Amid real estate prices that spiral ever upward and the stiffening competition for space in San Francisco, an 11-year vacancy on a popular commercial strip seems like a near impossibility. But on 24th Street in Noe Valley, the old Real Food grocery has lain vacant since 2003, when the owner, Nutraceutical, suddenly closed down and laid off the entire staff. In the intervening decade, the property has sunk into blight, leaving residents frustrated and stranding the neighborhood without a natural-foods grocery (until 2009, when Whole Foods moved in across the street). In 2013, a fed-up neighbor plastered nametag-style "I wish this was …" stickers on the windows, and passersby quickly filled in responses: "a climbing gym," "Trader Joes!!"
"It's been a significant source of frustration in the neighborhood," Supervisor Scott Wiener said Thursday night, at a community meeting at St. Philip's Church. "Barely a week goes by that we don't get a random email from someone saying, 'What the heck is happening with that site?'" The room was packed with neighbors who had come to find out. After more than a decade of bad blood—marked by a labor dispute brought by former employees, and a lack of clarity from Nutraceutical about the future of the site—the Utah-based retailer hired a local firm, Jackson Liles Architecture, to draw up plans for new mixed-use building to replace the dilapidated grocery. The proposal has not been officially filed with the Planning Department yet; Thursday's gathering was a pre-application meeting.
The preliminary plans call for a three-story wood and masonry-block building with four two-bedroom units rising two stories above ground-floor retail (which Nutraceutical would lease out rather than occupy itself). The retail space would have 14-foot ceilings and could be carved up into two storefronts or left as one 3,345-square-foot space. The four units above, ranging from 1250 to 1580 square feet, would be either market-rate rentals or condos, with one bedroom on the main floor and an open, loftlike second bedroom upstairs. Balconies and decks would overlook the street and rear yard. Because of 24th Street's commercial character (and unfriendliness to curb cuts), the proposal includes no parking spaces.
Despite a plodding, just-the-facts presentation that architect Brian Liles seemed determined to keep as dry as possible (sample sentence: "Our proposal is 9,984 square feet in size; that's the size of it"), neighors were quick to read into the plain black-and-white lines on the overhead projector. Some accused the design of being cookie-cutter and uninspired; others saw in the boxy outlines of the elevations and floor plans the threat of "luxury" housing.
The criticism lobbed at the building—much of it harsh, some of it unprintable, nearly all of it prefaced by a declaration of the speaker's tenure in Noe—quickly turned into a forum on who should live in the neighborhood. One neighbor stood up to say it looked like hipsters would live there. "I would like them to stay away from Noe Valley," she said.
With its open second bedrooms and loftlike layouts, the current design does look more ideal for younger tenants or childless couples—a calculation that seems designed to quell the alarm bells over parking but leaves the proposal wide open to tech-bus-related attacks. (If you're reading this and you're a childless, carless non-hipster with a family in need of a new, modern structure that looks like a Victorian that's always been there, congratulations and welcome to your new family!)
Planning's requirements for the site are, thankfully, a bit more straightforward: a 40-foot height limit (this proposal comes in at 39), no commercial pace on the upper floors (check), a rear yard of at least 28.5 feet (check). The building may or may not lack imagination—hard to say for sure at this stage—though we'd wager that solving a set of site constraints while attempting NIMBY-pleasing acrobatics requires quite a bit of of stamina, even if a more traditional notion of creativity has gone out the required egress window.
UPDATE (1/31/15): The original version of this story incorrectly suggested that Real Food's departure in 2003 left Noe Valley without a grocery. A reader reminded us that Bell Market remained across the street until Whole Foods moved in, in 2009. The story has been updated accordingly.
· Real Foods: I Wish This Was... [Noe Valley SF]
· Real Foods Location in Noe Valley Still in Limbo After All These Years [SF Appeal]
· Five Years Later, Real Food Still Empty [Noe Valley Voice]