Efforts start to pay off as vacancies decline in Castro

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 13, 2024
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Pedestrians walk along Castro Street during a recent afternoon. Photo: John Ferrannini
Pedestrians walk along Castro Street during a recent afternoon. Photo: John Ferrannini

A year ago, San Francisco's beleaguered LGBTQ Castro neighborhood was seeking signs of hope.

Now, neighborhood stakeholders tell the Bay Area Reporter that they've got some.

Terry Asten Bennett stands in an aisle of Cliff's Variety, which she co-owns. Asten Bennett is also president of the Castro Merchants Association. Photo: John Ferrannini  

"I feel like things are starting to get better," said Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is president of the neighborhood's merchants association and co-owner of Cliff's Variety at 479 Castro Street. "I'm optimistic. There are issues we still see with vacancies, but we see them going away a lot faster."

In the past year, the neighborhood has seen promise in the reopening of Badlands, agreements to fill the old Harvey's and Baghdad Cafe spaces, and a smattering of new businesses such as the Hulu Wa China Bistro. But other businesses, such as Q Bar, remain shuttered, and it's unclear when its doors will open.

Catch restaurant closed March 9. Photo: John Ferrannini  

"I think things are sort of staying the same," Cleve Jones, a longtime gay activist who was a former aide to gay slain supervisor Harvey Milk and was a co-founder of both the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, told the B.A.R. "Losing Catch is a big blow for me. ... I think things are kind of stuck."

Catch, at 2362 Market Street, closed March 9 after over a generation in the neighborhood, a development making visual the axiomatic truth that progress involves both steps forward and backward.

The seafood restaurant occupied the space that was once the headquarters of the NAMES Project. Jones told the B.A.R. that a piece of the quilt that'd been hanging in the space — as well as a bench commemorating the original site of the NAMES Project — would revert back to the quilt's custodians, the National AIDS Memorial Grove.

The grove confirmed this to the B.A.R.

"Both the quilt and bench will return to our warehouse in San Leandro, which is open to the public for tours," quilt conservator and production manager Gert McMullin stated.

The bench had been controversial because when no business was located at 2362 Market, neighboring businesses de facto became responsible for cleaning it regularly. Eventually, Castro businessman David Bach straight up took the bench, as the B.A.R. reported back in 2001, because the city wasn't taking care of it. It was reported stolen by its caretaker to the police.

"I will probably wait until I am comfortable that a proper home can be found before I turn it over," Bach said at the time. The following year, the paper reported that the then-newly-opened Catch had become the new home of the bench.

"It brings back the presence of the history that was there," Catch's then-owner David Weiss told the B.A.R. at that time.

Catch's most recent owner, Sanjay Gujral, thanked the neighborhood in a news release for decades of friendship.

"I've been so honored and grateful for this opportunity and the friendships made along the way, and to have help preserving the legacy of this space, especially for the LGBTQ+ communities who were so impacted by HIV and AIDS," Gujral stated. "Our patrons and the community have been the heart of Catch. I thank each of you immensely for your support, patronage, and friendship throughout the years."

John Cunningham, the AIDS grove's chief executive officer, told the B.A.R. he wanted to "convey the deepest respect for Sanjay and all he did for the space, to honor the spirit of what went on there."

'I'm Available' program working
Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is the executive director of the Castro Community Benefit District, said that the vacancy rate within the CBD footprint is 15%. This is down 25% from one year ago, she said.

In Aiello's view, turnover is happening more quickly than in the past.

"It seems when I talk to people that we do have businesses closing but it's not taking two years to get them filled like it used to," she said. "Maybe the economy is coming back a little bit. San Francisco is still a valuable place and the Castro is still a valuable place to have a business."

The "I'm Available" campaign to highlight commercial spaces has paid off, officials said. Photo: John Ferrannini  

As the B.A.R. reported last year, the CBD pioneered a campaign — "I'm Available" — featuring posters in vacant storefronts letting people know the space is available to rent. The campaign is also accompanied by a website boosting the neighborhood and featuring a map of available spaces.

Eight of the 21 locations where posters were displayed have now been leased, Aiello stated. These were at Rustic, 215 Church Street; Solidcore, 2175 Market Street; Entour, 2319 Market Street; Zona Rosa, 2337 Market Street; Pasta Panino, 4150 18th Street, Pink Swallow, coming at 500 and 504 Castro Street; and Sisters Coffee Shop, 506 Castro Street.

Aiello said that the initial grant funding came from the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development. A spokesperson stated that the office is "a proud partner of the CBD, contributing not only to the maintenance of the district's physical realm, but also supporting CBD's creative and nimble efforts to fill storefront vacancies through the 'I'm Available' campaign. San Francisco is leveraging the momentum of its revitalization efforts as storefront vacancies are being filled, breathing new life into the city's commercial landscape."

The district had received a grant in 2020 to hire a consultant; when the pandemic hit, the CBD pivoted to creating the retail leasing campaign.

"One-time grant funds are often used to build the infrastructure for the program to continue (maybe not as robust as initially) after the funds are used," Aiello stated. "We are doing that with the grant funds."

Aiello stated, "We are in the process of replacing posters that are faded by the sun and also putting up new posters in more recent vacancies."

Maven Retail real estate agent Joan Ruyle told the B.A.R. that she worked on the lease of the aforementioned Zona Rosa. She also leased 2319 Market Street, 2331 Market Street, 4122 18th Street, and 215 Church Street.

"We only have two left," she said, including the former Eureka Restaurant and Lounge at 4063 18th Street. (The other, she said, is confidential.)

"I think there's some great advantages and attraction to the Castro," Ruyle said. "It doesn't receive as much attention as Fillmore [Street] and Chestnut [Street]. It's high tourist and a lot of nightlife, compared to the northern neighborhoods that see foot traffic pretty consistently throughout the weekends and days."

Nonetheless that there's two left is a good sign of interest in Castro, she said.

Ruyle said that sometimes buildings in older neighborhoods such as the old Eureka Lounge face challenges with Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

"People are kind of leaning toward finding a restaurant that doesn't need as much work and this space has challenges with the entrance not being compliant," Ruyle said.

The regulatory environment in San Francisco can also present a hurdle, she said.

"There are challenges obviously with running a business in San Francisco in terms of wage costs, cost of goods, safety, cleanliness, and other challenges outside the [COVID] pandemic."

Aiello said that the Healthy Street Operations Center has helped CBDs around the city communicate and coordinate on issues surrounding street conditions via a once-a-week Zoom call where the Castro, SOMA West and Tenderloin CBDs can compare notes.

"I just think the mayor's outreach team and us working together is making a positive impact," Aiello said. "Is it 100%? No."

A spokesperson for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management stated to the B.A.R. that "HSOC collaborates with various non-government stakeholders to hear community input and coordinate efforts across teams. The collaboration enabled by our ongoing outreach program meetings is an essential component of our work."

A March 5 count by the B.A.R. of storefronts along Market Street from Octavia Boulevard to Castro Street, on the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street, and on 18th Street from Collingwood to Noe streets found 156 (81%) that were filled and 36 (19%) that were vacant. (It's worth noting this does not exactly correspond to the CBD footprint.)

Peter Grady, left, and Peter Myers shop at Cliff's Variety on March 12. The San Francisco residents said they often shop at the historic Castro Street hardware store. Photo: John Ferrannini  

Downtown decline had ripple effects
Asten Bennett isn't ready to declare victory just yet in the battle against ennui and decline, symbolized by shuttered, boarded-up storefronts and despair in the streets.

"I wouldn't say that I feel good it won't turn right back again," she said. "I think there's a calculated effort being made right now. As long as we stay on top of that, we have a chance."

One of those most responsible for that effort is gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. Aside from vacant storefronts, street conditions have also made business more challenging.

"We're making a lot of progress with encampments," Mandelman said. "It comes and goes. ... There's too many days and nights the drugs are bringing the party to the sidewalk in the neighborhood, but the overall situation right now is dramatically improved since the [COVID-19] pandemic."

Mandelman said that the economy of central San Francisco appears to be in a recession. The much-reported decline of downtown San Francisco has also affected the neighborhoods nearby, especially the Castro, which is one of the city's major transit hubs.

San Francisco's office vacancy rate was 35.9%, according to a report late last year from commercial real estate firm Global Commercial Real Estate Services. The city was ranked dead last in an Institute of Governmental Studies study the same year tracking American downtowns' recoveries from COVID lockdowns.

Mayor London Breed and her opponents in November's mayoral race have made reviving downtown central parts of their platforms. At last week's State of the City, the B.A.R. reported about Breed's plan to bring in 30,000 new residents by 2030. Opponent and former mayor Mark Farrell argues reopening Market Street to cars should be part of the solution.

"Part of the challenge is for neighborhoods that were part of the tech boom," Mandelman said. "[South of Market], the Mission, and the Castro are very much a part of that. Work from home has been great for neighborhoods farther away from downtown."

Are things better in terms of businesses than last year? Mandelman's "not quite as sure" as he is on street conditions.

"I'm happy about new businesses but I keep seeing businesses closing," he said the day before Catch closed its doors. "There's been an arts revival in the neighborhood. ... People are working out, that's good. Bars are coming back, and some new ones are opening up, but neighborhoods need more than bars to thrive."

"Downtown distaste" has led some people into a "wait and see" mentality, according to Terrance Alan, the most recent former president of the Castro Merchants Association. He also said he wants to say things have improved somewhat.

"The post-COVID frenzy, which had some negative behavior attached to it, has subsided," Alan stated. "Vacant storefronts take so long to build out and open if they are proposing something different, which is what we want. ... Judging are we better or not — I want to say better."

Weather impacts business
When asked how business has been at Cliff's lately, Asten Bennett said that it has been dependent on the weather. The current water year has been one of the wettest in recent memory. From July 1 to March 10, San Francisco received 21.5 inches of rain, or 117% of the average from 1991-2020, according to National Weather Service data.

"I personally had a great January and a really crappy February," she said, adding some San Franciscans "don't go out for three days any time there's extreme weather."

Castro resident Gina Nguyen said she's loyal to Cliff's.

"It's a very good business and they have good stuff," Nguyen said as she worked her way through the aisles. "Only this has the good stuff and good quality."

She added the number of shoppers she sees has been "about the same" for the last few years.

(Source: Patrick Batt has long owned Auto Erotica on 18th Street. Photo: John Ferrannini)

Patrick Batt, a gay man who is the proprietor of the collectable store AutoErotica at 4077A 18th Street, said that his business has seen some changes due to new outreach via Instagram.

"We've become quite a destination," Batt said, crediting Bradley Roberge, a gay man who's been leading the effort for the past few years.

Continued Batt: "It's his [Roberge's] ability to pick out what people want to see."

Roberge said that "people have come from Malaysia" due to the Instagram page, curating the best of AutoErotica's collectable content, and which now boasts almost 50,000 followers.

Hulu Wa China Bistro is a relatively new addition to the Castro neighborhood. Photo: John Ferrannini  

A relatively new addition to the Castro business scene is Sarah Fu, co-manager of the Hulu Wa China Bistro at 3970 17th Street, next to the Chevron station. The space, which opened as a Chinese restaurant late last year, had previously been home to Niji Sushi and Nash Hot Chicken and Ramen. Before opening Hulu Wa, the family had been the landlords for the second iteration of Niji.

Fu said that things have been "slow." The family that runs Hulu Wa has had another location in San Rafael for the past five years; the Castro is their second.

"I think Castro is a tourist district," she said about why they decided to open up there. "When people come to San Francisco they first go to the places with tourists and I think this is good for business."

Fu said that the other reason is because they live in Ingleside — closer to the Castro than to San Rafael across the Golden Gate.

Street conditions haven't helped things pick up the pace at Hulu Wa, she said. Sometimes people come inside the restaurant, cause disturbances, and refuse to leave, which means "some customers don't come in," she said.

Nonetheless, Fu doesn't regret coming to the neighborhood.

"I like this district," she said. "The weather is very nice."

Business roundup
The reopening of Badlands at 4121 18th Street last October brought a much needed boost of energy to the commercial corridor, as the B.A.R. reported. Now, five months later, co-manager TJ Bruce, a gay man who owns a number of nightclubs on the West Coast, such as Splash San Jose and Badlands Sacramento, stated things are going well.

"It's been pretty good on the weekends so we are thankful for that," Bruce said. "Weekdays for the Castro are definitely more challenging but that is typical for any city. ... We are looking forward to the spring and summer season. Looks like other Castro bars will be opening sometime this year so that should draw even more folks to the neighborhood."

Among those that may not be is Pink Swallow at 500 Castro Street. As the B.A.R. reported last July, a new ownership group of Beaux mainstays leased the old Harvey's space. Though they'd intended to be finished by late summer or early fall 2024, Joshua J. Cook, a gay man who is Beaux's general manager and who speaks for the group, told the B.A.R. that Pink Swallow — which will require extensive interior work — is "currently in permitting and application process" and that there is not a projected opening date.

Most recently, the city's planning commission approved a conditional use authorization February 1 to establish a nighttime entertainment zone on the first and second floors of the space, as the B.A.R. reported last month.

At the end of the month, Solidcore received a conditional use permit from the planning commission to open a gym at 2175 Market Street. Solidcore representatives have not returned comment as of press time.

The planning commission also approved a permit for Los Angeles-based Muuu Meat to operate in the old 7-Eleven at 3998 18th Street last year. Muuu Meat did not return a request for comment.

Bar 49 will feature beer, wine, and food. Photo: John Ferrannini  

That same month, Hi Tops co-manager Colm O'Brien announced his intention to open shop at 2295 Market Street, former location of Los Amigos Diner and the Baghdad Cafe. O'Brien's concept, Bar 49, will feature over 49 beers and wines with food to complement both, he told the B.A.R.

"I picked the space because I know the neighborhood and the space recently became available," O'Brien stated. "I've been trying to open my own space for a few years now and the timing and space feels right. The granting of the beer and wine license will determine the opening date but I am aiming for mid-to-late May. The license will also determine the hours but I am hoping to open at 4 p.m. during the week, lunchtime on Fridays, and 10 a.m. on weekends for brunch. Closing at midnight every night."

O'Brien doesn't intend to serve hard liquor.

"A liquor license is so much more money and it's a whole different process to get approval for that space," he said.

He added that he's making some changes to the interior.

"I am going darker with the colors inside and changing the layout of the seating," O'Brien stated. "The location is amazing and all the windows make the corner a great place to sit, have a drink, some food, and chill out."

Q Bar at 456 Castro Street has been closed since a 2019 fire. Gay Q Bar co-owner Cip Cipriano had told the B.A.R. last year he wanted to open by Pride; then, when that didn't happen, teased a September reopening. However, the space remains shuttered, and Cipriano did not return a request for comment for this report. He last told the B.A.R. in October that "we won't announce a date until we have everything completely done."

Serhat Zorlu, who took over the old Cafe Flore space at 2298 Market Street, confirmed to the B.A.R. that his new Fisch and Flore will be having a soft opening April 3, though he added the restaurant will not be "fully operational" at that time. Zorlu declined to comment further.

The Woodhouse Fish Co., located at 2073 Market Street, closed January 23 after 18 years there, but the seafood restaurant's location in Lower Pacific Heights remains open, co-owner Dylan MacNiven told the B.A.R.

"There were a confluence of reasons, mostly economic," MacNiven stated. "We are continuing on Fillmore Street. We remodeled last summer and have some great things coming down the pipeline including our 15-year anniversary celebration next month."

Anchor Oyster Bar at 579 Castro Street reopened March 8 after renovations.

According to a 2022 Hoodline report, the specialty food store Epicurean Trader will be opening beneath the housing complex at 2238 Market Street. Co-owner Holly McDell stated to the B.A.R. that they hope for a May opening. The husband-and-wife ownership duo's first store was in Bernal Heights nine years ago.

"The Castro location will be our fifth SF location," McDell stated. "Our business ethos is all about supporting the fantastic small producers all over the U.S. that have wonderful products, but might not have the distribution or brand awareness to make it into a city like San Francisco. We purvey a wide variety of products; from craft spirits, wine, cheese, charcuterie, oils, coffee, chocolate, spices, and pantry goods. Our new Castro location will have a specialty retail market, with an adjacent cafe, and wine bar. We work with Four Barrel coffee for our coffee program, and Tartine and Craftsman and Wolves for their wonderful pastries."

Perhaps the neighborhood's most conspicuous business closure is the Castro Theatre at 429 Castro Street. The theater has been shuttered since February 4.

David Perry, a gay man who is a spokesperson for theater managers Another Planet Entertainment, told the B.A.R. that the scaffolding for extensive renovations and remodeling is finally up inside.

In a text message, Perry added that the team has begun ceiling restoration and that exterior scaffolding should be expected outside the theater "sometime in the next few weeks."

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