Amble by the weed- and detritus-choked vacant lot at 22nd and Mission streets during the rainy months and you’ll hear them: Frogs. That’s an odd sound for the bustling heart of the Mission, but this is an odd sight: An imposing jet-black fence, unlovely sloping wasteland and a vast puddle resembling the putrid swimmin’ hole Sheriff Andy Taylor would’ve told Opie to avoid.
It’s a mystery how the frogs get here every year (surely they don’t take the bus — and where do they go when Opie’s swimmin’ hole dries out?). But, sadly, it’s no mystery how this bereft piece of land got here. This is the crater where the Mission Market once stood.
On Jan. 28, 2015, it burned, displacing some two-dozen commercial tenants — including Mission Local — and more than 60 residents. Jorge Flores was left with third-degree burns on much of his body, and 38-year-old Mauricio “El Pelón” Orellana was killed.
The San Francisco Fire Department confirmed to Mission Local last week that it pegged the cause of the blaze as an electrical problem within the walls of the building — not a tenant’s cooking fire, which building owner Hawk Lou claimed at the time. And still does.
After the initial fire, Lou allowed the derelict building to degrade into a charred, moldy and vermin-infested husk — and a refuge for homeless people who may have been responsible for additional fires. In 2016, it was ordered demolished by the city. And, since then?
While little has changed on-site (other than an unimpeded view of a mural of world peace leaders, funded by one of the Mission’s most detested landlords), much has changed, legally, in the larger, surrounding world. In California, the law now gives a good deal of encouragement to developers hoping to build dense projects that meet baseline affordability requirements — and limits municipalities’ ability to interfere.
As such, Lou’s proposals through the years for the developments to be built atop the ashes of the Mission Market grow bigger and bigger and denser and denser. By year’s end, his biggest, densest and latest offering will come before the Planning Commission: A 10-story, market-rate tower, with the blessing of state law if it comes in at 15 percent affordable.
San Francisco has a dire housing shortage, sky-high rent and property costs, and an alarming number of people living on the street. It is abhorrent that this land has been allowed to lie fallow for so long. There should be housing here, as there had been for more than a century prior to the blaze.
But that’s not all that’s abhorrent. Following the fire, Mission Local investigated Lou’s many properties — there were 19 at the time, with an assessed value exceeding $15 million — and some clear patterns emerged. A goodly percentage of Lou’s tenants are monolingual Spanish-speakers, often living several to a room. Upkeep on these buildings has not been aggressively pursued: Former residents of the Mission Market — which, again, the fire department says burned due to electrical problems — claim that there were no smoke alarms on site. The District Attorney charged contractor Tommy Jue with fraud and grand theft in 2021 for setting up faulty fire alarms at numerous city locations, including this one.
Lou’s tenants, it seems, are entering into a bargain: Their cheap rent comes at the cost of dodgy conditions and building management not taking kindly to requests to fix stuff. Sadly for the tenants at 22nd and Mission, this bargain turned out to be of the Faustian variety. And Lou may yet make a killing here, even after a man was killed. This prompts serious questions: What should the city do? And, more elementally, what can it do?
Reached on the phone, Lou said he would not offer a comment. Then he spent about five minutes commenting. He continues to blame the demise of the Mission Market on a tenant’s kitchen fire. “I have done nothing wrong,” he says. Lou insists he’s not a greedy man, nor a bad one.
Maybe that’s so, but bad things happened here under Lou’s watch, and he stands to be the beneficiary. While the Mission Economic Development Agency has long coveted this site for affordable housing, the asking price in recent years was purportedly in the range of $20 million — and that would be just to obtain the land, let alone do construction and put in the windows and doors.
Rather than countenance the moral hazard of a dodgy property owner profiting off of a tragedy he helped to bring about, could the city of San Francisco simply take the land and do with it as it pleased? You may be surprised to learn that, yes, it could.
“Eminent domain” is a term more often associated by the public with municipal governments seizing private property so as to erect highways or municipal buildings (or Dodger Stadium). But the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo v. New London ruling in 2005 broadened the government’s reach. In this case, five justices found that a city’s taking of private property and awarding it to a private developer qualified as a “public use.”
“This freaked out a lot of people,” says Mark Wolfe, a San Francisco land-use attorney and Stanford University lecturer. That’s understandable: The scope of what justifications a city can now offer to take away private property is now awesomely extensive. A mandatory purchase of land at “fair-market value” from a dodgy owner/developer, and subsequent setup of a nonprofit developer to build 100 percent affordable housing, is — easily — within the scope of what a city can now do.
But should it? Wolfe referred to a Los Angeles Times op-ed in which the power of eminent domain was likened to Tolkien’s One Ring: An all-powerful tool that, once used, will invariably be used again and will, again invariably, lead to strife and corruption. “The use of eminent domain,” Wolfe says, “is a slippery slope.”
Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for the City Attorney, naturally isn’t talking about her office’s legal opinions with regards to this individual site. But she does note that the city has never before used eminent domain “to acquire a private parcel to construct a residential use.” The last time the city used this power was to wrest away land for the Central Subway tunnel.
Well, that worked out great.
But Wolfe figures there’s an easier and cheaper way than eminent domain to get something more desirable built on this site — and built by someone more desirable. And it’s something this city often can’t help but do: Make building stuff impossible!
Because Lou is using a state density-bonus program, the Planning Commission may be constrained in the roadblocks it could throw his way. But, notes Planning Department chief of staff Dan Sider, Lou’s project is subject to the hearing process and — brace yourselves — to the California Environmental Quality Act.
Stuff moves slowly in this city. Especially when this city wants it to move slowly. And, while CEQA is the bête noire of pro-housing advocates, many of them can’t help but crack a smile in this case.
“I hate to say this. I die a little bit inside when I say this. But the city should use its discretion and deny him his permits every step of the way,” says Sam Moss, the executive director of Mission Housing and a vociferous YIMBY. “Not only is the planning permit discretionary, so is every other permit. I really do hope, for the first time since I got into the development world 15 years ago, that San Francisco exercises its discretion on every single turn: Public Works, the fire department, everything.”
“The only lever San Francisco has right now is its discretion,” says Moss. City intransigence has spurred him to work hard to weaken this lever. But, this time, he’s hoping the lever is as strong as Archimedes’.
“Every city faction will agree that Lou should not build this. You’re going to see a unique world where pro-housing advocates and pro-tenant advocates and straight-up NIMBYs all agree that discretion should be pulled at every level.”
“This,” Moss concludes, “is a pure unicorn.”
Eugenia Aldama and Humberto López lived at the Mission Market building from 1972 until, abruptly, Jan. 28, 2015. They didn’t hear any alarms going off — naturally — so the senior citizens instead had to be rescued from the fire escape.
“It really bothered me,” says Aldama, now 79. “I took a year to get well. My neighbor died, and he was a friend of mine. I would wake up in the night, screaming, ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’”
After the blaze, Aldama and López ended up in a single-room occupancy hotel, living among drunks and drug users. Stress and something in the water piping that made them sick led both of them to lose more than 20 pounds. Later, they relocated to Parkmerced. For the young-at-heart couple, who used to dance their way through the Mission, it was profoundly isolating. Aldama admitted that she used to get lost, because all the houses looked the same. The couple is now living in a senior facility in the Richmond District: “Our new place is so clean! Not even a fly,” gushed Aldama. “We are very happy where we are.”
When asked their thoughts about their former landlord potentially erecting a lucrative 10-story structure on the site where they lost everything, both Aldama and López seemed jolted by unwelcome nostalgia.
“Do you see this?” Aldama asked, pointing to an inch-long hairline scar on her left temple. “I told him so many times to please fix the handle on the stairs. He wouldn’t.”
López, 72, summed up his relationship with his longtime former landlord as “Dinero! Dinero! Dinero! I was there 42 years, and any repairs, I had to pay. I fixed everything. The taps, the wardrobe, everything!”
When asked what he’d like to see replace the crater where he spent most of his life, López’s answer was quick and unambiguous: “More affordable housing.”
Translation and additional reporting by Kelly Waldron.