Flax art store draws notice to move; condos planned
For 37 years, the Flax art supply store has held its ground near the corner of Market and Valencia, a crossroads where the North Mission heads toward the eastern edge of the Castro district.
Now third-generation store owner Howard Flax is going to have to move. He’s the fallout of a development plan to replace his store with a nine-story, 160-unit condo building.
“We were given plenty of notice by the developer. We are looking for a new space in San Francisco comparable to what we have. Given the real estate market, we might have to downsize a little bit,” said Flax, who followed his father, Herman, and grandfather, Phillip, at the helm of the store, whose current home is known for its distinctive tilted-letter sign.
The proposal to redevelop the Flax store site, a 23,000-square-foot parcel that includes a 17-space surface parking lot, is hardly surprising. Over the past year, Upper Market and the Castro have emerged as a magnet for mixed-use projects by transit-oriented developers taking advantage of Market Street’s strong transit infrastructure and busy bike lanes.
Just last year, three major projects opened as part of a first wave: 83 Dolores St. (83 units and a Whole Foods); Venn at 1844 Market St. (113 units); and Linea at 1998 Market St. (115 units). Another major development, Forest City’s 88-unit 2175 Market St., is under construction, and Graystar’s 87-unit project at 2198 Market St. just won approvals.
Now the neighborhood is bracing for another wave. In addition to the Flax property, the Arthur J. Sullivan funeral home is under contract to the Prado Group, which built 83 Dolores. At the former Home Restaurant at 2200 Market St., Spiers Development Group is looking to follow its wildly successful Linea with 65 apartments.
Castro resident Judy Hoyem said the planning committee at the Castro/Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association can barely keep up with the proposals coming in.
“They are just rolling over us – it’s unstoppable,” she said. “All we can do is react. We try to work with specific developers the best we can, but we are not too happy about it. But what can we do?”
Developers and smart-growth advocates say the infill projects, mostly replacing gas stations and parking lots, are exactly what should be happening.
Developer Brian Spiers, who built Linea and is proposing the 2200 Market St. project, said the demand for housing in the neighborhood is overwhelming.
“This area can take a lot of density – it was always very dense,” Spiers said. “I do think you see more people on the street, but I don’t see an increase in traffic. Most of these units are being built at 50 percent parking, max, with full bicycle parking. … The scare we heard about Whole Foods – that there would be traffic queued up around the block all the time – has not materialized.”
Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the area, said development is welcome on several of the sites along Upper Market Street, like at the defunct Home Restaurant, which had become an on-again, off-again homeless encampment. He said increased pedestrian traffic on Market Street east of Noe Street has made the stretch safer.
“There is a lot of new life and vibrancy up and down Market Street now,” he said. “There are more people everywhere – in the bars, in the restaurants, on Muni. In many ways it’s a wonderful thing. The city is so vibrant right now. The energy is terrific, but it brings challenges.”
One challenge is whether the transportation infrastructure can handle all the new residents. Muni Metro trains on Church Street are already packed at rush hour, something the transit agency is trying to address with larger trains and a new control system.
Another challenge is affordable housing – condos in the area are going for $1,000 per square foot and rentals for $5 per square foot per month. The first wave of developers in the Upper Market area mostly chose to pay a fee to the city rather than make 15 percent of their units affordable. More recently, neighborhood groups have been more successful forcing builders to build on-site affordable units.
And land is fetching such high prices that nonprofit developers of affordable housing can’t compete.
“Everything is getting snapped up at absolutely gangbuster prices – it’s absurd,” said Peter Cohen, an affordable-housing advocate and Duboce Triangle resident.
Hoyem worries that the population growth will overwhelm the neighborhood. “We don’t think the design of most of these places is congenial with the existing fabric of the neighborhood. We are all kind of horrified. You line them all up and they all look the same.”
But for his part, Flax said he is ready for a change.
“Market Street has served us well since 1977 – but there is nothing magical about Market Street,” said Flax, whose 76-year-old family business previously operated various art stores downtown. “John F. Kennedy said change is the law of life. I am a big advocate of change. It’s an opportunity to turn an entity into something different and something better.”