Businesses blooming on Sutter Street

Photograph of Jet Mail co-owner Kevin Wolohan by Kathi O'Leary

Photograph of Jet Mail co-owner Kevin Wolohan by Kathi O’Leary

By Barbara Kate Repa

THE ONCE SLEEPY 2100 block of Sutter Street, stretching from Steiner to Pierce, would seem an unlikely spot for an urban renaissance.

But in recent years the area has quietly remade itself. Even as it lost a few longstanding businesses, it has attracted an eclectic assortment of independent shops — including Jet Mail, which moved down last year from a prime location on Fillmore Street, the newly relocated Iyengar Yoga Institute and gourmet destinations Song Tea and Spice Ace — that have begun to draw increased notice and foot traffic.

sutterstdomOne of the first of the new wave to locate in the area was Olivia Dillan, who with her husband Ben Balzer opened the spice shop of their dreams in October 2012 at 1821 Steiner, two doors from Sutter, and called it Spice Ace.

“When I first looked at this space the landlord warned me away, saying there’s absolutely no foot traffic here,” she says. “But I just had the feeling it would work, that people would find us.”

As she was recalling the conversation, right on cue, several customers filtered in at once, one searching for a specific type of smoky cumin, another looking for a gift for a friend who looks to cook, a third — a recent transplant from Chicago — hoping to find a store that would live up to the specialty spice shop she recalls fondly there. All left with their needs fulfilled.

Dillan, who lives near the shop, remains a loyal booster of the neighborhood and is proud of the Sutter Street surge. “We’re bringing back the small business owners to the area,” she says. “That’s especially important with all the brand name, high-end stores on Fillmore.”

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Spice Ace makes the neighborhood tastier

Photograph of Spice Ace by Daniel Bahmani

Photograph of Spice Ace by Daniel Bahmani

FIRST PERSON | Arthur Stone

ROAMING THE NEIGHBORHOOD as a boy in the 1940s, I searched for small critters to join the ranks of the quacking, barking and croaking things my mother barely tolerated in her home.

Today my nose leads the way as I wander about gathering things for our evening meal. My wife marvels at her good fortune to have a husband who cooks — who actually loves to cook. Even the postal carrier has been spotted at the door slot, enjoying an olfactory break.

Before Spice Ace moved in around the corner at 1821 Steiner Street, I was more of a beans and weenies guy, but always wanting a tastier meal. (I did manage to get my wife’s attention with my mother’s salmon croquettes, however.) An enticing sign finally led me in the direction of the new neighborhood spice shop.

The go-to guy there, Ed, loves Mexican flavors; I want the oxtail dishes of my childhood. Out of that discussion came the idea of oxtail chili. My first attempt was too salty. Ed suggested I throw in a potato. Bingo — it worked.

I’ve gone into the shop several times to ask technical cooking questions. Spice Ace owner Olivia has explained how to use canola oil safely. Aces Louise and Susan seem to read my mind as I enter the store, handing me just the spices I need.

Dinnertime is the best time of the day in our home. My wife is a sucker for salmon, and I am still a sucker for oxtail chili. Do we still have beans and weenies? You bet. But these days, I add a neighborhood touch: Spice Ace’s barbecue seasoning.

EARLIER: “Marco Polo comes to the Fillmore

Iyengar: a different kind of yoga

Yogis celebrate the opening of the Iyengar Yoga Institute on Sutter Street.

Yogis celebrate the opening of the Iyengar Yoga Institute on Sutter Street.

By Barbara Kate Repa

THE IYENGAR YOGA INSTITUTE of San Francisco, a venerable organization with an imposing moniker, moved to the neighborhood recently in search of an updated space, better access to the community — and a new image.

Iyengar yoga, a style developed by Indian yogi, teacher and author B.K.S. Iyengar, now 95, emphasizes precision and alignment. But the nuances that distinguish it from other forms of yoga are largely lost on much of the public, and sometimes puzzling even to practitioners.

The students in Iyengar classes generally skew older, less outfitted, less frenetic, less apt to text while on their mats awaiting class.

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The buzz on Divis: change is coming

Photographs of Divisadero Street by Erik Anderson

Photographs of upper Divisadero Street in San Francisco by Erik Anderson

By Chris Barnett

THE FOUR CORNERS of the dingy intersection of Divisadero and Bush won’t win any architectural awards today, but the location is increasingly prized by investors, and all four corners are in transition.

Bulldozers are rumbling over the dirt on the southwest corner, home for decades to the San Francisco Community Convalescent Home. More recently it has been a slot machine for speculators. Owner Jocelyn Carter cashed out seven years ago for $4.6 million from a San Francisco builder and his Manhattan money partner. Then, in foreclosure, they lost the location to a Mill Valley condo developer and investor who paid $14.6 million in 2012 — and quickly flipped it to Los Angeles-based megabuilder KB Home for a jackpot $38 million.

Now a six-story residential and retail complex with 81 condos is under construction, with a grand opening slated for early next year. Price tags on some units are sure to top a million apiece.

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Cottage Row loses its redwoods

Five redwoods were cut in the mini-park at Cottage Row.

Five redwoods were cut in the mini-park at Cottage Row.

THERE HAD BEEN TALK for years about cutting down the rapidly growing redwood trees in the park along Cottage Row. Suddenly one day in mid-February the five redwoods were felled, along with a massive eucalyptus tree and other smaller trees.

The howls of outrage among many neighbors now seem to be giving way to acceptance.

“I was opposed to cutting the trees when they could have been trimmed,” said Cottage Row resident Jeff Staben. “But now that you see the light and openness, it’s nice. If only people would stop using the park as a dog potty.”

cottage rowA crew from the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks has removed the trees and the redwood stumps and begun to refurbish the mini-park, which serves as a front yard for the historic Cottage Row homes. New Japanese maple trees — and perhaps cherry trees and magnolias — will be planted in a nod to the heritage of the row before its Japanese-American residents were ousted and interned during World War II. A few redwoods remain on private property.

“We’re stabilizing the park and updating the landscaping,” said Steve Cismowski, the manager from Rec & Park responsible for Cottage Row. “Those redwoods were always the wrong species for a park this size. We caught it just in the nick of time.”

He said the interim plan — what he called “shoestring and duct tape landscaping” — will make the park safer and more usable. “But it isn’t intended to be the end of the conversation — just the beginning,” he said.

Cismowski and his crew expect to work in the park every Monday for the next six weeks, completing their limited work by mid-May. They are widening the planters where the redwoods stood, building new steps and adding Japonesque touches. The eucalyptus stump — too big to grind out — will remain.

While Cottage Row has lost its redwoods, it has gained its own song — a lyrical melody by singer-songwriter Eve Fleishman, who lives nearby.

“Twice a week I could sing to the five small redwood trees that inspired the bridge lyrics of my song, City Light,” she said. “I felt like crying when I saw they were gone. Not much to sing about on Cottage Row right now.”

A salon offers help and hope

Photographs by Susie Biehler

Josh McGill gives a young client his first haircut. Photograph by Susie Biehler

GOOD WORKS | Barbara Kate Repa

On a sunny afternoon in late March, Christine Coppola pulled up to the Compass Family Shelter on Polk Street and opened the trunk of her car to unload an unlikely stash: a collection of combs, brushes, blow dryers, towels and hair potions and products.

Coppola has worked at Renaissance Salon, a block off Fillmore at 2600 Sacramento Street, for 19 years — and owned it for the last 15. For several months now, she has been leading a group of hair stylists who deliver the gift of grooming to the families living temporarily at the shelter.

Within moments of arriving at the shelter, she and two other stylists at Renaissance — Sara Nowacky and Josh McGill — transformed a basement area just off a communal kitchen into a makeshift salon. “It’s a little difficult not having the right chairs and all, but we make do,” Coppola explained cheerfully.

Her first haircutting session at the shelter was last September and she has returned every eight weeks or so since then, enlisting a group of hairdresser friends from Renaissance and elsewhere. Shelter residents sign up for a styling session in advance; there are usually 10 to 20 clients.

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Making a joyful noise — and maybe a healthier life

Members of the Community of Voices choir sing at the Western Addition Senior Center.

Members of the Community of Voices choir sing at the Western Addition Senior Center.

By Judy Goddess

MANY AGREE THAT choir music can be a joyful noise. And choir members often find singing fulfilling and fun. But a new study recently launched locally aims to uncover whether singing in a choir can actually help older adults have longer and healthier lives.

As part of the study, the 15-member Community of Voices choir gave a lively gospel performance on March 20 at the Western Addition Senior Center at Fillmore and Turk led by Maestro Curtis and his wife, Nola Curtis. Maestro Curtis, a renowned San Francisco Bay Area music legend, producer and author, has a background in classical music as well as jazz, gospel, R&B, funk, folk and country. Haruwn Wesley on upright bass and Larry Douglas on trumpet accompanied the choir at the concert.

“I know singing in the choir makes people happier,” says the center’s director, Robin Bill. “People who were quiet when they first came to our center in September are now stepping up. You can see the improvement in the choir from when they first met to now.” The Western Addition choir previously performed at the City Hall celebration of Kwanzaa and at the Parc 55 hotel, and another performance is planned for the fall.

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The golden years: contemplating a move

FIRST PERSON | Hazel Reitz

My husband and I lead active lives and are in pretty good health. But the years are marching on, and to our surprise we suddenly find ourselves in our 70s. A barrage of mail and phone calls pushing medical alert devices, walk-in bathtubs and lifetime care establishments underscores that sobering thought. While not eager to leave our comfortable home, the responsible thing seems to be to examine our options. So together with friends of a similar age, we recently embarked on a series of visits to local “life care communities.”

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New plaza coming to Fillmore

Rendering of the new Gene Suttle Plaza on Fillmore

Rendering of the new Gene Suttle Plaza on Fillmore

WORK BEGINS in early March on an ambitious new plan to transform the forlorn public plaza at Fillmore and O’Farrell streets into a dynamic green space that honors the history and culture of the neighborhood.

“It’s got a lot packed in,” said architect Jane Martin, whose Shift Design Studio designed the new plaza. “We want it to be fun and engaging.”

The paved checkerboard with the names of key figures from neighborhood history will remain, but eight squares of bricks will be removed and converted to planted areas with built-in benches. All of the plants will be native to Africa, and African symbols like those on nearby buildings will also be incorporated into the design. References to the earlier history of the area when it was largely a Jewish neighborhood will also be included.

“Our plan is to subvert the checkerboard and use the plaza as a way to make sense of a lot of disparate elements that have been added over time,” said Martin.

The nonprofit San Francisco Beautiful is coordinating the project with the owners of the property, nearby merchants and city agencies. The public is invited to join a community work day scheduled on Saturday, March 15, which is also when the planting will be done. The plaza is envisioned as the first phase of a larger series of neighborhood improvement projects that will unfold over the next two years.

“This is one more bead on the string,” said Kearstin Krehbiel, executive director of San Francisco Beautiful.

Rag & Bone is a go

Rag & Bone will open in the prominent space at the corner of Fillmore and California.

Rag & Bone will open in the prominent space at the corner of Fillmore and California.

AFTER PAYING $25,000 a month rent for seven months on a key corner location at Fillmore and California streets, the New York-based fashion retailer Rag & Bone finally on February 20 got the blessing of the city Planning Commission to open a store there.

Rag & Bone will occupy the two spaces that were home for decades to Royal Ground Coffee and the laundromat next door. It plans to offer both men’s and women’s clothing.

By a 4-3 vote, the commission decided that while Rag & Bone may technically qualify as a chain store in San Francisco, it nonetheless will be a good addition to the neighborhood.

The city’s formula retail ordinance defines a chain store as any company with 11 or more retail outlets in the U.S. Currently Rag & Bone has 12 stores and leases on four more locations.

Local residents and merchants lined up to testify that there are already too many chain stores on Fillmore and an overabundance of fashion boutiques. Others said Rag & Bone was unique and would be a good neighbor, especially given its vow to support a local school and set up a loan fund for independent businesses.

“I don’t think it rises to the level of some of the other formula retails we’ve seen,” said commissioner Rich Hillis, who voted for Rag & Bone.

“The street looks great right now,” said commissioner Rodney Fong, another Rag & Bone supporter. “It’s alive. There’s a good mix.”

Commissioner Hisashi Sugaya disagreed. “I used to live on Webster Street back in the ’80s,” he said. “It was really different then. It’s rapidly turning into an apparel and cosmetics and restaurant row.”

Rag & Bone has enlisted a local design firm to help build what it promises will be a special store worthy of its prominent location. It opens this summer.