Gritty Lower Polk’s fortunes are starting to look up 

click to enlarge A proposed community benefit district could raise as much as $800,000 annually for upkeep and expanded services for the lower part of Polk Street. - JESSICA CHRISTIAN/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Jessica Christian/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • A proposed community benefit district could raise as much as $800,000 annually for upkeep and expanded services for the lower part of Polk Street.

As San Francisco's economy surges with a flourishing technology industry, neighborhoods are undergoing dramatic changes with new restaurants, demographic shifts, and soaring apartment and commercial rents.

Lower Polk is one of those communities in flux. While the Mission has rallied against gentrification, maligning it as an evil force, many in Lower Polk are welcoming changes after years of struggling with issues related to crime, homelessness and lackluster economic activity.

A clear signal that the times are changing for the 10-block stretch of Polk Street between Geary and California streets is the planned creation of a community benefit district. Property owners in the prescribed area, bounded by Larkin Street and Van Ness Avenue and intersected by sleepy alleyways or roads with heavy traffic, would vote to tax themselves to pay for increased services. There are currently 11 such districts in San Francisco.

The formation of the 22-block district has been long in the making. It started when Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents the area, was not an elected official but a neighborhood leader of the Lower Polk Neighbors in the early 2000s.

Chiu, who is supportive of the community benefit district, said there was a need for the area focus.

"The southern stretch of Polk Street has faced numerous challenges over the years related to public safety, quality of life, vacant storefronts, homelessness, a sharp proliferation in the number of bars and other conditions that have challenged the neighborhood," Chiu said.

He highlighted new activities such as art walks and farmers markets as community builders. One upcoming event will place 12 pianos played by professional and amateur musicians in Fern Alley.

Kevin Johnson, a 15-year resident of the area and owner of the medical marijuana dispensary Grass Roots at 1077 Post St. for nine years, said he has seen marked changes in the neighborhood.

"I almost feel that gentrification is inevitable. There are good and bad things that come with it," Johnson said. "It seems as if the Marina is marching down from Upper Polk. It's getting more and more Marina-esque."

Some see business opportunities in the benefit district. Lower Polk, which borders the Tenderloin, lacks the higher-end commercial activity present on Upper Polk at the foot of Russian Hill. It has a population of more than 36,800 people whose median age is about 38 and median income $52,684.

"The [community benefit district] will allow business to flourish a little more fully," said Lori Martens, owner of Hi-Lo Club at 1423 Polk St., a bar by night and a coffee shop by day.

"If we could get the vulnerable population in our neighborhood the help that they need, I think the average resident would feel a bit safer coming out on Polk Street at night and during the day," Martens said. "It would take pressure off small businesses to be the ones that are always calling 311 and the nonemergency number and cleaning the sidewalk."

Martens also thought it would help attract a greater diversity of businesses.

"It is difficult for small businesses. We have restaurants. We have bars. But we would love to have some retail in our end of the street," Martens said.

Not every property owner is jumping for joy over the idea. One wrote, in capital letters, a note to The City on the petition to establish the benefit district: "I am absolutely against this assessment! I oppose this petition and any effort to extort money from property owners."

Nick Mironov, the principal of Gayner Engineers, a company that provides mechanical and electrical building designs, bought 1133 Post Street in 1986. He is more than happy to pay more for added services. Mironov said in an email that he "hopes that it will clean up the homeless and drug issues in the neighborhood."

"We have taken to keeping the front door locked during business hours to deter unwanted entry," he said. "Loitering and homeless camping at our entrance are constant problems during nights and weekends, often with either sleeping people and/or trash blocking the door in the morning."

Nearly 60 percent of the funding, which would total about $800,000 annually, would go toward cleaning, such as monthly power washes with water, and safety with so-called community ambassadors walking foot patrols. An additional $2.7 million would come from the California Pacific Medical Center, which it has agreed to contribute for capital projects in the area as part of its new hospital under construction at Van Ness Avenue and Geary Street. If all goes as planned, the district would be formed in time to begin services in January.

Lower Polk was once San Francisco's LGBT neighborhood until the community migrated to the Castro. As that occurred, Lower Polk began to decline and reached a low point in the late 1990s. Since then, vacancies have decreased, a bustling bar scene has emerged -- some residents have complained the bar scene is too rowdy -- and new and more diverse businesses have sprouted. A liquor store on Polk and Post streets is being replaced with a Green Apple grocery.

Chris Schulman, a renter for more than a decade at Sutter and Polk streets, said the biggest change in the area over the years has been the mix of businesses.

"We've been fortunate with rent control that a lot of the residents have stayed," said Schulman, who is helping to lead the benefit district effort. There has also been an influx of new faces with the popping up of large developments, such as the 13-story condo development at the corner of Sutter Street and Van Ness Avenue, which replaced the Galaxy Theater.

Schulman said the current conditions are "very vibrant" but, "The alleys get trashed. We have general blight issues. We're not trying to turn this into Hayes Valley or anything."

Five to 10 years from now, Schulman said, "I think it is still going to be Lower Polk. It will be sharper, a little safer. There won't be graffiti on the walls. I think the people who live here will want to come outside more."

"I don't think it's going to push people out," Schulman said of the benefit district itself. "It's already happening citywide."

That's something new Lower Polk resident Ken Schorner knows firsthand. The 59-year-old nonprofit health worker, who has lived in San Francisco for 30 years, was threatened with eviction from his Haight neighborhood apartment and took a $50,000 buyout. He searched for a neighborhood that was affordable and retained San Francisco's famous diversity and found a condo to buy 13 months ago for $379,000 in the senior housing complex restricted to people 55 and older on Polk and Frank Norris streets.

"My neighborhood was just getting so disgusting, so white," Schorner said of the Haight.

But if the same thing happens to Lower Polk there is one consolation for Schorner.

"At least I won't get evicted," the new homeowner said.

A look at Lower Polk

Some statistics about the Lower Polk neighborhood:

36,800-plus Population

37.8 Median age

2,761 Businesses

24,000-plus Households

$52,684 Median income

Source: Lower Polk Community District Management Plan

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