sfgate.com | Jul 7th 2011
Haight Street is in transition. And not entirely in a good way.
The encouraging news is that self-described "gutter punks" are off the sidewalks. They've moved down the block to a containment patch of Golden Gate Park. There, near Alvord Lake, they lounge on backpacks with their intimidating dogs and glower at tourists.
We could probably muster outrage, but c'mon, it's the Haight. These types are always going to cycle through. The cops keep an eye on them and as long as they aren't shaking anybody down for spare change, I'm good with that.
"Basically, the street is looking great right now," said Kent Uyehara, owner of FTC Skate Shop. "Sunshine, tourists, city folks revisiting the neighborhood and not one person blocking any sidewalk."
But all is not peace, love and ringing cash registers. There's still a community of chronic drunks who ride the city ambulances to S.F. General Hospital almost daily, costing the city big bucks.
And shops continue to have an alarmingly difficult time of making a go of it, even if the corner of Haight and Ashbury is still on every tourist's must-visit list.
Uyehara is among a group of merchants who have formed the Haight Ashbury Merchants Association. They've reached out to the San Francisco Travel Association to aggressively market the area and are considering street lighting and flower planters to dress up the street.
But none of that is going to matter as long as Haight landlords continue to burden the corridor with unreasonable rents. Many are longtime owners who are stuck in the mind-set of the days before the economic downturn.
"As it is now, Haight Street rents are more comparable to downtown/Fisherman's Wharf rates," Uyehara says. "The savvy, experienced retailer chooses other neighborhoods to open in and the first-time, inexperienced retailer signs onto Haight Street. Once those 10-year leases are signed, you either go broke or try to last it out. More money goes to rent and less to inventory and renovations to keep stores looking clean, attractive and inviting."
A rent-reset - Uyehara says some landlords have agreed to restructure some leases - would encourage a variety of shops and stores on the street. As it is, the large, landmark Hibernia Bank building has lost its tenant, the Villain's Vault clothing store, which is reportedly downsizing to a smaller space.
The neighborhood is also losing (although not to high rent) the retro-cool Red Vic Movie House. With organic popcorn and movies like the unintentionally hilarious 1967 news documentary, "The Hippie Temptation," the Vic is the kind of place that gives the Haight character. Unless a benefactor is found, it will close July 25 after 31 years.
A character the neighborhood would prefer not to preserve is someone like chronic inebriate Jason Luna. Luna is passed out drunk in the Haight nearly every day and requires an ambulance ride to the hospital. There he sobers up in medical care and is released to come back and do it again the next day, his arm decorated with hospital bracelets.
In March, District Attorney George Gascón's office announced a program to target the "frequent fliers," and get them into court. But getting the courts, police and other agencies on the same page has proved to be a challenge.
"It is intended to be a very targeted tool," said Cristine DeBerry, the DA's chief of staff. "We are working on the criteria to identify the issues for that group, rather than have them take ambulance ride after ambulance ride."
So far it has been a slow process.
But that's kind of the nature of Haight. Nobody expects it to turn into a gentrified Chestnut Street. It's gritty, smoky and old school. The chronic drunks and the vacant storefronts need to go, but it's not a quick fix.
If we've learned anything it is that Haight is not a destination. It's a trip.
Shared from Read It Later