Arts district to transform lower Taylor Street

It’s one of the seediest stretches in San Francisco, filled with homeless people slumped against vacant storefronts, the stench of urine, graffiti, drugs and crime. Many maps and travel books explicitly warn tourists to stay away.

But the three blocks of Taylor Street just north of Market Street would become an arts district – some say akin to New York City’s SoHo, which became an area of cheap artists’ lofts and studios in the 1960s and ’70s – under a plan being cobbled together by city officials, landlords, artists and Tenderloin-area nonprofit workers.

The transformation gets under way today with the groundbreaking of Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, which is taking over a vacant 4,000-square-foot building that once was a porn theater. The old marquee on the building reads “Art Theatres,” apparently a euphemism that also foreshadowed its future use.

This summer, Gray Area, formerly based South of Market, will open with an arts gallery, artists’ studios and a new-media lab. Adjacent buildings will be the home of a new boutique selling artists’ tools. A liquor store will be replaced by a cafe.

Josette Melchor, the director of Gray Area, is so committed to the burgeoning arts district that she moved out of SoMa and into a nearby apartment.

“I wouldn’t be moving here if I didn’t see the vision,” she said, noting that the plans include creating affordable places for artists to work while ensuring that low-income Tenderloin residents are not displaced.
“We’re not one of those 49 Geary spaces that are kind of chichi and bourgeois,” she said of the upscale galleries in nearby Union Square. “We’re helping a neighborhood by moving into a space that’s vacant and bringing positive energy to a street that’s basically blank walls.”

Gray Area will host exhibits, music events and a resident-artists program that will provide studios and exhibit space to four artists on a rotating basis. It received a city grant to create “Tendorama,” an art display in the front windows that will change every two months and will show high-tech digital art and more traditional installations.
There are already a smattering of arts groups on Taylor, including the Luggage Store Gallery and the Exit Theater, as well as large arts institutions, the Warfield and Golden Gate Theatre, at Taylor and Market.

“It’s a street that’s considered pretty scary both for the low-income residents, children and families who live there, as well as people from around the city and tourists, but it’s also got these fabulous cultural assets,” said Amy Cohen of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which has been coordinating much of the work.
“The challenging part of Taylor Street is literally three blocks, so we feel like it’s absolutely doable,” she said.

Gray Area is the first addition to Taylor Street, but other plans are under way, too.
The San Francisco Arts Commission is in talks with Shorenstein Hays Nederlander, the company that produces the “Best of Broadway” series and owns several local theaters, including the Golden Gate Theatre. City officials want to convert several floors of empty space above the Golden Gate Theatre into low-cost artists’ studios and office space for arts-related nonprofits.

Luis Cancel, director of cultural affairs for the arts commission, said his group and Grants for the Arts have presented plans to the company and hope the theater owners will agree. Company officials could not be reached for comment.

“The city has such a dire need for affordable work space for visual artists and performing artists,” Cancel said. “This would contribute to the reactivation of the area.”
David Addington, who owns the Warfield building at Taylor and Market, plans by next year to preserve the famous concert hall while sprucing up the office space above it, adding a restaurant to the first floor and putting digital arts displays on the side of the building.

Artists intend to paint murals in the neighborhood. The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. is working on turning a parking lot at Taylor and Eddy streets into a 140-unit mixed-use building with a grocery store.

Those involved also are working on reopening Original Joe’s, the beloved Italian restaurant that has been closed since a fire in 2007.

The North of Market Neighborhood Improvement Corp. is one of the nonprofits involved with remaking Taylor Street. With city funds, it hired a new director, Elvin Padilla, who has 20 years of experience infusing the arts into low-income communities.

He said artists moving into a neighborhood can scare low-income residents who fear gentrification. But if done right, he said, the improvement can make a neighborhood safer without driving out residents.

“The arts can be an effective way to address tension and conflicts and empower neighborhoods that are going through stress,” he said. “The arts can be a common denominator for many different people in terms of race, class, socioeconomics, the whole thing.”

Work starts today
Gray Area Foundation for the Arts will break ground on its new home, scheduled to open in June, at 1 p.m. today at 55 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Josette Melchor, director of the foundation, will present an overview of plans for the street and a preview of the gallery.

This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

by Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer | Original Article