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Stuck waiting for Batman’: Business owners confront a boulevard of broken dreams

Ike Hwang, owner of Ike’s Kitchen at 800 Van Ness, has faced growing issues of vandalism as drug sales and homelessness have migrated on his block. | Kevin Truong/The Standard

Hopping on a crowded 49-Van Ness Rapid bus that zooms down the center of one of the city’s main north-south arteries, it's hard to remember that it took six years and $346 million to bring the transportation project to life.

One visible reminder is the blocks of boarded-up businesses that seem frozen in time, aside from the graffiti that’s perpetually being painted over. 

In 2022, city officials celebrated the long-awaited opening of the transit project with great fanfare. The hope was that the bus lane would revive foot traffic and economic activity on what many businesses considered a boulevard of broken promises, as costs and delays ballooned throughout the project.

One year on, business owners up and down Van Ness Avenue say things have gotten better to a certain extent. But the construction’s impact—compounded by the pandemic—continues to attract blight and associated problems, including vandalism from those in the grips of drug-induced psychosis. 

Among the common complaints are growing issues around homelessness and drug sales, as well as the time it takes law enforcement to respond, when they do come at all.

‘Everything Was Too Late’

Ike Hwang, the owner of Ike’s Kitchen at 800 Van Ness Ave., said one of the happiest days of his life came in 2017 when he opened the business. After a career working in restaurants and hospitality, it was great to have something to call his own. Plus, his newborn daughter would be able to grow up with the restaurant. 

“They said construction was going to last only two years at most, that’s why I made the decision. But now this restaurant is closed, that shop is closed,” Hwang said, pointing to neighboring businesses. “Everything was too late.”

As construction wrapped up, the drug and homelessness crisis worsened, according to Hwang. A bus stop adjacent to Hwang’s restaurant, along with the now-closed City College of San Francisco campus on nearby Eddy Street, have acted as a magnet for drug activity.

“After the finishing of the construction, I’ve seen no impact to my business at all. It hasn’t gotten any better,” Hwang said. “It’s kind of like a ghost town.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed encourages everyone to get on the bus during the official opening of the new Bus Rapid Transit corridor on Van Ness Avenue on April 1, 2022. | Nick Otto | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

Once or twice a week, ambulances are called to help reverse overdoses or deal with related issues. A nearby hotel manager Hwang is friendly with said he could no longer refer guests to Ike’s because they didn’t feel safe walking down Eddy.

Last year, a car crash sent a vehicle careening into Hwang’s storefront. When police responded, they sealed up the broken window opening with a tarp. That night a group of people came in and stole pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed down.

Hwang has to repaint his storefront weekly and replace his windows two times a year, costs that continue to add up with few customers walking in the door. 

When he calls the police, he’s subject to a battery of questions that he answers as best he can. Oftentimes, they fail to follow up. But Hwang recently catered a private party just a few blocks away in Polk Gulch that revealed a double standard. When the host called the police for a homeless person making a disturbance, law enforcement arrived within 10 minutes. 

In January, Hwang had a customer come in and eat $40 worth of sushi. When the bill came due, however, she said she had no money to pay

"She told me to call the police so I did. She said the police wouldn’t come for $40,” Hwang said. 

After an hour and a half, he let her go. 

“She was right,” he said with a wry smile. 

Stolen Teslas

Shadi Naber, a co-owner of Salty’s coffee shop at 748 Van Ness Ave., said business started returning slowly last year in line with folks trickling back into the office. A year ago, Naber told The Standard that he was lucky to see an influx of construction workers popping in for breakfast or a sandwich for lunch. Although that customer base has largely disappeared, a new demographic has started to emerge. 

“On Eddy Street, it’s such a heavy presence of people selling drugs, especially in the afternoons,” Naber said. “They have started to creep into our block as well.”

Shadi Naber, the owner of Salty’s coffee shop at 748 Van Ness said business is slowly coming back, but often with more volatility and uncertainty. | Kevin Truong/The Standard

He sheepishly admitted that some of the drug dealers that have set up shop down the road have started to come in for a quick bite. 

A few blocks away, at 999 Van Ness Ave., a Tesla security guard who declined to give his name peeked his head out the dealership's front door to tell a family of tourists seeking selfies that the location was closed, but they were welcome to return the next day. The business keeps 24-7 security anyway, he said. 

There's a good reason for that. The guard said the dealership has its windows broken about twice a month, and mentally ill people often walk in and try to steal objects out of showroom models. One recent incident involved a person who refused to leave the driver’s seat of a Tesla while insisting that it was his car. 

Last year, one of the cars were stolen, only to be recovered a few hours later. The guard still considers the dealership lucky, particularly when compared to the nearby Jaguar and Range Rover showroom.   

In January, a person stole an SUV out of that business’ back garage and led police on a chase hours later before plunging off a hillside into another car in Twin Peaks. The general manager told ABC7 at the time that police never came when he originally reported the vehicle stolen. 

‘They’ll Only Come If You Lie’

Van Mess Market has seen business pick up a bit since construction out front has been completed, but still regularly faces issues of petty theft. | Kevin Truing/The Standard

Rasheed Alnasea, a co-owner of Van Ness Market at 920 Van Ness Ave., was brought in as a partner after the bus lane’s construction meant the business’ revenue was cut by more than half. He said business has begun to pick up, but the momentum has been slow. 

“We’re still paying the city’s fees and taxes, and everytime we feel there could be an improvement for our business, someone will come in and snatch something,” Alnasea said.

Case in point, a few months back, a group came into the store pretending to be customers. As Alnasea assisted one of the people, an accomplice came and stole a stack of T-shirts before offering to sell them back for $20.   

“If you call 911, no one answers, so people tell me to call 311,” Alnasea said. “But they’ll only come if you lie and say someone is dying now. Even if they come, they don’t do anything.”

Mel's Kitchen has been a neighborhood standby for two decades. | Kevin Truong/The Standard

Neighborhood staple Mel’s Kitchen has been at its location at 1050 Van Ness Ave. for two decades, with general manager Armando Ruiz at the helm during that entire run. He said business dipped when construction started on the bus project and the removal of parking spaces made it difficult for visitors to come in.

The business has not recovered to the level it was at seven years ago, even with the opening of a nearby hospital. He pointed to CGV San Francisco, the theater down the street, which announced its closure last month. 

Ruiz said he’s seen an increase in people coming in and being aggressive with staff and customers. 

“It’s become a two times a year thing where we have to replace our glass,” Ruiz said. “But we’ve already had to replace it twice this year.”

‘Waiting for Batman’

Across the street at Tommy’s Joynt, the historic hofbrau characterized by its 76-year history and turn-of-the-century murals, business has seen picking up, but it’s still “nothing like pre-pandemic levels,” said manager Phil Korfin. 

One benefit of the bus lane has been the way it allows emergency vehicles to speed through, instead of getting stuck in traffic, sirens blaring. 

“The streets are nicer, and everything looks much nicer outside,” Korfin said. 

Pedestrians are seen walking past the iconic Tommy’s Joint on Van Ness on March 29, 2022. | Nick Otto | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

Even the strange lollipop-like public art display outside the restaurant has started to become more familiar. The rise of remote work is the primary drag on Tommy Joynt’s business, as opposed to conditions on the street. 

“I think a lot of the work from home is hindering [the recovery],” Korfin said. “We used to get a whole bunch of walk-ins, but now you can open an app and you have 100 choices at your fingers.”

For Hwang at Ike’s Kitchen, the problems are more immediate. He recently tried to sell the business to someone else, but they took one look at the block and said no thanks. 

He wishes he could just close the doors, but he’s invested too much of his life and his savings into making the business work. So, he takes things day by day, hoping that the city can get its act together and fulfill its end of the social contract. 

“I’m really just stuck waiting for Batman,” Hwang said, with a shake of his head.  

Kevin Truong can be reached at kevin@sfstandard.com

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