Can we have cool new additions without gentrifying the Mission?

Illy McMahan (left) and Kelley Wehman at their recent opening party for Carousel SF.
Steven T. Jones

Do livability and gentrification go hand-in-hand? In other words, as you improve a neighborhood like the Valencia Street corridor with bike lanes, wide sidewalks, parklets, and other improvements that are part of the so-called “livability agenda,” does that necessarily drive up rents and force out the working class?

That was a contention made to me recently by owner of nightclubs and small business advocate Michael O'Connor, who has been critical of the Valencia Street improvement project and other initiatives supported by the group Livable City and its Executive Director Tom Radulovich. And it's part of a larger discussion about whether neighborhoods pay a price for their own success.

O'Connor says the toll taken by livability projects is just too high in the form of rising rents and lost diversity, which is why he's focused on Oakland for his latest business ventures. Radulovich understands the concern, but he says that safety measures like pedestrian-friendly design and lighting improvements shouldn't be avoided simply because they make a neighborhood more attractive, and that the answer is making sure social justice and equity remain part of these political conversations.

Frankly, as a resident of the Mission, I had to admit O'Connor's point that the Valencia Street Improvement Project – in combination with condo conversions, the latest dot-com boom (those dreaded Google-busers), and other upward pressures on cost of living – had the the effect of sterilizing and gentrifying that once-vibrant corridor.

Now, those who want to open cool new businesses in the area have turned to Mission Street, where the commercial rents are still reasonable but also rising, and there are some people wringing their hands about that now too. It's sort of an economic development domino theory in reverse.

The Mission Local blog last month ran a post that mentioned my friend Illy McMahan's groovy new store on Mission near 20th Street: Carousel SF, a consignment store featuring the stylishly re-purposed furniture, golden flea market finds, and the works of local artists (many from the Burning Man world, where McMahan met her business partner Kelley Wehman among the indie circus freaks of the Red Nose District).

The article presented that and other more upscale new Mission Street businesses – including Hi-Lo BBQ and Mission Oyster Bar – as spilling over from their “saturation” of Valencia Street, and some comments denigrated the “yuppie real estate developers” behind the trend and said, “Will the last Latino left in the Mission please turn off the lights on the way out.”

I understand the sentiment, but I'm still troubled by it in the same way that I am with O'Connor's belief that livability improvements should be abandoned because they can gentrify an area. As I've argued before, it's up to San Francisco's political class to find a way to maintain the city's affordability and diversity and balance that against its relentless economic development promotion.

After all, McMahan is a single mother of modest means, and the fact that she has an opportunity to start a business based on her sense of style and network of contacts with artists should be a good thing for San Francisco. She and Weham went through The Women's Initiative training program to learn about operating a small business, getting a loan to open through its Working Solutions affiliate.

“Since 1988, Women's Initiative has been assisting high-potential low-income women who dream of business ownership,” reads a description on its website, noting that 99 percent of participants are low-income women and 78 percent are women of color. Combine that with McMahan and Wehman's artistic roots in the Burning Man world -- and the need for artists to have outlets to sell their works here -- and it's hard to imagine a business that is more quintessentially San Francisco than this one.

“This store represents our take on aesthetics and our mutual love for all things previous and peculiar. It also gives us the opportunity to showcase the incredibly talented artist communities we’re fortunate to be a part of, while keep the pricing at an affordable level throughout the store,” McMahan says in a press release announcing the recent opening of Carousel SF.

Will this cool new business attract other ones near it? I'm sure they hope so. Will that begin to cause Mission Street to go the way of that parallel universe a block away on Valencia, with rising rents and the calls for livability improvements that inevitably follow? I sure hope not. But our challenge now is to facilitate the dreams of low-income women who strive to be small business owners while ensuring that they can remain welcome and stable in the neighborhoods that they're helping to improve.


being in conflict with each other. Muni advocates see bike lanes slowing down buses. NIMBY's oppose the building of new homes that would take the pressure off housing costs. DV activists oppose our "progressive" sheriff. And now "livability" (horrible word) activists are at odds with low-income and Latino supporters.

It gives the lie to the idea that there is a broad coalition on the left. Just like communist Russia, the left always splinters into the SF equivalent of Stalinists, Leninists, Trotskyists, and Maoists, while the city becomes more like a suburb of Silicon Valley.

Then again, if you're really concerned with the "livability2 of the Mission, then why are those Google buses "dreaded", when they replace dozens of cars? Ask Tom Rad that.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

What a void they're filling - wow! We need more stores which sell bird-emblazoned articles in San Francisco. The working class always needs another artisan-produced, bird-emblazoned bag so they don't have to pay SF's .10 cent bag charge!

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Feb. 19, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

"In other words, as you improve a neighborhood like the Valencia Street corridor with bike lanes, wide sidewalks, parklets, and other improvements that are part of the so-called “livability agenda,” does that necessarily drive up rents and force out the working class?"

Yes. But who cares - the "working class" isn't the SFBG's readership. The people who move to cutesy Valencia Street **are** the SFBG's readership.

Win - Win!

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Feb. 19, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

"The Mission Local blog last month ran a post that mentioned my friend Illy McMahan's groovy new store on Mission near 20th Street: Carousel SF, a consignment store featuring the stylishly re-purposed furniture, golden flea market finds, and the works of local artists (many from the Burning Man world, where McMahan met her business partner Kelley Wehman among the indie circus freaks of the Red Nose District)."

Be still my beating heart!

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Feb. 19, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

That picture of Illy McMahan is not ideal. Is light beaming out of her eyes?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

She is possessed by the Devil of Impending Gentrification!

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 7:44 am

Gentrification rays.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 8:27 am

Michael O'Connor's family owns real estate up and down Valencia Street. Give me a break.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

There is no right and left side in this debate. The argument is between the preservationists, who love San Francisco the way it is and want to keep it that way, and those who don't love it and want to change it.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 12:48 am

want to see any progress, and therefore should be more accurately called "conservatives".

It's the moderates and the conservatives who want to see change.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 8:53 am

So "moderates" and "conservatives" should be seen by your standards as economic and ethnic cleansing radical libertarians?

Posted by marcos on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 9:13 am

fairly clear. The statement was amde that progressives want to "preserve" SF the way it used to be (or, more accuratey, the way they nostalgically remember it as being).

So it is "conservative" to want to preserve and "progressive" to want things to progress. The agents and activists of change have become passive NIMBY's, ranting at everything new and seeking to cling to what they think they have.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 10:54 am

Your point only makes even a little bit of sense if you consider all change to be "progress." Being progressive entails a belief that humans can devise better systems for dealing with society's problems than the one's we inherited from capitalism. It is conservatives who believe the old ways and values are the best, and maybe the only, ways of doing things. Livability improvements such as bike lanes as generally progressive (ie facilitating safer and most efficient ways of getting around), even if they raise other concerns that progressives then need to wrestle with, such as gentrification, which is only progress if you don't value diversity, economic justice, or a jobs-housing balance. Any reasonable reading of my post would infer that I'm raising an issue worth discussing (in the name of progress), not simply opposing what you've simplistically labeled "progress." That's one other key difference between conservatives and progressives: we understand that some issues are complex and we don't believe in the magic of markets to cure any ill.

Posted by steven on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

There are trade offs to all of these policy questions that progressives should account for and balance between the demands of social/economic and environmental justice. Pretending that they do not exist does not make them go away.

When each nonprofit tribe retreats to its corner and lobs propaganda at the other tribe as if they were lawyers in court, either you are a white racist for prioritizing "livability" or you are a pro-car planet killer if you prioritizing anti-gentrification, then we can't have those conversations.

Worse, is when either tribe gets bought off by City staff or corporate power to screw the other tribe.

As one with one foot in each movement for decades, I've seen how within San Francisco's progressive tribes any deviation from the party line on either side is treated as tantamount to treason.

And, Steven, please declare a moratorium on the use of the word "vibrant" in writing about land use and community development issues. "Vibrant" has passed the point of no return into vacuous clichedom.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

it practically vibrates with its own vibrant, soaring power, lending it a certain vibrancy, which surely leads to good vibrations, and can only be termed 'VIBRANT'...if you get my drift.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

We should remove all pavement from Valencia St. This would eliminate the Google buses, reduce rents, and decrease sterility.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 9:51 am

Just one uneven ox cart rut zig zagging down the middle.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 10:08 am

Reading between the lines:

Keep everything dirty and sh*tty because the working poor dont deserve or want clean sh*t free streets and the fauxletariate no progress-progressives dont feel good about their slumming unless its actually a slum.

Unless, the people introducing these changes are a pair of super cool burning man chicks, then we should do everything we can to make sure they can sell " stylishly re-purposed furniture, golden flea market finds, and the works of local artists" successfully.

What a sad group of people that think like this. So much going on in the world, and even in the mission that this paper could be discussing, but they choose to focus on the portlandia aspects of life in SF. "Put a bird on it"

When was the last time a new idea came out of this "progressive think tank" ?

Posted by Greg_the_diKC on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

'When was the last time a new idea came out of this "progressive think tank" ?'

This is a racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, hateful, insulting question that only a person of privilege could even think of asking.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

The property owners are those that allow a neighborhood to become what it is. They determine who gets to move in and who sets up businesses. I wonder how many property owners in The Mission actually live there?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

It can make more sense to rent a place, if you have rent control, even if you also own a rental building down the block.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

Congratulations to the girls for opening any sort of business, but a shop that resells cast-offs is hardly the sort of commercial juggernaut that anchors a street. Also, I truly enjoy it when different factions of the left get into more-diverse-than-thou slap-fights with each other. Someone better take back the night -- and soon!

Posted by Orwell's Uterus on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

is that whiny blacks are just as annoying as whiny hipsters. Well done!

Posted by Chromefields on Feb. 21, 2013 @ 11:17 am

When you see Mission teardowns selling for over $1 million and the long line of riders waiting for their Apple/Yahho/Google/ et. al. buses every morning going off to their $135K jobs, plus stock and other nice benefits, SF is one of a handful of places where only a tiny percent of Bay Area's population can afford. Like others have stated on different threads, the few rentals that are available each month mostly go to these highly-paid workers since they can afford the $2,500 per bedroom and because they are much more likely to buy a place one day and the landlords get relatively quick tenant turnover on their rent-controlled units.

Non-profits like Livable City, Transform, SF Bike/Walk, and others are absolutely encouraging the quickening gentrification of the Mission and other currently less exclusive neighborhoods with their combined efforts to push for more streetscaping, transit improvements, bike lanes and other quality of life upgrades that make real estate even more desirable and valuable to high income earners and the wealthy. And I didn't see many of these groups or their leaders speaking out at the recent TIC conversion hearing, or any other hearings over the years where rent-control protections or higher inclusionary ratios were being considered.

The leaders of these non-profits are highly educated and know very well that their efforts richly reward current landlords and developers. The meaningless quotes about "social justice" are just that, meaningless, since their day-to-day actions perfectly align with the banks and landowners who profit from higher rents and higher housing prices. When I moved to the Bay Area a few years back I heard that many of its "activists" were excellent at rhetorical soundbites while actually promoting policies that came directly from the real estate playbook that push for higher rents and even higher house prices. I haven't seen anything different to change that impression, although the quotes still sound good to the uninitiated.

If these leaders were trying to add these quality of life improvements to Modesto or Fresno or Brentwood, where lower income commuters are forced to live, then their actions would have some merit since the quality of these amenities are so much lower there compared to the core Bay Area communities. But focusing their concerted efforts on SF, Oakland, and Silicon Valley only benefit the real estate industry and encourgage the displacement of thousands of households whose only crime is not making an income in the the top 15%.

It's a good article raising important issues, but it's about 20 years too late to make any difference.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

You should post comments more often. I don't agree with a lot of what you said, but yours is much more intelligent and well written than most of the posts on this board recently.

Posted by guest on Feb. 21, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

I agree with almost all of what you said. I also wanted to echo the other repliers remark that you should post here more often. You are well thought out and your interpretations of the situation are pretty spot on and well worded. You communicate your thoughts in an accessible way that many that are not already in the 'know' can understand what's going on without a history lesson. We need more people like you in community debates like this!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 23, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

Guest, guest, Guest are speaking to one another. Yet none of the rest of us can determine which muppet is speaking. Perhaps anon, Anon, Anonymous, anonymous can illuminate the matter? What a farce!

Posted by voltairesmistress on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

thereby ensuring that the focus is always on the message, and not on the messenger.

I think SFBG's policy is enlightened.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

Nicely designed and landscaped streets and sidewalks are not a cause of gentrification, but rather a sign that the population in the neighborhood has already changed and the politicians are responding to their demands of place. Gentrification is a response not to the presence of street trees but rather to larger economic forces -- like opportunity and jobs for some but not others. Gentrification happens, too, where local assets are particularly suited to housing demand by that better paid population-- like the proximity of a a particular neighborhood to major transportation assets linking said neighborhood to work or other things (Caltrain, 101, 280, Bart). In other words, company buses show up in these neighborhoods only after large numbers of employees have already settled there because existing transportation hubs were there to begin with.

A more interesting question might be, "Why are these street design amenities (left turn lanes, traffic calming, bike lanes and parking, wide sidewalks with trees and art, adequate trash receptacles, and street cleaning that keeps up with the mess) available only in wealthier areas? Why not make working class neighborhoods pleasant, clean, and visually appealing while the working class still lives there? Sure, such niceties might draw wealthier residents, but only after the more convenient neighborhoods were already full. Rent subsidies and a hefty percentage of affordable housing built by the city would make the city more diverse, not keeping dirty streets dirty. Keeping poor neighborhoods physically starved of landscaping and other forms of government investment is just another sign of how the politicians listen and give to those who already have power and influence.

Posted by voltairesmistress on Feb. 21, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

What's next, bemoaning the lack of cheap rent in Noe Valley?

The Mission was gentrified in the 90s. The fact that a boutique has to open on Mission St because Valencia's rents are too high does not change this. Bike lanes and parklets or no, Valencia is going to be an expensive place to rent space, because of its foot traffic. Looking for a less expensive storefront? Try Portola, the Excelsior, Bayview.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2013 @ 9:43 pm

I feel like the article didn't describe the store very well, it's not just another outlet to sell "bird-stamped" tschotchkes, it's a consignment store above all. They just happen to also sell some locally designed/upcycled art and jewelry as well....and happen to give a much higher cut to said artists than most other stores in the bay area! When I was in there the owners were chatting with a new consignor, a local older woman in the neighborhood, who's husband passed away and was looking for a way to make a little extra money to make ends meet. They were both very sweet and genuine in their interest in helping the the consignor and the neighborhood. It should also be noted that they and a few friends did all of the work themselves..not some well paid contractor. I grew up in the Mission, my father owned a small mexican restaurant in the 80's, I have seen the changes first hand and am grateful for them. Somehow this store doesn't seem to be the impetus for any gentrifying of Mission street. I'm embarrassed for many of your comments. Check out the place for yourself and talk to the girls before making any shortsighted, ignorant comments.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

"... and some comments denigrated the “yuppie real estate developers” behind the trend and said, “Will the last Latino left in the Mission please turn off the lights on the way out.”

Oh come on, they can't kick out ALL the Latinos. After all, who's going to make the burritos for all the white people?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

Italians and Irish and German. Who is whining that they are not there any more? Since when was SF frozen in time, never changing?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

I think people in San Francisco are living in a fantasy world. While the Mission has been changing since the 90's, the area was always a working class area with many little parts. Look at a map see the surrounding area, Castro, Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, just to new a few.

I want to point out something, remember the bad old 80's and the bad old Yuppies, remember them. They changed a few places in the city, it has been going on since the late 70's.

Fantasy world of San Francisco while I write this remark from the years of reading this newspaper and spending some my time in San Francisco. Some of you aren't native or even know the city from the old.

Your idea of a perfect San Francisco will be this. Your will have dream place to live, cheap rent or low price housing, you will have your dream job, whatever that might hold, it will be correct, you won't upset anyone. You will live in one of the many areas of SF, trendy shops, high end dinning with plenty of open space for you pet. Homeless will behave, MUNI will run on time, no traffic, you will find a parking spot in from of your home. Street will be clean, city services will take of your needs, desires and help out the rest city. It will be quiet with plentiful clubs, bars and street festivals. It will be correct, liberal, and no one will allow change.

Gee if horses were wishes we would all go for a ride.

Posted by Garrett on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

a generation of hippie-era white liberals whoc ame to Sf "on a whim and a dream", did a load of drugs, and now think that Sf should be a permanent home for druggies and hippie losers and self-absorbed gays forever.

But the reality is that no modern city can flourish predicated on the great unwashed failures of life, and Sf is succeeding despite that, because smart knowledge workers want to live here.

The losers should move on, and many have, to Oakland, Portland or elsewhere. A few more remian here, desperately clinging to their rent controlled grotto, and post here. But they are a dying breed,

Tim knows that. But he at least draws a paycheck for it, and will milk it until something better comes along. The rest are irrelevant.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

I've lived in the Mission since 1975, and in my present house since 1977. My wife and I bought an 1880s 2-family Victorian with about 30 years of deferred maintenance. and invested money (we didn't have much) and years of work and living uncomfortably and surviving a rough neighborhood to bring our building back into good condition. I've been a small-scale landlord since 1976. Most of the time we were putting money into our building, rather than having any profit to take out. A high percentage of Mission buildings, like ours, are more than 100 years old. Either someone puts money into maintaining and improving these older buildings, or they become slums---dangerous to live in and dangerous to their neighbors. Almost all neighborhoods change over time: if they improve physically, they become more expensive, and if they deteriorate, they become cheaper---and dangerous. I work with kids, mostly Hispanic, from the neighborhood. Their parents don't let them go out alone for fear of violence. They live in rent-controlled buildings, with landlords who don't (or can't afford to) keep their buildings in good shape. If gentrification improves the safety of the neighborhood and the condition of its buildings, let's have more of it. No, I don't want my neighbors driven out. I want us to find a way for them to continue to live in the neighborhood in better housing that they can afford---which probably means that their housing should be subsidized. I don't think they should be subsidized by their landlords---who may or may not be able to afford the loss of income, and who then have fewer resources to devote to maintaining their buildings properly. The problems involved in creating good housing stock, making some of it affordable for those with lower incomes, and keeping neighborhoods from becoming slums are complex. There are no simple solutions, and suggesting that the problems are all caused by some group of villains is simple-minded and counterproductive.

Posted by David on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 11:25 pm

that we usually hear.

I've only been in the Mission for 15 years, but even in that time it is clear that crime, although a problem, has declined, along with prostitution which has been completely cleaned up at least at any time that I am out at.

Neighborhoods change anyway, but much of the progress is due to people like you who took a risk, invested in property there, and worked hard to improve your home, your block and your neighborhood.

When so many here want somebody else to pay for their self-styled "right" to live in an expensive city and a hip neighborhood, you have done it the old-fashioned way - through sweat equity.

Congratulations. Whiners - listen and learn here.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2013 @ 2:57 am
Posted by the dude abides on Feb. 27, 2013 @ 8:31 am
Posted by the dude abides on Feb. 27, 2013 @ 8:31 am

questionable, unless you think that hookers, druggies, homeless and petty criminals are all "good".

Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2013 @ 9:52 am

"stylishly re-purposed furniture, golden flea market finds" in other words, another over priced boutique shop, that sells junk at inflated prices, because they put their moniker on it. San Francisco has lost everything, that once made it special! For years I wanted to come back, but the place I loved no longer exists. Only the rich can afford to live there, and shop in it's glorified junk stores.

Posted by GrumpyOldMan on May. 06, 2013 @ 9:35 am

It’s actually a nice and useful piece of information. I’m satisfied that you just shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by Shon on Sep. 25, 2013 @ 1:25 am

I love what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and exposure! Keep up the awesome works guys I've included you guys to my blogroll.

Posted by Jack on Sep. 25, 2013 @ 1:49 am