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Geary Street begins to brush off grit

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Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
Geary Street near Leavenworth Street features a mix of businesses and housing. Being close to touristy Union Square has attracted restaurants and bars to the corridor.
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Long laden with drug-dealing transients and homeless people, the intersection of Geary and Leavenworth streets will soon see a handful of trendy businesses and at least one remodeled apartment complex with modern finishes.

It’s a shift for a street that’s the border between high-end Nob Hill to the north and the edgy Tenderloin to the south.

“It’s going to be the hot spot,” said Santino DeRose, a principal at the commercial real estate firm DeRose & Appelbaum, which is currently working on more than 10 spaces in the Tenderloin.

The change, DeRose says, will improve the safety and vibrancy of the neighborhood.

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“As businesses open, it’s only going to get better and better,” DeRose said. “Although we’re leasing throughout The City, we have a soft spot for the Tenderloin because we think it’s going to be a great place for everyone, not just one particular demographic.”

Three businesses are set to open on Geary by this summer through DeRose & Appelbaum. Those businesses are Resolute, a wine bar whose owners formerly worked in the affluent West Portal; Mensho Ramen, a popular ramen joint based out of Tokyo, just east of Leavenworth Street; and Elephant Sushi, which is west of Leavenworth Street and opened its first location in pricey Russian Hill.

Their presence is welcomed by Marwan Aburahma, who has owned Star Market & Deli, a liquor and convenience store at the southeast corner of Geary and Leavenworth, for nearly 20 years. Aburahma described how homeless people have littered, urinated and camped out on Geary for years, making the commercial corridor uninviting.

Aburahma added that he protected a Japanese tourist and her 4-year-old daughter from a convicted sex offender who exposed himself a couple years ago.

“We need something more clean and more fresh to come into the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s not far from Union Square and people come from all over the world.”

Aburahma, who recently signed a 15-year lease for his space, isn’t concerned about being priced out or evicted. Other longtime business owners feel differently.

Peter Hong, 63, a manager of City Supermarket adjacent to Redford, a hip, relatively new restaurant and bar a few storefronts east of the up-and-coming intersection, said he doesn’t know what will happen after his lease ends in five years.

“Of course we’re a little scared,” Hong said in Cantonese. “Expensive [establishments] always draw fear. That goes without saying.”

Already, some businesses have been displaced. Elizabeth Hair Studio, a $13-and-up haircut spot, was forced out of its spot of a dozen years on Geary to make way for Mensho Ramen.

“They didn’t say how much. They wanted me out,” said salon owner Sandy Tran, who was fortunate enough to move across Leavenworth Street, but now pays $1,400 more per month on her lease.

DeRose said the salon requested a long-term lease but was not renewed because the landlord wanted to merge its spot with an adjacent space where a tattoo shop moved out and also make necessary building upgrades. “We’re not in the business of displacing people,” he said.

It isn’t only the businesses near the intersection, but the housing that’s also transforming. A five-story complex at 540 Leavenworth St. damaged by a fire in June 2012 has been remodeled and rebranded as the modern-style Element Apartments, with units that are still rent-controlled but start at about $2,000 per month. Rent SF Now, the leasing agency, held a launch party last month with catering from trendy businesses including Redford and Hooker’s Sweet Treats.

“We wanted to let people know about the neighborhood and support local merchants,” said David Chesnoski, director of leasing for Rent SF Now. Despite the changing face of the intersection, it won’t necessarily be incorporated into the Union Square Business Improvement District, according to the nonprofit’s executive director, Karin Flood. When the Union Square district was initially set up in 1999, it encompassed 10 blocks, but expanded to 27 blocks in 2009, reaching the alley Shannon Street a block and a half east of Leavenworth at the beckoning of hotels that wanted to be included. The next opportunity to redefine boundaries is 2019.

“I think we may expand a block further in any direction, but we bump against the Tenderloin so we probably wouldn’t go much farther down Geary,” Flood said.

Funds from members of the business improvement district go toward uniformed ambassadors, a police officer and cleaning crew to keep the area safe and welcoming.

Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said that with positive foot traffic, businesses in the Tenderloin can thrive despite lingering drug dealing and homeless issues in the area.

“Hopefully if Geary Street is successful, [people] will get accustomed and head further down the street,” he said.

But David Iverson, 56, who has lived at a studio at Leavenworth and O’Farrell streets for two years, was not thrilled about the new developments. “Every time one of these smaller businesses goes out, some stupid trendy place comes in,” he said. “I don’t think you can get a drink for less than $10.”

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