Barricades on Plum Street
Build Group's new location on 160 South Van Ness Ave., and the partitioned part of Plum Street. Photo by Annika Hom. Taken December 2021.

In the 15 years Bill worked at the Discount Builders Supply & Hardware Store on Mission Street, Plum Street, the street behind it always remained open. Then, one Saturday, he discovered it closed off.

“I knew something was going on, and it was going to be an issue because we have a lot of customers that came from that way,” said Bill, the store manager, who declined to give his surname. 

Plum Street, a byway between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue, is surrounded by roadways that shepherd cars to highways. For decades, contractors and DIY builders used this alleyway, an alternative to  looping around to the hardware store’s entrance on Mission Street near 13th. But customers haven’t been able to do that ever since barricades went up about a year ago on the eastern half of Plum Street.

“Well, to this day, we’re getting complaints,” Bill said. 

And neighbors worry that, in the new year, this inconvenience will remain the norm. The eastern half of Plum Street is owned by the construction company Build Group, and it has submitted city planning documents to upgrade the barricades “for permanent closure.” 

This reporter showed up to Build Group, called and emailed multiple times. The staff answering said a higher-up may respond; so far, they have not. 

And, that’s allowed; It turns out that the city parcel that includes 160 South Van Ness Ave., a building adjacent to the hardware store, also includes the eastern side of Plum Street. So when Build Group moved in, which neighbors say was about a year ago, it legally inherited half of Plum Street and began blocking it off. 

Its latest plans include installing “chain link fencing, automated vehicular gates and pedestrian gates for permanent closure of the privately owned portion of plum street [sic],” according to a city proposal submitted in July.

At present, Build Group’s new additions still irk hardware store customers and neighbors: Construction barricades and chain-link fences stand, closing the passageway to South Van Ness Avenue. Inside the blocked-off area sit three wooden picnic tables that neighbors claim have hardly, if ever, been used.  

The change piqued the curiosity of Augie Phillips, a contractor who has shopped at the discount hardware store for years. He said that, often, people would skip the traffic by going around the corner to get to Mission, and use Plum Street. “It was always just an open street, and all of a sudden it got remodeled and then, bang, they fenced up the street,” he said. That store is “the only inner-city hardware store, basically. A lot of people come and go. I would imagine the lumberyard is pissed,” Phillips said.

Even the Planning Department staffer Mission Local spoke to recently said he visited the store to pick up supplies, and wondered why the street was blocked off.  

The confusion and frustration dates back months, though. A Reddit page popped up about eight months ago, asking residents what happened. 

“It’s not of much interest except for the fact that the connection between Mission and S. Van Ness can be kind of important when you’re trying to navigate the maze of one way streets and restricted turns in the immediate neighborhood,” the original poster explained. “I live in a nearby condo building on Mission, and this short street makes it much easier to enter my building’s garage when I approach from some directions.”

Despite the irritated neighbors, it appears there is little they can do, other than ask Build Group to call it off. Other than rejecting the proposed fence and gate construction if the plans come before them, the Planning Commission has its hands tied, a Planning Department staff member said. Build Group owns Plum Street and may cordon it off, a right the commission cannot deny. 

And, convincing owners to let the public use it has been done before, according to Beth Rubenstein, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Department of Public Works. In about 1905, that block was full of private streets, including Plum (which was called Bond Street until 1912). In 1967, the owner of Plum Street’s parcel, Milen C. Dempster, consented in official documents to public pedestrian and “automotive travel,” a use that remained in place for nearly 50 years. That changed on Jan. 14, 2021, when the current orders withdrew that right, making Plum Street “private property again,” said Rubenstein. 

It’s not the first time a privatized street sent neighbors in a tizzy. Public Works, which oversees street use and mapping, said there are currently 287 private streets in San Francisco. In 2015, a South Bay couple infamously purchased a street on Presidio Terrace for $90,000, a street lined with mansions once belonging to the likes of Nancy Pelosi. 

Bill, the store manager, said Discount Builders tried to talk to Build Group about taking the barricades down, but to no avail. “We’ve tried to compromise several times. There was even a huge construction project out here where we were asking them to open the street up so traffic can flow through. They wouldn’t even do that.”

Discount Builders has 10,000 customers a week, and many are now accustomed to the change. While it’s unclear whether a formal action will be taken, Bill and neighbors hoped that the alley would be restored to a public right of way. “We just want the street to be open,” said Bill. 

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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12 Comments

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  1. I feel that my pronouns are she not being respected by some of the Security and Exhibitors.My pronouns are she and her.

  2. Clearly Build Group needs to be boycotted in someway until they do the right thing. No business for them

  3. Why isn’t the city flexing on the half of the street they do own? Send traffic going in one direction next to their closed half of traffic, see if they still like occupying half the street.

  4. where are the land use lawyers for public access? if it has been used for years by the public I believe there is a way retain that use.

  5. This is the key to the controversy, copied from another comment: “the road way is stamped with a notice indicating that the area is private and the right to pass is revocable. This likely serves as sufficient constructive notice, and prevents the public from obtaining a prescriptive easement over the area.”
    As a California Licensed Land Surveyor, I can tell you that comment is right and the prescriptive easement rights fall in the face of that notice. You can find similar notices in sidewalks in front of buildings all over downtown. I know: it ain’t fair. Welcome to life and private property.

  6. fascinating story. with all the $ the city spends on buying and leasing buildings for the homeless, it’s too bad it can’t even keep track of the “private” streets that could suddenly be closed. why is the city not taking steps to buy these properties? I’ve used plum many times, as driver, biker, and pedestrian. I can’t believe it’s closed considering the congestion in the area (during normal times) and the heavy traffic going in and out of discount builders. on one site, the tax records suggested that the building has not changed hands for decades so it’s hard to know what happened besides the fac tthat since it’s private, the owners can do what they want. which is why the city should have bought it by now.

  7. what about adverse possession? How long has the street been open and does DB own or control it through adverse possession?

  8. “We’ve tried to compromise several times.”

    Would be interested to know what the Builders Exchange was offering in this “compromise”. Hard to compromise when you are asking for everything and don’t seem to be able to give anything in return.

    They mention 10,000 customers/week. Has this closure caused this number to decrease? There will likely be less crazy folks in that area as they can’t camp out on that street anymore. May make the customer experience a little nicer…..

  9. I’m the author of the Reddit post referenced in the article.

    The Plum Street closure is arguably a more serious problem for pedestrians than for drivers. If you’re driving south on South Van Ness and need access to Mission Street on the other side of the block, you need to detour via 14th Street, several blocks away. It’s ultimately just an inconvenient delay.

    Pedestrians must walk south to 13th Street, negotiate a very busy crossing under the freeway (part of the north side of 13th is closed to pedestrians), walk west to Mission Street, cross 13th Street again AND dodge cars exiting off a freeway off-ramp. It’s not just a nuisance, it’s potentially dangerous. Alternatively they could walk north a significant distance and go around the block to heir left, or use a tempting shortcut through a busy gas station lot, which is also potentially hazardous.

    Legally the owners of the east end of Plum Street are within their rights to do what they’re doing, but it would be nice if they’d at least make a token attempt to communicate their intentions and reasoning to the public.

    1. And not just pedestrians – the situation is dangerous for Discount Builder’s customers that are cyclists too. There is no safe way to bike to Discount Builders now. This seems like a ridiculous sitation that eminent domain could solve. The City should seize the street for the public.

  10. Keeping a road like this open to the public falls under “No good deed…”. It’s a bummer, but the owner is at constant risk of being challenged for liability if something like an all-too-common sidewalk fire ignites a larger blaze.

  11. I was on the HOA Board of 140 S Van Ness when this happened. Besides walking my dog around the block, Plum St was more hassle than not. Cars would illegally park on the sidewalks and on the street; whenever an MTA PCO would show up I’d have to explain the exact signage and which part was private. After DBS closed for the day, it’d become a tent city or dumping area. Cars can easily swing around on Duboce, unless they need to go north on Mission as that is a restricted right turn.

    I totally agree that it is never used, Build Group originally placed a security guard there for the first bit of the closure, he wouldn’t even let me walk my dog through.