written by Emily Landes

Even in a city filled with unique neighborhoods, the Dogpatch stands out.

    The combination of still-standing pre-1906 homes and a lengthy industrial history is unlike anywhere else in San Francisco. Once thought of as too remote to be desirable, the neighborhood’s unique geographic placement is actually the secret to its one-of-a-kind vibrance and historical resonance.

A Look Back
The Dogpatch is one of the last preserved remnants of San Francisco’s industrial past. In the mid 19th century, as the city developed from a sleepy outpost to a metropolitan center, there was suddenly a need for heavy industry. But city leaders at the time didn’t want the factories or their largely immigrant workforce downtown or in the hilly northern neighborhoods.

The flats east of what was once called Irish Hill (now Potrero) was far enough removed from the city’s core neighborhoods to be acceptable, yet still close enough to get goods and services to growing businesses easily. This was especially true after the opening of Long Bridge, a wooden causeway across Mission Bay, in 1865. The bridge covered what is now Third Street and connected the downtown to the Central Waterfront.

As thousands of workers found jobs in the area’s bustling seaport and manufacturing plants, they needed housing. These hard-working families often bought land and built their own homes; smaller versions of the popular styles of the day, including Greek Revival, Queen Anne and Italianate. Other times local developers constructed rows of identical homes, including a group of Eastlake-style cottages based on the plans of San Francisco architect John Cotter Pelton, Jr. that still exist to this day.

Pelton actually published his architectural drawings for free in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, a newspaper popular with workers, in the early 1880s. His “Cheap Dwellings,” as they were called, proliferated around the city, particularly in working-class neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many of these buildings were lost in the 1906 earthquake and fires.

But the Dogpatch was remote enough to avoid the devastation that struck the rest of the city. In fact, it has one of the largest collections of pre-1906 residential buildings still standing, as well as the city’s oldest public school and fire department buildings, both built in the 1890s. These are among the reasons that the neighborhood was designated historic in 2008.

Decline and Rebirth
The designation was a joint effort of neighborhood groups and the Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage. According to a 1999 survey conducted by the foundation, the residents of Dogpatch rented or owned their housing in nearly equal numbers until after World War II. The survey also found that nearly three-quarters of heads of households worked for one of the district’s large employers, like Union Iron Works/Bethlehem Steel at Pier 70, and the Western Sugar Refinery at the end of 23rd Street.

But after World War II, the local shipbuilding industry went into decline, and goods began shipping out of bigger, more modern ports. Between 1965 and 1980, jobs in the Central Waterfront area, which includes the Dogpatch, dropped from 16,304 to 11,004, with most of the loss occurring in manufacturing and ship repair, according to the San Francisco Department of City Planning. Bethlehem Steel ended up selling a dilapidated Pier 70 to the Port of San Francisco for one dollar. Western Sugar sold its factory to C&H Sugar, which ended up demolishing it rather than modernizing its equipment.

As businesses shuttered, the work force that had made up much of the population in the neighborhood began to move away. In only a few years, the Dogpatch changed from a proud and vibrant community to an abandoned ghost town with empty factories and blighted homes.

Luckily, almost as quickly as the neighborhood fell into disrepair, it was given new life by an intrepid group of artists and other creative professionals who loved the Dogpatch’s historic Victorian homes and affordable prices. In 1972, renowned San Francisco fashion house Esprit turned an old wine warehouse on Minnesota Street into its corporate headquarters. It was a prominent example of what would become a trend in the neighborhood over the next 40 years—repurposing historic factories and warehouses for a new generation of businesses.

Today, of course, “business” in San Francisco mostly means tech, and the Dogpatch has its share. Uber’s research and development group is one of several high-profile tenants at a restored building near Pier 70, which also houses cloud-based HR start-up Gusto. Restoration Hardware has also leased space in the newly developed former iron works, as well as controversial vaping company Juul.

But the Dogpatch is also welcoming back smaller “maker” businesses that have a more direct connection to the neighborhood’s industrial past. The American Industrial Center is located in a former cannery on Third Street. It has everything from a butcher shop to a bookbinder to a brewery in its three-block-long buildings. There are also numerous clothing and furniture designers, as well as a museum dedicated to craft and design.

Developing the Dogpatch
As business returned to the neighborhood, so too did interest in living in the newly thriving area. Plus, the opening of T-Third Street light rail line in 2007 meant that the once remote neighborhood had a quick connection to the tech and medical jobs at Mission Bay, as well as easy access to downtown. The nearby highway on ramps and 22nd Street Caltrain station can also take workers down to jobs in the South Bay.

The historic single-family homes in the neighborhood rarely turn over, but in recent years both condo and apartment developments have sought to take advantage of the renewed interest. “People tend to love the laid-back vibe of Dogpatch,” said Corey Johnson, property manager at O&M Apartments on Indiana Street. “It’s still a true neighborhood in the sense that restaurant and shop workers know the names of their customers, and neighbors will stop to chat on the sidewalks or congregate in Esprit Park with their dogs. It’s a waterfront neighborhood, with trails along the bay, and is one of the sunniest areas in SF.”

O&M’s developer, Build Inc., is local and already has a long history in the neighborhood. (It developed the wine warehouse turned Esprit headquarters into a 142-unit loft condo development in 2008.) “From my understanding, it was important to them that O&M blend in and add to the vibrancy of the neighborhood,” Johnson said. “O&M is less about the hotel-style apartment experience with loads of building amenities, and more about being a smaller-scale boutique building, with thoughtful design and interesting architectural details.”

The apartment complex has two distinct buildings, designed by two different architectural firms. Building O is a four-story green building with jutting window bays overlooking a central courtyard. A corner glass-enclosed retail space has been rented by the owner of neighborhood favorite Piccino, who put in a casual café called NOON All Day. Building M has two deep, but narrow courtyards and stacked bays covered in Corten steel. “They were designed and intended to complement one another, but be distinct individuals,” Johnson said.

To take advantage of the neighborhood’s sunny weather, in addition to the courtyards both buildings have a roof deck. They are also distinct from one another. Building M’s roof deck has a tall white tower over the barbeque area, a Corten steel fireplace built into the corner, and a cozy dining space with a window to both frame the skyline and protect diners from the wind. Building O’s rooftop is more open and larger in general. There are multiple seating areas, each with its own fireplace, two barbeque areas, and mature landscaping across the whole roof. “Hands down everyone loves our two roof decks,” Johnson said, adding that the top-floor lofts with skylights and private roof decks are decidedly the most popular units.

Johnson said that about half of his lease ups are residents who targeted the area specifically, while the other half are just looking for a more secluded spot with easy access to the city’s more commercial corridors. “Quite a lot of residents are relocating from out of town or out of state, and like that Dogpatch is a bit quieter, yet still close to downtown and other busy parts of the city.”

That quiet may not last long. While the area has maintained some of its grittier aspects, like the “Frisco” Hell’s Angels clubhouse, its draw to both businesses and the young professionals who work for them is only on the rise.

As longtime resident Susan Eslick told Curbed: “It used to be filled with funky, crusty oddballs. Now it might be more geared toward hip, youthful creative types. More families with kids than ever!”

When asked to describe her neighborhood in one sentence, Eslick summed it up beautifully. “Dogpatch is the city’s original mixed-use neighborhood with the best weather and with a bit of a rough-and-tumble feel,” she said.

Emily Landes is a freelance writer and former editor of SF Apartment Magazine.