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Signs of life on a boulevard of broken leases

A new Italian restaurant, The Tailor’s Son, will soon open in the former Elite Cafe. Photograph by Jonathan Pontell

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Empty stores, boarded-up windows, people sleeping in abandoned doorways, shoplifting and break-ins all testify that Fillmore Street is going though hard times one year after Covid hit with full fury.

But conversations with die-hard merchants and a reopening for some indoor dining signals an eventual turnaround in the fortunes of the once-booming upper Fillmore commercial district, which is now a boulevard of broken leases.

Vas Kiniris, a longtime Fillmore merchant who is now executive director of the Fillmore Merchants Association, is optimistic yet candid in offering his views on the state of the street.

Crime has long been a problem on Fillmore, but Kiniris reports that Northern Station has a newish captain in charge — Paul Yep — who gave the street back its own foot patrol, which was shared at one point with Japantown. More cops are visible.

Walgreens at Fillmore and Pine — regularly hit with swarms of grab-and-dash young shoplifters — now has an SFPD officer posted inside the front door, with a black and white squad car parked conspicuously outside the front door. There were recent rumbles that Walgreens might close its Fillmore store, as it closed others suffering a steady stream of thefts. But staffers say nothing is definite.

A peek inside the late, once-great Elite Cafe reveals a nearly completed interior makeover. A year after he planned to open, serial restaurateur Adriano Paganini will soon unveil The Tailor’s Son, his newest Italian restaurant, which pays homage to his childhood near Milan.

“My mom and dad are both working tailors, and my grandmother and grandfather were tailors as well,” Paganini says, hence the name. Paganini says that contrary to recent rumors, he “has no interest” in taking over long-shuttered Grove next door to Harry’s Bar. A reliable source maintains the Grove “will reopen eventually.”

From Hoodline: “An interview with Adriano Paganini

Another rumor turned out to be just that — only a rumor. Delfina, the uber-popular pizzeria on California Street, is not dead, despite the window boardings. Kiniris says it is simply undergoing a remodeling.

♦ 

John Litz’s Noosh, on the corner of Filllmore and Pine, has re-opened for pick-up, delivery and indoor-outdoor dining after being temporarily closed. Noosh is launching a multi-course tasting brunch on the weekend, which will feature its signature Mediterranean delicacies for $45 per person. At night, a multi-course Noosh dinner tasting menu will be offered at a price point, Litz insists, below similar San Francisco restaurants. The front windows of the restaurant have re-opened to the street, offering its full “fine casual menu,” including craft cocktails.

Many stores and brands on Fillmore have pulled up stakes during the pandemic. Kiniris lists International Orange, Dosa, Goop, Prana, the Repeat Performance resale shop, Illestiva, Frame, Ralph Lauren, Space NK, Alexis Bitter, Ministry of Supply, Samovar Tea, Asmbly Hall, Sunhee Moon, Atelier de Cologne, Flor, James Perse, Lexe, Alice and Olivia, Cotelac, Minted and the Artists Inn.

But there have been some openings: Liberty Cannabis is now open for business in the former Unity Church around the corner on Bush Street. Byredo, a Swedish fragrance emporium has taken over the former Space NK location at Pine and Fillmore. And Compton’s Coffee House now occupies the former Samovar Tea shop. Many restaurants have added seating outside.

As for activity at the old Clay Theatre? Absolutely nothing. 

No more Polo in Pacific Heights

Polo Ralph Lauren opened on Fillmore Street in 2008.

FASHION DESIGNER Ralph Lauren’s elegant emporium at 2040 Fillmore — which replaced a former Goodwill store and paved the way for the street’s transformation into an upscale shopping strip of clothing and cosmetics boutiques — is now permanently closed.

The Polo shop had reopened only a few weeks ago, along with other Fillmore retailers, when the city gave the go-ahead for limited shopping and sidewalk dining after a three-month shutdown. August 22 was the final day of business at the shop, which has now been emptied.

A staffer referred questions to corporate headquarters in New York, which did not respond to repeated inquiries. The Fillmore store survived an earlier round of closings in 2015 and 2016, when Polo shuttered nearly 100 other stores.

When Polo Ralph Lauren opened in 2008, it was the first international brand to get a permit under San Francisco’s new formula retail ordinance, intended to limit chain stores in the city’s neighborhoods. Polo was first rejected, but later approved unanimously after it worked out a written agreement with local groups promising to play an active role in the neighborhood and be a role model for other retailers.

Most of Polo’s promises went unfulfilled, and no other formula retail business seeking to open on Fillmore was ever rejected by the city’s Planning Commission. More than two dozen more international fashion and personal care brands followed during the next decade.

‘We’re seeing a huge retail fallout’

Palmer’s and other restaurants, now serving outside, may lead the recovery.

STREET TALK | THOMAS REYNOLDS

Almost a dozen Fillmore businesses have permanently closed, and more are likely to follow.

“It’s a tumultuous time for Fillmore Street right now,” said Vas Kiniris, executive director of the Fillmore Merchants Association. “We’re seeing a huge retail fallout.”

Kiniris listed numerous businesses that are permanently closed: Frye Boots, Samovar Tea, Prana, Illesteva, Lip Lab, CBD Garin, Aday, Asmbly Hall and Repeat Performance, the S.F. Symphony resale shop.

“I’ve been on the street for 25 years and I’ve never seen so many closings,” Kiniris said. “It’s a little bit alarming.”

A leader and close observer of businesses citywide, Kiniris said he expects the recovery of neighborhood commercial districts to be sparked by restaurants and bars.

“These businesses really pull traffic to the corridors,” he said. “They give rebirth to those corners.” Bars remain closed for now, and indoor restaurant service has been pushed back, but eateries are now allowed to serve outside, in addition to the takeout and delivery service that has kept them alive for the past four months.

“We see this right now with Noosh,” he said. “Noosh opened, then Kiehl’s opened, Glaze is opening, so there’s activity there” at the corner of Fillmore and Pine.

The city’s shared space program, which has let stores and restaurants serve on the sidewalks and in parking spaces, has been helpful, Kiniris said. “It’s another revenue stream for the merchants,” he said. “But it’s also very important to the visual well being and the rebirth of our street. It makes the street visually more enticing, and it makes it more sticky, so people want to linger — and therefore they’ll go to other stores as well.”

At least one new business is preparing to open. Liberty Cannabis, after two and a half years, finally has the permits for its new shop in the former Unity Church space at 2222 Bush Street, near Fillmore, and plans to open in the fall.

Formerly bustling upper Fillmore Street still “is pretty healthy overall,” Kiniris said. But he added: “It’s gonna be a rough ride. We’re all in startup mode now.”

Plenty of parking

Photograph of the California/Fillmore parking lot by Dickie Spritzer

Boarding up the street

A mural and a message in the boarded-up windows at Fillmore and Clay.

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

In 1971, carpenter Mark Johnson moved into a Victorian flat at 2254 Bush Street, just off Fillmore, and stayed for 25 years.

“It was not the most attractive place to live in the early ’70s,” he says. “But by the time I moved out, it had changed dramatically — and for the better.”

Now he’s back, plying his trade and creating a grim streetscape on a nearly deserted Fillmore Street that is creeping out the locals. Johnson, who lives in tranquil Petaluma, has quickly become the go-to guy for Fillmore merchants who want their store windows boarded up to stave off potential looters as the coronavirus crisis drags on.

For from $300 to $600, he will tailor 4×8-foot sheets of 3/8-inch plywood to cover up the mostly empty retail shops, restaurants and bars on the boulevard. Already he has protected the glass of 14 Fillmore addresses.

 “Looters are opportunists who look for convenient ways to break in and get out,” says Johnson. “They won’t spend time trying to dismantle a boarded-up facade. They’ll look for glass.”

Johnson is a licensed contractor who usually remodels interiors and does finish carpentry. So, he said, he tries “to provide a very clean appearance” for his clientele “instead of just slapping up boards, nailing them to 2x4s and making it look like a blighted area.” A few businesses have painted the wood a more stylish black or white, and a couple of murals have blossomed, along with the seemingly inevitable graffiti tags. But most are sporting raw plywood.

Johnson’s boarding-up business was spurred when staffers at the HeidiSays boutique passed his name along to others in the Fillmore Merchants Association. “That’s when it really started to snowball,” he says. “I got at least a dozen jobs in two weeks.”

Passersby at first would ask: “Is this store going out of business?” He told them: “No, it’s just an abundance of caution.”

Some residents and merchants see the boarding-up as an overreaction. There have been a few break-ins, as there were before the virus hit.

“It breaks my heart to see the street like this,” says Vas Kiniris, executive director of the merchants association. But many businesses have decided to be safe rather than sorry, and Johnson is still getting calls.

His fee includes removal when the stores reopen, he says.

Frye first to shut down

Frye’s stylish shop on Fillmore Street opened in 2016.

FRYE BOOTS at 2047 Fillmore Street has become the first neighborhood shop to announce it will close permanently.

“We were told last Friday [March 27] that we will not reopen our beautiful store,” says Frye manager and longtime local Cris Mcquay, who formerly managed Kiehl’s on Fillmore. “We will stay permanently closed going forward. We are closing all 16 Frye retail stores in the U.S.”

She added: “I’m afraid we won’t be the only one — just the first confirmed case.”

Fillmore getting its first cannabis dispensary

Liberty Cannabis Dispensary will replace Unity Church at 2222 Bush Street.

LIBERTY SAN FRANCISCO has been granted a permit to open the neighborhood’s first cannabis dispensary.

On December 12, the Planning Commission unanimously approved Liberty’s application for a conditional use permit to open a retail dispensary just west of Fillmore at 2222 Bush Street, formerly the home of Unity Church. The church sold its longtime home for $5 million earlier this year.

The commission heard from 12 neighbors who supported the permit and seven who were opposed. Only one — Christopher Hayes, who lives nearby on Wilmot Alley — spoke when the issue finally came up at the bottom of the agenda more than seven hours after the meeting began. Hayes asked the commission to prohibit on-site consumption and to ban customer parking at the back of the building on Wilmot Alley. Both conditions were approved as part of the permit.

Timothy Omi, director of operations for Liberty SF, said it will be “a different type of cannabis dispensary focused on cannabis education and customer well-being.” He characterized its priorities as “hugs over haggling.”

Liberty also owns cannabis dispensaries in Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Southern California.

Fillmore Street: Retail Mecca?

The new boutique ADAY has just opened at 2011 Fillmore Street. 

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Despite the fierce turnover among well-heeled retailers, is Fillmore Street still Mecca for merchants? Jon Levy, an exec with Leap — a New York-based firm that creates and launches traditional retail stores for web-based digital brands — is convinced of it. He just snapped up a second storefront on the street for a client and is gunning for a third — all in the same block.

Leap just soft-opened the women’s fashion shop ADAY at 2011 Fillmore, after the cosmetic emporium MAC vanished suddenly last month. A few months earlier, Leap opened Koio, a hip sneaker company, a few doors north at 2029 Fillmore in what was previously the Lilith women’s boutique. Now Leap has its sights on the space nearby at 2033 Fillmore being vacated by Modcloth, the Walmart-owned apparel startup that flopped as a brick-and-mortar venture but lives on online. 

Leap is neither an angel investor nor a venture capitalist. Its gig: Match online retail concepts with hot locations nationwide and get them off the brick and mortar launching pad. And even with the high casualty rates on Fillmore among solidly financed, often globally owned retailers, Levy feels the street has an irresistible appeal to tech-smart, savvy-spending millennials who aren’t afraid to disrupt rules and flout traditions.

Levy maintains that ADAY is aimed at the “fashion forward yet practical” woman who looks for simplicity and versatility in her wardrobe. “This is comfortable yet technical apparel — think high-end fabrics made of recycled materials,” he says. The premise is that customers can wear the same outfit to work, a party, a job interview and a club.

“These buyers are found in cities like San Francisco, L.A. and New York,” Levy says. “The place to be for retailers targeting those buyers is on Fillmore. Just look at Noosh. Filled. That’s our market.”

Levy, who kicks off all his new store grand openings with a music, food and drink party and invites the neighborhood — none of those “friends and family” insider-only private bashes — is doing the same with ADAY. A do-good shopping incentive: 10 percent of all proceeds will be donated to the California Fire Foundation to aid in wildfire relief.

A tiny plant store on tony Fillmore

Organic forms and abundant greenery mark Plants and Friends at 1906 Fillmore.

A NEIGHBOR, out for a walk one night soon after Plants and Friends opened its new shop at 1906 Fillmore in early October, stopped to admire the greenery in the window.

“It’s fun,” she said to another neighbor walking by. “It makes you smile.”

And so it does. Who would think — in the age of international fashion boutiques and cosmetics salons — that a tiny plant store could sprout on tony Fillmore Street?

Owner Nick Forland, that’s who. Suggest to him that he’s a dreamer for opening a petite plant store in a high-rent district and he seems completely surprised anyone could think he’s taking a risk.

“We’ve made a plant store work for two years in Hayes Valley,” he says with a toothy grin. “We had a test run.”

(more…)

More than a few of her favorite things

Chandler Tang’s new shop Post Script has just opened at 2413 California.

CHANDLER TANG is living her dream — curating and stocking what she describes as “very fun things” for Post Script, a new shop she’s just opened in a neighborhood she knows and loves. 

Tang describes her new endeavor at 2413 California Street, near Fillmore — most recently habited by the women’s clothing boutique De Novo — as a “lifestyle store” that focuses on small goods.

The offerings are an eclectic mix of mostly handcrafted items including pillows, throws, soap, candles, planners, bowls, art books, towels and jewelry, along with greeting cards ranging from nice to naughty. Somehow the mix seems unified, no doubt due to Tang’s buying philosophy: “I really just look for a sense of colors and designs that can enrich your every day,” she says. 

Days before opening, Tang wanders about the space, newly brightened by refinished floors and a coat of white paint on the walls, one of them adorned with a mural by local artist Katie Benn. 

It’s also clear there’s another unifying force: She’s stocked the shop with more than a few of her favorite things.  

“Just look at this!” she marvels, plucking a stylized toothbrush with aqua bristles off one of the newly constructed shelves. “It’s by an amazing brand called Hay. They just strip everything and focus on great design.”

Post Script is slated to be open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tang plans to be on site most of the time. “For now, I want to be the face of the store — to meet my customers, to get that personal touch,” she says.