A neighborhood once known for crime and neglect has been reborn in recent years, thanks to a growing sense of community and flourishing new apartment developments.
Walk down the street in Hayes Valley and you’ll see a neighborhood in full bloom. Shoppers scan the curated collections in boutique windows while foodies from around the city and around the world come to sample high-end restaurants like Petit Crenn and Monsieur Benjamin. Wellness enthusiasts sip their $11 green juices from Juice Shop on their way to get a CBD massage or organic facial at Earthbody Day Spa.
While other San Francisco neighborhoods have had trouble keeping storefronts filled, Hayes Valley is so popular with retailers that even a 2004 ban on chain stores has failed to keep them out. National brands like Warby Parker, Allbirds and, soon, a Trader Joe’s have all found ways around the ban, though there are still plenty of local specialty shops like True Sake and kids boutique Fiddlesticks. The kids themselves can be found playing on the huge climbing structure or looking up at the revolving selection of largescale artwork in Patricia’s Green, or farther west at Hayes Valley Playground, which was renovated just a few years ago and includes an eco-friendly clubhouse with a living roof and solar panels.
But Hayes Valley’s future wasn’t always so sunny. Long-term residents in the neighborhood can remember when the most distinctive element was the overpass for the Central Freeway, which severed the neighborhood into two very separate sections when it was built in 1959. Madeline Behrens-Brigham moved to the neighborhood in the mid-1980s and can remember the divided Hayes Valley that used to be. “The freeway was the border, and you didn’t want to go under it,” she told Hoodline.
The side east of the freeway, where Octavia Boulevard is today, had the opera and the symphony, as well as the fancy shops, art galleries and restaurants that took advantage of the well-heeled clientele who attended events there. It felt tied to City Hall and the hustle and bustle of downtown.
The west side was a whole different world, with dilapidated housing, rampant drug use and prostitution, and a few scattered storefronts. “People were so afraid to come here,” said Behrens-Brigham, who also had a shop on the west side in the early ’90s. “We were called ‘the bad block’... You couldn’t get a pizza; you couldn’t get a taxi; the police wouldn’t even come here.”
But when the Central Freeway was severely damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it provided the impetus for community groups to pressure Caltrans to take the overpass down. In 1992, the compromised sections of the spur running to Franklin and Gough at Golden Gate were removed. Not coincidentally, that was about the same time the neighborhood started referring to itself as Hayes Valley, and not Western Addition or Lower Haight. “When we started trying to promote ourselves as a collective, we called it Hayes Valley, after seeing the name on a real estate map,” Behrens-Brigham recalled. “I mean, that was the name, but it had never been called that openly.”
The newly rebranded neighborhood would need to band together to get the rest of the overpass removed. Tearing down the undamaged portion of the freeway connecting to Oak and Fell streets proved to be a lengthy and heated political battle, culminating in several trips to the ballot box and vociferous pro- and anti-freeway campaigns. In the end, voters determined that not only should the freeway come down and be replaced with a leafy boulevard, but also that money the city made from selling or leasing right-of-way properties should help fund the Octavia plan.
In 2003, the Central Freeway finally came down and two years later Octavia Boulevard and Patricia’s Green—named after one of the most ardent anti-freeway activists, Patricia Walkup—opened. A neighborhood divided was now a neighborhood on the rise.
From Demolition to Development
The destruction of the freeway not only brought the neighborhood together, it also left many vacant lots prime for redevelopment. This being San Francisco, the empty spans took over a decade to develop. The fact that the subprime crisis and subsequent financial collapse took place during this period only added more time and uncertainty to the process. In fact, the run-up to developing what ended up becoming Avalon Hayes Valley took so long that the site at Octavia where the freeway once stood was used as a non-profit farm for over three years before construction on the apartment building finally began in 2013.
Two years later, the 182-unit five-story complex was one of the first new developments to be completed in the neighborhood. The entire building has luxury finishes, with the highest-end units equipped with quartz countertops, hickory wood plank or polished concrete floors, and in-unit front-loading washers and dryers. The Signature units also include two hours of maintenance assistance upon move in to hang art and window treatments or arrange furniture, as well as access to premium parking spots and two complimentary roof top deck rentals every year.
The roof top is a true entertainer’s paradise, with City Hall views, big screen TVs and outdoor kitchens. Down at street level, there’s also additional common outdoor space via an inner courtyard. Other amenities in the pet-friendly building include a 24-hour fitness center, bike share and bike parking, and a dog spa.
Many of the other new large-scale high-rise projects that opened in the area around the same time period, like the Stanley Saitowitz-designed 8 Octavia and Arquitectonica-created Linea, are condo buildings. (Saitowitz also designed 555 Fulton, another condo building and the future home of the aforementioned Trader Joe’s.) They have all brought new life to the neighborhood, both through innovative modern design and new retail and restaurants.
Even smaller condo buildings, like the 41-unit property 450 Hayes, have transformed the streetscape. The irregularly shaped site, actually two buildings connected by an internal courtyard below and bridges above, is “defined by a pattern of wood panels that create a kinetic rhythm along the street,” according to Handel Architects, which designed the property. And its ground-floor restaurant from Flour + Water chef Freedom Rains, a Mano, has very quickly become a hit with locals and tourists alike.
The quickly growing reputation of the neighborhood means that newer nearby apartment developments are pleased to promote their connection to the area. A new Greystar-backed apartment complex is at “the epicenter of four amazing areas in San Francisco: Hayes Valley, The Mission, Castro and SoMa,” according to community manager Samantha Lynn. Yet the Market Street building was dubbed “The Rise Hayes Valley” when it opened last year.
“Those that live in SF already have come to know and love Hayes Valley,” said Lynn, who added that all new residents receive local treats like macarons from Chantal Guillon upon move-in. “It has great eateries, boutique shopping and people-watching opportunities. There’s a beautiful park where you can congregate, food trucks are offered daily and you’re able to simply enjoy the outdoors in a big city.”
The 160-unit building may be a new addition, but it’s already helping to provide more neighborhood amenities, like a newly built plaza, complete with a “courtesy patrol” that ensures the outdoor space and building entrance are “kept clean and clear,” Lynn said. An “amazing” restaurant tenant may soon be adding to the neighborhood’s reputation as a dining destination, though it was too soon for Lynn to release more specifics.
Then there are the community amenities in the building itself, like a roof deck with an outdoor kitchen and dog run, a 4,000-square-foot courtyard with a fireplace and ping-pong table, and a chef’s kitchen that residents can rent out for celebrations and other gatherings. A game room, fitness center and workspaces round out the amenities offerings.
Residents have also been drawn to the in-unit amenities, like soaker tubs, Samsung appliances and hardwood-like floors. The views are another selling point, with residents interested in both the bustling Market Street-facing apartments, as well as the interior units that look out over the courtyard, according to Lynn.
But ultimately, Lynn feels that the building’s location is one of its biggest amenities, as well as its community-minded staff. “Our staff is compassionate and hold a true genuine ability to provide hospitality to our vendors, prospects and residents,” she said. “We are not just providing housing in a great area. We are providing a home, in one of the very best neighborhoods of San Francisco.”
Emily Landes is a freelance writer and editor and the former editor of SF Apartment Magazine.