Skip to main content

As prime as prime can be. So why is this huge building still empty after years?

A scooter drives past an empty brick building.
The brick exterior is all that’s left of a building at 659 Union St. after two fires in 2013 and 2018 gutted it. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

It’s as prime as prime San Francisco real estate can be: a bustling North Beach corner with views of Sts. Peter and Paul Church and Washington Square Park close to amazing restaurants, historic bars, cafes and a plethora of bakeries.

But it’s a grimy shell of its former self. The building at 659 Union St. is barely even a building at all. What's left of it after two ravaging fires is essentially a brick exterior propped up by metal rods. So why is the space still empty?

There are plans to develop a posh new rooftop bar and restaurant, 22 apartments and space for businesses on the ground floor at the site. The plans have been stalled since November. The developer, Jeff Jurow, blamed infamous City Hall red tape—“bureaucracy.”

Two fires gutted the 1914 building in 2013 and 2018. The first displaced 31 rent-control-protected tenants, 17 of whom want their units in the building back. The second displaced a liquor store.

But locals say that’s no excuse for leaving it in such a state over a decade after the first blaze. 

“It’s an eyesore,” said Kelli Smith, 55, who said she was born and raised in North Beach. 

A woman stands on a street.
Kelli Smith, 55, said she would like to see housing at the ruined building site, as well as a restaurant or grocery store. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Smith would like to see a grocery store or restaurant on the ground floor and housing above. She also said she thinks that a vacant lot on the side of the building could be used for parking.

Tech worker Dan McGann, who lives on Stockton Street in North Beach, wants a mini-golf spot to arise from the ashes at the corner of Union Street and Columbus Avenue.

“That’d be sweet,” McGann said.

Nearby workers at businesses are also annoyed that the building sits empty. 

“I think it’s an eyesore,” said Maria Paula Bautista, manager of the Il Pollaio Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue. “It’s ridiculous it’s taking so long, and it makes our neighborhood ugly. 

“You can’t let it just sit there,” Bautista said, adding that she thinks the site should become affordable and market-rate housing.

A woman stands inside a restaurant.
Il Pollaio manager Maria Paula Bautista said the building at 659 Union St. is an eyesore and wants it to become housing. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Fernando Cedillos, who has managed the Italian restaurant Acquolina on Stockton and Union streets for seven years, would like to see a restaurant or a hotel there and said it would bring more people to the area, but it might not translate to more sales at his restaurant.

“I think it would be the same; nothing would change,” Cedillos said.

One longtime tenant displaced after the 2013 fire is 73-year-old Peter Epstein. He’s lived in the basement of his friend’s Novato home ever since. Before the fire, his rent was $600 a month for a second-floor studio. In 1988, when he moved in, his monthly rent was just $300.

Epstein said his quality of life has drastically dropped since leaving North Beach. He remembers eating out at different restaurants every night, sailing his South Beach-moored 31-foot boat, Assignment, on the bay at least twice a week and reading the newspaper with a coffee on Columbus Avenue every morning. Now, he barely gets to the city once a month. 

“I’d move back in a heartbeat,” Epstein said. “After the fire happened, I had no way I could afford to move back in. I love North Beach.”

$20 million redevelopment price tag

Jurow, the developer, said city rules and regulations around housing make it impossible for him to build out the historic Verdi Building into anything, as it's just too expensive.

“The housing development environment in San Francisco is extremely challenging,” Jurow said. “It’s a tremendous amount of bureaucracy and red tape.” 

Jurow said city requirements mean he can’t erect a building any taller than the current structure is, which limits his plans to 22 homes. 

He also said preserving the building’s historic brick facade amounts to making “a building within a building” and would cost $4 million and add between nine and 12 months to the construction timeline, bringing total construction costs to $20 million. All told, the project would take three years to build, he said. 

Metal poles prop up a brick wall.
Metal poles prop up a brick wall of the building at 659 Union St. The brick exterior is all that's left of it after two fires in 2013 and 2018 gutted it. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Jurow also said he would have to allow 17 tenants displaced in the 2013 fire to move back in at the rents they were paying then, which all together make it impossible to make any money with the building. Jurow claims the 2013 rents are “less than half” of what the apartments would be listed for in 2024 if the building hadn’t burned down.

A one-bedroom North Beach apartment rents for $2,837 on average, slightly lower than the citywide average of $2,922 for a one-bedroom, according to Zumper data.

“We desperately want to develop the property,” Jurow said. “But we’d have to spend more to build it than what the building is worth.”

Have his cake and eat it too?

San Francisco Planning Chief of Staff Dan Sider said the developer needs to work with the city to get redevelopment plans fully approved. Demolishing the old brick walls is possible, Sider said, but it’s a lengthy process requiring Jurow to meet with the city, something he hasn’t done since November.

“He seems to want to have his cake and eat it, too,” Sider said. 

The demolition would require an environmental report and a public hearing at the Historic Preservation Commission, which takes at least 18 months and does not guarantee success, Sider said.

Sider said the rooftop bar and restaurant would be more difficult to achieve, as the Board of Supervisors would have to pass legislation to allow it. 

But to build taller, Sider said Jurow would need to add more housing to the plan so it could qualify for the state’s density bonus law, which allows eligible projects to build higher than their current zoning permits.  

“We’d want to see a more housing-forward proposal,” Sider said. “Half of the square footage in these plans is commercial.”

An architectural rendering of a building is seen.
Plans for 659 Union St. would add ground-floor businesses, two stories of apartments and a rooftop bar and restaurant inside the historic Verdi Building in North Beach. | Source: Courtesy Multistudio

Jurow said he didn’t know he could tear down the old brick wall until The Standard passed on Sider’s comments. The developer said he would like any new exterior to fit the current style of the neighborhood. 

“I don’t want some Los Angeles-style glass cube on that corner,” Jurow said.

The office of Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district includes North Beach, said it is working to make Jurow's plans a reality.

“We’ve been working closely with the City Attorney, Planning Department and Project Sponsor on a Special Use District for this site, which would provide numerous exceptions for the developer to build the project that they’ve proposed,” a representative for Peskin said. “It is our understanding that the Planning Department has been waiting on critical information from the project sponsor that the Department and City Attorney requested some time ago, in order to facilitate the crafting of the [district]. We stand ready to move this forward whenever the project sponsor gets back to the city.”

A man walks past a mural.
A man walks past a mural on the side of 659 Union St., which has been empty for years. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Peskin, who is also the board president, has recently worked to make it more difficult to build housing in his district. On March 5, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation sponsored by Peskin to impose density limits in several historic neighborhoods on the Northern Waterfront.

Peskin also fell under scrutiny after he reportedly berated firefighters battling the blaze at the ruined building on March 17, 2018, and demanded the resignation of then-Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White over the handling of the fire. Firefighters had claimed Peskin appeared intoxicated during the reported diatribe, although then-Central Station police captain Paul Yep said he saw no evidence the supervisor was drunk. Peskin later apologized for the incident.