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.