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Empty Building a Blight on Up-and-Coming Mission Block

A vacant building at 1886 Mission Street in San Francisco. Taxpayers have been picking up the tab to care for the pricey piece of real estate in the Mission District, one that will eventually earn its owners millions of dollars in an upcoming development
A vacant building at 1886 Mission Street in San Francisco. Taxpayers have been picking up the tab to care for the pricey piece of real estate in the Mission District, one that will eventually earn its owners millions of dollars in an upcoming development
The owners of 1886 Mission St. have not maintained or secured the building, which is the bane of neighbors' existence

Fences make good neighbors, the saying goes, but those who live near the building at 1886 Mission St. in San Francisco would prefer a bulldozer.

“The sooner it gets knocked down, the better,” said Paul O’Driscoll, who has an office across the street.

The vacant property, the former Louis Roesch Company printing factory at the corner of 15th and Mission streets, occupies half a city block in one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets.

Yet the vast building has often been left unsecured — doors open day and night — and in recent years has become a magnet for intruders, vandalism and graffiti.

It also appears that its owners are not abiding by a two-year-old city ordinance that regulates vacant buildings.

“It’s the bane of my existence,” said Ian Melven, whose third-floor condominium overlooks the building. “It’s a little worrying. Who knows what’s going on in there?”

Avant Housing, a local real estate developer, acquired the property last year. Even in its current state, it is valued at more than $7.4 million by the city’s Office of the Assessor-Recorder. Avant has a $60 million plan to build 202 apartments on the site.


Indeed, for the better part of a decade there have been plans to build housing there, but they have been delayed for various circumstances, including lawsuits, financing problems and a previous owner’s death. The city has become wary in recent years of allowing buildings to be demolished unless new construction starts immediately.

The Planning Department said approval for the latest plans could be just weeks away.

In the meantime, neighbors say they are tired of having to be vigilant and report problems. “It’s a blight on a real up-and-coming block,” Melven said.

In response to the neighbors’ complaints, city resources are being spent on private property.

Last week, workers for the Department of Public Works painted over graffiti on the building, a chore that one crew member said was performed regularly. (In fact, graffiti returned within hours.)

Avant Housing is a joint venture of the San Francisco developers AGI Capital and TMG Partners, with financing from CalPERS, the California Public Employees Retirement System, which has come under fire in recent years for questionable investments. AGI Capital is listed as the contact on city permit applications, but executives did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the property. A receptionist who answered the phone for Avant Housing laughed when I asked for an interview.

Only after I contacted CalPERS, which reportedly has $100 million of state workers’ retirement money invested with Avant Housing, did anyone respond.

Questions were referred to Julie Chase, a public relations expert hired by Avant Housing, who at first said there had been no problems. When told that the issues had been witnessed firsthand over the course of weeks, including the building’s being left open at night, Chase said, “You were there at night?”

In February, according to the Department of Building Inspection, the building’s owners paid $765 to register the property as a vacant building, complying with a city ordinance passed in 2009.

The ordinance, meant to help the city track and exert more control over an estimated 400 vacant properties, requires owners to secure and maintain their buildings, abate graffiti and conspicuously post their contact information. Repeated visits to 1886 Mission St. in recent weeks found no such posting.

This video shows the state of the building on a recent Sunday morning:


1886 Mission St., San Francisco


Under the ordinance, violators can be fined up to $6,885; in just two years, $157,000 in fines have already been levied citywide.

But the city has not fined Avant Housing.

William Strawn, spokesman for the Department of Building Inspection, said in an email, “Our enforcement philosophy is to work with property owners and ensure they meet legal code requirements, rather than to collect fines and penalties.”

But the company will receive a bill for the paint job, said Gloria Chan, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works.

“We had to step in there and do it,” Chan said, explaining that the city intervenes when graffiti is chronic or profane (graffiti cleanup efforts citywide cost taxpayers $20 million annually). Private property owners are charged a minimum of $400 for graffiti abatement, plus a $250 fine.

Chase said that Avant Housing had private contracts for graffiti abatement and security, but that police officers entered the building last week to remove people who were illegally inside.

All involved agree that the many problems at 1886 Mission Street could be easily solved — with a wrecking ball.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times. 

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