any day.”

    Because that way in the future something other than even more expensive luxury condos will be built in place of ruins and abandoned lots? Really?

    I would have never expected NIMBY statements to apply to ruins and abandoned lots. And that wasn’t some mis-stated point of view. That was the kind of opinion that stops the zoning process when someone wants to build….housing.

  4. Why does prop13 protect commercial and investment properties. How can we change this. That could not possibly be the original intent of the law (which is to keep homeowners from being forced from their homes if they cant pay the increasing property tax). This same protection should not exist for commercial and investment properties! If a business or person wants to buy a property to keep it vacant, that’s fine, but they should have to pay the property tax at fair market, we should not be subsidizing their taxes.

    1. The intent of Prop 13 was very clear from the beginning: It was about protecting speculators by appealing to people’s dislike for taxes.

      Protecting homeowners was a brilliant tactic to get the people on board. If they wanted to protect homeowners, there are many more narrowly targeted policies that they could have used. But Prop 13 has major shortcomings that make it not great for homeowners, while being wonderful for speculators.

      The full solution would be to switch from property taxes to land value taxes (a switch that is also hindered by Prop 13), but what would help in the short term is to remove commercial properties from Prop 13 protection. https://www.evolve-ca.org

      1. Let me get this straight. I buy a piece of property, then other people want property like mine, and therefore the ‘value’ of my property increases.

        Then, I should pay more taxes on my property.

        I don’t make more money than before, but I have to pay more to the government.

        Did I get that right? Asking for a friend.

  5. If we had Henry Goerge’s recommended “Land Value Tax” instead of Prop 13 there wouldn’t be a boarded up / abandoned building there.

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