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Mystery surrounds giant downtown San Francisco lot that’s sat empty for almost 30 years

An empty lot is seen in a photo.
An aerial drone photo shows the lot at 1125 Market St., which has been vacant since 1996. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

Sandwiched between a performing arts theater and a mixed-use building in downtown San Francisco, just steps away from the Civic Center BART Station, is an empty plot of land that’s been vacant for almost 30 years.

“It’s just greed: sitting on it until someone does something with it,” said Jude Walker, who lives nearby in the Tenderloin.

The 12,400-square-foot lot at 1125 Market St. was once home to the Embassy Theatre, which opened shortly before the 1906 earthquake and was demolished in 1996. Since then, the plot has remained barren despite having three different owners over the years and recent plans for a 12-story hotel. But with hotel plans now scuttled, the lot’s future is unclear.

Walker, who lives in a supportive housing unit in the Aranda Residence on Turk Street, said he would like the plot to become a park. His neighbor, Anthony Franklin, said he’d like to see a building for community services erected on the site.

“A linkage center would be good,” Franklin said. “They had one near the skate park.”

Two men stand on a sidewalk.
Jude Walker, left, and Anthony Franklin, right, say they would like to see a park or community services provided at the empty lot on Market Street. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

A man hawking $1 loose cans of Shasta lemon-lime soda who introduced himself to The Standard as “Earl to the World” said he wants housing built on the empty plot.

“We don’t have much of a say on what’s built, but we could all use some more housing,” Earl said. “They could have, like, 120 units here, easy.”

Matt Letton, a dancer and actor who moved to the city from Sydney, Australia, nine months ago, called the plot “an absolute waste of space.”

“It could be something for kids and youth or rehabilitation and mental health facilities to get people off the streets,” Letton said.

The land was last sold in 2015 to San Francisco real estate firm Pacific Eagle for $19.8 million, property records show. In 2013, Pacific Eagle filed plans with the city for a 12-story, 180-room hotel with over 10,000 square feet of office space. In 2020, Pacific Eagle modified the plans so the hotel would have the same square footage but with 20 fewer rooms, although those plans are not entitled, according to the city.

A rendering shows a planned hotel.
Renderings from May 2019 show the 12-story hotel that was previously planned for the lot. | Source: Courtesy Woods Bagot

But those plans are no more.

“There’s not going to be a hotel there,” a representative for Pacific Eagle told The Standard. “Probably residential, but nothing’s been filed yet.”

That was news to the city’s planning chief of staff, Dan Sider, who said as of February, the plans were active.

Although plans for a hotel tower appear to be dead, a rendering of a hotel facade next to the American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater sign still flashes past in a slideshow on Pacific Eagle’s website.

Pacific Eagle paid $275,533.36 in property taxes on the empty lot during the 2023-24 fiscal year and $2,342,364.04 cumulatively since buying it, records show.

The property’s previous owners, Riaz Valani and real estate firm MacFarlane Partners, did not respond to requests for comment.

Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who represents the Mid-Market neighborhood, said he would like to see housing on the site and it’s also important for the neighborhood to have shops and restaurants. Dorsey said he has had no communication with the owner.

An empty lot is seen in a photo.
An aerial drone photo taken last Monday shows the empty lot at 1125 Market St. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

“This particular parcel I have not had conversations about,” Dorsey said.

Maven Commercial real estate agent Dominic Morbidelli sees the owner’s situation differently.

“It’s lost 25% to 50% of its value,” said Morbidelli, who is selling a five-story office building a block away on Market Street. He said it’s a bad time to own empty land due to higher building costs. Morbidelli is not the only San Francisco real estate agent with this observation.

He said, “2015 was the year to make it happen. Construction costs have tripled since then.”

Sider said that “short-term plans for the site are, at very best, on hold” and acknowledged that the land’s value has dropped since the current owner bought it but said he believes it will gain value in the coming years.

“This is a prime piece of land along the city’s historic spine,” he said. “If the buy-low-sell-high adage is true, now is the time for someone to make a move.”