Even if we’re being generous, the sights outside the Phoenix Hotel in the heart of San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin are tough to bear. But the moment a guest steps into the parking lot guarded by a metal barricade and private security, they are immediately transported to a different world.
Vintage concert posters. The bright red doors. The neon lights. And of course, the famous swimming pool.
Thirty-seven years after it first opened, San Francisco’s now iconic “rock & roll” hotel, the Phoenix remains an oasis—a vibrant island— at the corner of Eddy and Larkin streets in the Tenderloin.
But with the hotel’s ground lease set to expire in 2025 and the land underneath it recently being put on the market, the hotel’s future is no longer certain. Last week, real estate firm Newmark Group announced it was handling the sale of the property located at 601 Eddy St. The sellers, a private family, are asking for at least $15 million for the 37,810-square-foot site.
Critically, Newmark is positioning the property as a residential development opportunity—that just happens to have a historic hotel on-site “providing investors with an income stream during the entitlement process.”
According to marketing materials, a buyer could build an apartment building with as many as 450 units. Or they could take over the operation of the hotel if they so choose.
Newmark Executive Managing Director Mark Geisreiter, who is handling the listing, said his team was trying to cast as wide of a net of buyers as possible.
“The sellers have a great relationship with the hotel operators that they want to maintain,” Geisreiter said. “But right now, they would like to let the market decide the best way to unlock the property’s value.”
The operator in this case is well-known hotelier Chip Conley, who transformed the Caravan Lodge into the Phoenix in 1987. The name was chosen as a metaphor for rebirth, much like how the city’s flag positions the mythical bird as its central symbol.
Then only 26 years old, he actively marketed the hotel to rock tour managers, selling them on the fact the property had a parking lot big enough to accommodate their buses and was within walking distance to venues like the Great American Music Hall, the Warfield and the Fillmore.
Within a few weeks of the hotel’s opening, Arlo Guthrie and Brenda Lee were connecting poolside and playing music together, Conley recalled. Since then, the likes of Kurt Cobain, David Bowie and Linda Ronstadt have stayed at the modest two-star hotel because of its reputation as a haven for artists.
Conley said his ownership group, which includes two other partners, intends to continue operating the hotel despite the property being offered for sale. However, he made it clear the site only has room for one building rather than a co-existing hotel and housing project, as some observers have suggested.
“I don't see a way to both preserve the existing hotel and build a new development,” Conley told The Standard. “The only way to do that is to use the parking lot, but developing there would be impossibly noisy for hotel guests.”
Losing an Oasis
While the city’s need for new housing is dire, local advocates of the Tenderloin say the Phoenix is not only of historical importance but also a key attraction in an area that is becoming increasingly synonymous with despair.
“Losing the Phoenix would be a loss for our arts community and the many nonprofits that raise money there,” said Katie Conry, executive director of the Tenderloin Museum. “The staff have been really focused on being citizens of the neighborhood, and they continue to put on culturally interesting events.”
As recently as last week, the hotel hosted an outdoor open-mic event called “Poolside Poets” with the nonprofit Decentered Arts, where locals read poetry, performed dances and played live music. Meanwhile, the annual Pool Toss fundraiser—which raises money for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation’s afterschool program—has led to the soaking of dozens of the city’s luminaries.
But since the pandemic, operating the hotel has been a test of patience, according to Isabel Manchester, a partner in the hotel with Conley who’s been managing the hotel since 2011. Despite the area’s challenges, she said bookings have remained strong, especially among artists and musicians.
“Inside our little oasis, things have remained the same, and that’s why people keep coming back,” Manchester said. “The only thing that changed, especially last year, is everything going on outside [the hotel]. It just feels like this neighborhood doesn’t get the same resources the rest of the city gets.”
To that point, Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and author of a 2015 book recounting the history of the neighborhood, said the hotel used to be better shielded from the open-air drug use that currently surrounds it—but claims that police resources have backslid in the last year.
“The future of that area will be bright if people feel safe staying there,” Shaw said. “He says he does, but the Chief of Police [Bill Scott] doesn't care about the Tenderloin.” In the past four years, Shaw said he made multiple requests to SFPD for additional foot patrols in the area but claims those requests were never met.
SFPD spokesperson Robert Rueca said the command staff of the Tenderloin Police Station have spoken with the Phoenix staff regarding the safety of their guests and employees. He added that while they do not have a dedicated officer assigned to the block of the hotel, officers respond to calls from businesses every day.
Rueca cited a drastic increase in arrests at the Tenderloin year-over-year since 2021 as evidence SFPD is committed to the area’s safety.
While recent reviews of the hotel online remain broadly positive, many in the last year include comments lamenting how unattractive the surrounding area is.
Yet for Conley, who used the Phoenix, his first-ever hotel project, to launch a nationwide boutique hotel chain before becoming Airbnb’s head of global hospitality and strategy in 2013, the Tenderloin remains a special place.
It’s why he’s held onto the hotel despite largely transitioning to a career in writing and motivational speaking.
“The Tenderloin is such a beautiful neighborhood full of artists, immigrants, misfits and seniors,” Conley said. “It’s always been a crossroads for the creative, and while it got considerably less safe since the pandemic, I think it’s getting better.”