In a bid to revitalize San Francisco's beleaguered Mid-Market neighborhood, city leaders are looking for inspiration in one of Canada's premier entertainment districts, Downtown Montreal's Quartier des Spectacles.
The Mid-Market Business Association and Foundation is leaning on the area’s long history as a theater and arts district to combat serious challenges that have emerged due to remote work, high vacancies and challenging street conditions.
To steer a turnaround of the troubled area of Market Street between Fifth Street and Van Ness Avenue, the organization is kicking off a multiyear arts-based recovery plan dubbed Market Street Arts that will fund artists and entrepreneurs with a mix of public and private dollars to fill vacant storefront spaces and enliven public spaces.
“We’ll measure success by the change in the experience of walking down Market Street,” said Steve Gibson, executive director of the Mid-Market Business Association and Foundation. “But we’re not naive with where we are, where we’re going and the challenges and difficulties in getting there.”
Although the grand opening of Ikea last week provided a rare bit of sunshine, much of the recent news around the neighborhood has been relatively bleak. Major corporate tenants like Block, Reddit and Uber have fled the neighborhood, Whole Foods shuttered its store after just a year and longtime small businesses like Littlejohn's Candies have closed their doors.
Elon Musk’s X Corp.—perhaps the most prominent remaining company—has been in the headlines for blinding neighbors via a hastily constructed (and dismantled) sign.
The ideas floated by the association to turn the neighborhood into an arts and culture destination resemble San Francisco’s larger strategy for Downtown recovery: matching 15 local arts organizations with vacant storefronts and launching public events like concerts and live mural paintings.
Another Planet Entertainment, the Strand Theater, Counterpulse, Alonzo King Lines Ballet, the Asian Art Museum are among the arts organizations enlisted by the association as partners.
Public events will start this week with some limited lunchtime entertainment and live music. While he noted that the history of Mid-Market has been one of ups and downs for the neighborhood, Gibson pointed to a period of revitalization in the neighborhood after the so-called Twitter Tax Break in 2011.
Gibson remained tight-lipped on financial investment for the plan, except to say that the group has had around twice as much in public dollars as private pledges and is seeking more of both. A planning document shows the organization is seeking a $15 million budget over the next two years.
“Market Street Arts grounds the community's long-term vision for economic revitalization and recovery and helps build on strategies that strengthen arts and entertainment and our local business community,” Sarah Dennis Phillips, executive director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said in a statement.
In contrast to the short-term pop-ups in city’s Vacant to Vibrant program, Gibson said the neighborhood’s 15 “Creative Hubs” are hoping to have a minimum of one year of presence with the opportunity for long-term tenancy.
Gibson said the organization is in the midst of negotiations with property owners and expects the first hubs to open in the late fall. Over the next year, he said four or five are expected to open with various themes like literary work or makers’ space.
“This program is not based on employees coming back in the numbers they were here before the pandemic,” Gibson said. “If that happens, then it’s gravy, but we’re not holding our breath.”
Gibson is also the president of Urban Place Consulting, a consulting firm that specializes in helping cities revitalize downtown spaces. The company was responsible for designing the orange-attired Welcome Ambassador program that helps greet and guide tourists visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square and the Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround.
Urban Place has been working with the business association since 2019 with an initial focus on public safety. The organization works in partnership with Urban Alchemy to provide additional security in the neighborhood
“One of the things we recognized early on is that it doesn’t do a lot of good to just have Urban Alchemy practitioners guarding empty storefronts,” Gibson said. “You need both: a community presence and community activity.”
Part of the Market Street Arts plan’s pitch is predicated on the argument that leaving the neighborhood to languish could have cascading impacts for the city, its economy and its reputation.
“Should there be no investment in this recovery plan–moreover, no investment to realize this recovery plan–Mid-Market will suffer and nosedive. The neighborhood stands a chance if we act today,” the document states.
Kevin Truong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org