Jul 27, 2012

Triple Bottom Lunch: George Koster and Central Market's Revitalization Efforts

Gabe Wasserman's picture
Gabe Wasserman
Senior User Experience Designer

As part of Hot’s ongoing Triple Bottom Lunch series, where we look at the intersection of social innovation and design, George Koster came to our San Francisco office in June to tell us about the local Central Market revitalization efforts. The topic was of particular interest to us at Hot as Central Market is just a few blocks from our office, and undergoing serious change.

A Graduate of Presidio’s MBA program in Sustainable Management, George Koster was one of the founding architects for brand and community-building efforts at eBay. He ultimately left eBay to focus on real estate development with an emphasis on Green building and finance, affordable and workforce housing, and community organizing, and has numerous projects under his belt. George is advising the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Workforce and Economic Development in the development of a financing guide for property owners and a resource guide for nonprofits and small business owners. Additionally, George is working with community organizations and property owners to develop strategic partnerships to redevelop the Central Market community.

Here’s what he had to say:

Central Market, The Neighborhood

Central Market (also known as Mid-Market) is the the stretch of Market Street in San Francisco between 5th Street and Van Ness Avenue and its adjacent blocks. While this area has a vaunted history as a thriving theater and arts district in the heart of the city, it took a turn for the worse in the 1960s in the wake of a series of redevelopment projects, including the construction of the BART line which shut down this portion of Market street for a decade.

This is a poor area—31% of the neighborhood’s residents earn less than $15,000 annually—and it has aspects of a containment zone for the poor. Nearly 50 mental health and substance abuse programs are located in Central Market. In fact, when people are released from prison or from hospitals with no family to turn to, they are often dropped off here because of the combination of cheap residential hotels, shelters, and availability of social services.

Vacancies and boarded-up properties are abundant. The streets are crowded at all hours, mostly with men, some of them homeless, some of them living in residential hotels and trying to escape their cramped quarters. A joint study by Glide Memorial Church and Stanford found that the average client of local social services spends nine hours a day securing food, shelter, and social services and has very little time for job search. Drug use and prostitution are rampant and check cashing establishments do a brisk business preying on the poor with astronomical interest rates and fees.

But this area also has around five thousand families, an incredible diversity (over 40 languages are spoken) and a good number of thriving small businesses and arts organizations and innovative groups. It is centrally located within San Francisco, has good public transportation, and overlaps with thriving tourist and business districts.

The Central Market Partnership

The Central Market Partnership initiative launched in January 2010, when then-mayor Gavin Newsom directed the Office of Economic & Workforce Development (OEWD) to increase efforts to revitalize the Central Market area. It is a Public/Private partnership which seeks to increase economic opportunity and diversity in the Central Market area without displacing the local community.

The initiative was grounded in good research and substantial outreach efforts. Guiding principles emerged around a vision to restore Central Market as the city's downtown arts district while inviting in new retail, restaurants, services, and employers to take advantage of the transit, downtown location and serve the adjacent Tenderloin and SOMA neighborhoods.

The initiative is now in an implementation phase and a lot of organizations are involved.

San Francisco government

The city is providing financial, zoning, green building, and other types of creative incentives to encourage businesses, arts, and not-for-profits to move into the area. Most prominently, the area has been named a payroll tax-free zone. The biggest news recently has been about Twitter (and some other big players) moving their offices to the area to take advantage of this tax break and connect directly to the major transcontinental fiber optic cable line that runs right under the area.

But drawing big business alone is not the goal of the initiative. District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim is focusing on creating linkages between businesses that move into the area and the communities that have lived there for decades, and making sure that these businesses reinvest in the community. And Jay Nath’s Office of Innovation is spearheading a number of unusual projects including one around local currency.

Arts organizations

Areas of Central Market overlap with the theater district (including popular venues such as Exit Theatre, Golden Gate, Orpheum, Warfield) and traditionally this is where arts organizations have had offices and performance or gallery space. Strengthening this area as an arts and cultural district is key to the city’s strategy. The city has turned this into a Cultural District Loan Fund to make it easier for other arts organizations to relocate here and fill vacancies. Recently, the Burning Man Foundation moved here and ACT purchased the Strand Theatre. There are a good number of other arts organizations joining in.

Social Services

As mentioned earlier, there is an entire infrastructure of social services serving the local community, many headquatered in the area, including some leading city service. There is a lack of central organization of social efforts and redundancy of some efforts. The city is planning to expand support for local employment programs so that there are more opportunities for jobs and training programs for local residents. They also want to improve coordination between these agencies and local businesses in need of short-term laborers or longer-term employees.

Commercial and financial interests

In addition to tech companies like Twitter and ZenDesk, there are a number of commercial interests from various sectors involved with the initiative. Real estate developers—both large and small—are working on many deals, some of them large retail projects, some involving mixed income housing and further combinations. There are 400 historical buildings and plenty of vacant buildings in Central Market, presenting a number of interesting opportunities.

There’s also an effort to make owners of residential hotels bring their buildings up to code as a quick way to improve living conditions for many residents. A number of hotels and restaurants catering to tourists in the area have a vested interest in making Central Market safer, cleaner, and less blighted.

Check cashing companies would rather maintain the status quo. However, there are also projects aimed at empowering residents financially, led by the city’s Office of Financial Empowerment Bank On program, and with supporters such as Northeast Credit Union and Kiva, both of which have offices in the area. These efforts involve educating local residents, giving them access to banking and credit, and helping them build a credit history.

The Big Picture

Considering that Central Market has been struggling for over forty years, it would be a coup and quite an extraordinary model to emulate if this initiative succeeds in turning the neighborhood into a cultural destination while stabilizing the local community. Lots of focus, energy, and money is being poured into the Central Market effort and there are many opportunities for involvement, innovative approaches, and design. At the same time, there's a lot of overlap and competing agencies; and of course the usual forces of moneyed interest and politics more focused on leveraging opportunities for their profit rather than bettering the neighborhood. Making all these efforts more understandable and visible would go a long way towards helping the initiative succeed.

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Triple Bottom Lunch is a monthly event for Hot Studio’s employees organized by Senior Producer Julie Kim, and Sarah Brooks, Director of Social Innovation. The purpose of Triple Bottom Lunch is to expand Hot Studio’s knowledge of current, inspirational trends and discuss different ways to apply them to our work.

More from Triple Bottom Lunch:
Triple Bottom Lunch and Biomimicry
Triple Bottom Lunch: Adam Dole, Mayo Clinic

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Carl Maletic, Architect's picture

What a challenge! The statement: . . . "more focused on leveraging opportunities for their profit rather than bettering the neighborhood" I believe is the key divider. If the proponents and planners of the Mid-Market area can deliver a bountiful and safe environment, then success is around the corner.

But having lived in S.F. for 30 years, with several spent in the Tenderloin, the number one priority is to remove the crime and the drugs. Several years ago I was reading the ownership roles at the County Registrar's office, and it was evident that the "smart" money (usually Chinese) was buying up large swaths of the Tenderloin.

Even as an urban planner and architect I was stymied as to a total solution. Thus it's wonderful to see articles like this one that tackle the tough questions.

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