A New Mid-Market Street: Who is Left Behind?

All eyes seem to be on San Francisco’s Market Street these days. A long-stalled planning effort to redesign the street to improve conditions for transit, bicycling, and walking – dubbed the Better Market Street project – is at last progressing, with a final design concept being decided upon in the coming months. The many agencies involved in the project have struggled to create a unified vision for the corridor, since its character is so multifaceted and the street serves many competing roles. The backbone of San Francisco’s transportation network and its cultural center, Market Street is arguably the City’s most important street. Cutting diagonally from the waterfront on the edge of the Financial District all the way to the foot of Twin Peaks, Market Street is simultaneously a connector, a dividing line, and a place of its own.

Despite the slow progress of the Better Market Street project to reorganize mobility along the corridor, many land use and other place-based changes are already well underway. Along Market Street’s long-distressed Mid-Market / Civic Center section, high-profile technology firms like social networking giant Twitter are moving in, and their wealthy, well-educated workforce is following close behind. Such a rapid shift in demographics is changing the character of the area, leaving one asking: whose interests matter and who is being left behind?

Mid-Market has long been a place of concern – almost every Mayor in recent memory has made efforts to “clean up” the so-called blighted area. Directly adjacent to the Tenderloin and Civic Center neighborhoods, this middle section of Market Street is troubled by homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, and other quality-of-life issues. On some blocks, almost half of storefronts are vacant and many buildings are falling into disrepair. Attempts to spark vitality by reviving the area’s roots as a theatre and arts district have only been somewhat effective. Now, the new concept is to reorient Mid-Market into a technology hub, which means remaking the area to attract newcomers, largely to the detriment of current residents.

In 2011, San Francisco officials enacted a package of loans, grants, and tax breaks to lure investors to Mid-Market. Though controversial, the plan seems to be producing results. Twitter’s arrival last year was the subject of most headlines, and other big technology firms like Dolby Labs and mobile-payment service Square have also recently moved into the area. But the allure is not just tax breaks – younger workers are increasingly forgoing life in the suburbs for a more lively urban experience. The advent of corporate shuttle buses carrying thousands of workers who live in the City to their jobs south of San Francisco each morning makes this point very clear. Tech firms are realizing this and are beginning to move the center of gravity from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, situating themselves where their employees want to live and work. Retail businesses are correspondingly turning-over, with expensive coffee shops, gourmet restaurants, and boutique chocolatiers taking their place. Change is afoot.

By early next year, the 754-unit luxury apartment complex NeMa (standing for “New Market”) will be complete, bringing thousands of new affluent residents to the area. A good number will work in the burgeoning tech industry. Mid-Market’s revitalization involves a very real change in the area’s identity, as the City caters to those who stand to bring the most capital into the area, with little attention given to the thousands who live on the streets and in low-rent housing. Just last month, police shut down an over 30-year tradition of Tenderloin residents playing chess on Market Street’s sidewalk – one of the corridor’s only visible images of community. SFPD Capt. Michael Redmond said the games had “turned into a big public nuisance” and he suspected they were “a disguise for some other things that are going on,” such as drug dealing and gambling. This once-forgotten stretch of Market Street is suddenly valuable, and the last thing the City wants to do is scare affluent people away.

What will all these changes ultimately mean for the neighborhood? Market Street will surely continue to be a place where people of all walks of life come together, but a process of harsh gentrification is nevertheless occurring. As Mid-Market reorients itself to be attractive for a younger and more affluent demographic, current lower-income residents are viewed as a nuisance – an expendable population tolerated only until renewal takes-off. San Francisco needs to reflect on the type of city it wants to be. As things are going, there will need to be a big change in perspective, unless it wants to relegate itself to being a playground for the rich.

Mark Dreger is working towards his Masters in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, concentrating in transportation and urban design. He is a San Francisco native and interested in the nexus between systems of mobility and the public realm.