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For Struggling Businesses, Van Ness Is a Boulevard of Broken Promises
Tuesday, May 17, 2022

For Struggling Businesses, Van Ness Is a Boulevard of Broken Promises

Tommy’s Joynt, the historic hofbrau at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Geary Street, is a taste of old-school San Francisco, with its turn of the century style murals advertising one of the city’s longest-running culinary institutions. 

But the restaurant itself hasn’t been profitable since 2016, when construction started on the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit Project, tearing up the streets and sidewalks and reducing the flow of potential customers intrigued by the smell of freshly carved roast beef or the promise of a stiff drink.

Eddie Martin, the restaurant’s general manager, said the restaurant saw nearly an immediate 10% decline in sales because of the construction, later taking an additional 40% hit from the Covid restrictions and the pandemic’s impact on tourist visits. He said a $5,000 grant provided by the city was equivalent to a single day’s loss. 

“We have an owner who is very generous and he’s likely to keep us open, but that’s the only reason why Tommy’s has remained open,” Martin said. “I mean, the city said they always wanted to help, but they never actually gave any real help.”

Decades ago, the Van Ness project started out as a starry-eyed dream to create something like San Francisco’s version of Paris’ Champs-Élysées, with the centerpiece an efficient north-south link in San Francisco’s transit network. 

A view of the new Muni lane on Van Ness in San Francisco on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. As the Van Ness Improvement Project comes to an end small business along the corridor are looking forward to a construction free existence. | Nick Otto

But those dreams tipped into a nightmare for many businesses along the corridor, which have endured six years of construction, broken promises and lost revenue—plus a pandemic to boot—as the initial 2019 completion date stretched three years further. Meanwhile, the project’s budget ballooned from $309 million to $346 million.

As construction delays stacked up, the city offered grants between $5,000 and $10,000 to support impacted businesses, but owners said the figure represented a pittance compared to what they lost.

Now, as the Van Ness project finally looks to be wrapping up, many business owners are surveying the damage to their bottom line and their relationship with the city. 

Abdulhammid Albadani, the co-owner of Van Ness Market, a convenience store at 920 Van Ness Ave. regularly flashed a bright smile under his black San Francisco baseball cap, but his expression turned sour as he recounted how the construction project twisted what had started out as a promising business opportunity. 

In 2016, Albadani bought out his partner to become the store’s sole owner. A few months later, construction began on Van Ness. 

Abdulhammid Albadani, co-owner of Van Ness Market poses for a photograph inside his shop in San Francisco on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. | Nick Otto

“Before I was making around $1,000 a day, and now I end up making around $400 a day, but rent hasn’t gone down and I’m still having to pay taxes,” Albadani said. “They offered somebody to do my accounting or to put a sign for my business. I have a bookkeeper and I don’t want a sign. I just want you guys to move.”

In cell phone videos taken over a number of years, Albadani documented the daily impact of construction. Fencing and barriers erected on the sidewalk choked pedestrian pathways in front of his business and cut off access to his storefront. Underground construction unearthed rodents and other pests that ran through the store.

The project also cut off convenient parking, leading some vendors to drop their business with him and forcing him to use his own car to ferry product from his wholesaler parking in the alley adjacent to his store. He said over the years his car has been broken into six times.

“When they started, I told them I was going to sell the business, but they said it would take two years—or at the latest, three years. Then two years later they barely started,” Albadani said. “There were some days I was here all by myself with no customers.”

While Albadani said he received $15,000 in grants from the city to help him through the construction process—$10,000 from the Van Ness construction grant, and $5,000 from a city storefront improvement program—but the decline in business diminished his income by so much that by the time the pandemic rolled around, he couldn’t qualify for PPP loans or other forms of relief.

Pedestrians walk past boarded up business along Van Ness in San Francisco on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. | Nick Otto

“I lost money, I lost time, I lost years of my life,” Albadani said, adding that he recently had to sell off a portion of his stake to a new partner. “It would have been better for me to work for Uber than owning a business in San Francisco.”

Business owners traced a “domino effect” from the construction, which decreased foot traffic and made businesses more vulnerable to the pandemic. The resulting closures spiral into in fewer customers for the remaining businesses in a type of negative feedback loop. 

Berna Medrano, the manager of Village Pizzeria at 1243 Van Ness Ave., said she’s seen businesses up and down the thoroughfare shut their doors because of the compounding challenges of the construction and the pandemic.

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Additionally, because a new owner took over the location in 2017, her restaurant did not qualify for the grants the city was offering to support businesses along the corridor. There’s been a feeling of relief among her and her co-workers as the construction barriers lifted and the sound of jackhammers subsided. But she shrugged when asked about whether she’s optimistic that the completion of the project will ultimately lead to better times.

“We’re going to see how it goes because now the other side of the street is the only one that has parking right now,” Medrano said. “You’ve got to go with the flow. Hopefully it will be better for the business now, at least for the ones that stayed open.”

Two people are seen putting the final touches on a guard rail along the new Muni lane on Van Ness in San Francisco on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. | Nick Otto

One positive from the project for Salty’s, a café and deli at 748 Van Ness Ave. has been an influx of construction crew customers, which has helped make up some of the lower foot traffic caused by the pandemic. 

That’s not to say it was a cakewalk, said Salty’s co-owner Shadi Naber, particularly as his building was under construction at the same time as the street itself. 

“There were some days where it was overwhelming, the amount of noise and having to keep your windows closed,” Naber said, adding that the shop was “more than ready” to finally have the project completed. 

City crews are putting the finishing touches on the project and still lodging complaints in the process. One business owner relayed that the street cleaning and pressure washing in preparation of the project’s grand opening ended up blowing dirt and detritus all over his storefront. 

Somewhat ironically, the Van Ness Project—originally positioned as a model for future efforts undertaken by the city—has become a prototypical cautionary tale. 

As the barriers have been cleared and newly painted streets unveiled, perhaps one of the clearest symbols of the project are public art displays in front of Tommy’s Joynt reminiscent of slightly askew lollipops bursting from the ground. 

The other lasting legacy may be one of deep disillusionment, and the string of vacant storefronts that now line the avenue. 

Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected].

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