Noe Valley Voice February 2004

Empty Stores Cast a Pall on 24th Street

By Corrie M. Anders

Jackie Wilson can still remember the antique handbag imported from India. The bag was embroidered in velvet patchwork and marked down half-price to $15. It was one of the last items that Wilson would ever ring up on her cash register.

After only eight months, Wilson grudgingly conceded to the economic chill and in January closed the doors at Dharma, a clothing and accessory store on 24th Street known for its casual and creative merchandise. "We tried to hang on through Christmas," said Wilson, hoping for a holiday shopping rush that usually gives merchants a significant cash infusion. "But it didn't happen this year."

Dharma occupied a desirable location at the corner of 24th and Sanchez streets. Now, with its liquidation sale concluded and sporting a yellow "For Lease" sign, Dharma joins an unenviable chorus line in the 3900 block of 24th Street across from Bell Market.

In that short distance between Sanchez and Noe streets, six stores stood shuttered and empty last month--including several that had been fixtures for at least two decades. The lights dimmed at Colorcrane, an art supplies store with a 1970s pedigree, and at Tien Fu, a Chinese restaurant that had been serving lunch and dinner since 1984.

Tough times also forced out kids' clothing store Lit'l Lizards, which gave up its retail space for the Internet. Workwear, a casual clothing store for men, buckled under as well, and shifted its inventory to a Bernal Heights location.

Adding to the blight was the so-called Lunny House--a rundown building awaiting demolition next to Tien Fu--and the Real Food Company, which has been plastered with graffiti since the store closed for remodeling five months ago.

Though the vacant storefronts made them a bit anxious, local business leaders stressed that the block's misfortune did not appear to be emblematic of a downturn throughout the neighborhood.

"There are a number of neighborhood businesses that are doing very well," said Carol Yenne, who owns Small Frys, a children's clothing store, and doubles as president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. "I know for a fact that a lot of people are interested in those [empty] spaces."

Already, two new merchants are promising to open soon on the block. Fresca, a popular Peruvian restaurant, will take over Tien Fu's spot. Artsake, which will sell art supplies, will fill the space now occupied by Wavy Footprints, the kids' shoe store. And in a game of musical chairs, Wavy Footprints and Ambiance will each expand into two of the newly forsaken stores.

'Everything Must Go'

But with a row of dark façades stretching from Real Food to Lit'l Lizards, the heart of the block was absent its normal hustle and bustle during a noontime visit one day in mid-January.

In the window of Colorcrane, a sign hand-painted in red and green ink announced that "Everything must go" and "Big blowout sale at 90 percent off." There were no shoppers, however; they were barred by the "Closed" sign on the front door.

Inside Tien Fu, whose orange, blue, and white neon sign boasted it offered "excellent Chinese food," there were more employees than lunch customers. Two women snapped the ends from stir-fry snow peas while a waiter in the 80-seat restaurant fussed over two tables, each with a lone diner.

"Not enough business," lamented an employee. Then he walked over to an interior window and posted the public obituary: "Regretfully, we are closing.... We thank you for giving us the opportunity to serve you for the last 20 years."

A Confluence of Events

The barren stretch has left more than a few residents and merchants uneasy about the economic health of the block.

"It is scary to see that many stores empty," admitted Yenne. "It's definitely discouraging to walk down that block."

According to several merchants, a confluence of events led to the business retreats: a big hole in foot traffic after Real Food (Fresh Organics, Inc.) closed, high commercial rents, unemployed dot-com'ers moving out of Noe Valley, residents shopping at less expensive stores outside the neighborhood--and the soft economy in general.

"I think it's a reflection of the fact that we've had three years of a sluggish economy and a number of the businesses are finally throwing in the towel," Yenne said.

Dharma Closes All Three Outlets

That's the Dharma story. Wilson and her husband, Baba Ken Okulolo, opened the store eight months ago, hoping 24th Street's cachet would help shore up their other shops in the Haight and on Valencia Street in the Mission District.

"We took a risk. We had always wanted to be on 24th Street, which has always been the envy of people throughout the city," Wilson said. "We liked the creativity and ambience of the neighborhood, and we thought we'd fit in well."

When the expected holiday sales didn't materialize, Wilson decided to close all three family-run stores. They may file for bankruptcy protection from creditors, said Wilson, who has operated clothing outlets for 20 years and now plans to retire.

Competition Too Much for Tien Fu

No one could be reached at Colorcrane Arts Supply, one of the oldest shops on 24th Street. But Tien Fu owner Jose Hu acknowledged that a persistent dearth of hungry customers mortally squeezed his longtime restaurant.

"Competition is very bad. There's a Chinese restaurant everywhere. There may be 10 in five miles," said Hu, who started as a cook and purchased the Tien Fu establishment in 1994.

Hu also owns the nearby Noe Bagel, which he said is "doing okay."

Peruvian Restaurant a Fresh Face

Tien Fu's demise will be Fresca's Noe Valley birth.

"I always liked that neighborhood, and I think we need something like my kind of restaurant," said Fresca owner Julio Calvo-Perez, who also runs restaurants in West Portal and the Fillmore District.

Calvo-Perez said he plans to remodel the Tien Fu space and open in April with 70 seats. Fresca will feature Spanish-American fare with $14 to $19 entrees, a ceviche bar, and a full alcohol bar.

"I think that Peruvian restaurant is going to be good addition," said Jane Allen, who owns the building housing both the restaurant and Real Food Company. "The food is superb, [and] the quality for the price is just great. It's all nice fresh food, beautifully presented."

Ambiance Gets More Shoes

Meanwhile, Ambiance owners Donna and Kiernan O'Leary will add a second location by expanding across a walkway and into Workwear's old space at 3989 24th Street. (As reported in the Voice last month, Workwear is moving its inventory into a new Cotton Basics store in Bernal Heights.)

"We love Noe Valley and we're not going anywhere," said Donna O'Leary, whose Noe Valley Ambiance opened in 1999. "It's a lovely neighborhood and a wonderful place to have a store. Business has been fantastic,'' said O'Leary, who also operates successful stores in the Haight and on Union Street.

Ambiance's current location will concentrate on shoes, accessories, and sales merchandise, while the new one will keep the spotlight on Ambiance's chic line of women's clothing. The O'Learys say they anticipate a mid-March opening for the new store.

Footprints Lead Next Door

Another switch involves Wavy Footprints, which manager Tucker Davis said survived "its worst [holiday] season since we opened in May of 2000.

"We lost all that [foot] traffic," when Real Food closed, Davis said. "They [Real Food shoppers] didn't come by every day, but if people only buy one or two things, it adds up."

Davis said the children's shoe store is "going to try to expand to hang in there." It will move a few feet to the west into Lit'l Lizards' old space at 3961A 24th Street to better display a more expansive inventory, including clothes, gift items, and toys. The Wavy Footprints re-opening is set for early February.

A Magnet for Art Supplies

By mid-April, poster boards, drawing pens, and other art supplies are expected to fill Wavy Footprints' old storefront. The brand-new store, Artsake, will carry everything from "very high-end" goods to moderately-priced wares for students, said Artsake owner David Eiland.

Eiland said he had been considering an art supply store for some time because "that's something we've needed in Noe Valley." Eiland and Robert Ramsey own Just for Fun, the gift and novelty store located across the street.

"We were continually getting asked for art supplies, but we didn't have space to carry them," Eiland said. "Hopefully, [Artsake] will bring people needing art supplies into Noe Valley instead of sending them to other parts of the city."

Prepare for Construction Dust

More energy may return to the 3900 block once the Fresh Organics/Real Food grocery store reopens and the Lunny House development has been completed.

In a Jan. 15 letter to Supervisor Bevan Dufty, Fresh Organics executive Sergio Diaz said that the remodeling had been delayed "after we discovered structural issues with the building." He didn't say when work would restart inside the building, but landlord Allen said she was optimistic that it would continue soon.

"I think the plans they have for remodeling are solid plans. These things with City Hall take time," Jane Allen said. "I think that will be a vibrant part of the neighborhood, and I'm not worried about it."

Likewise, a development plan to demolish the boarded-up residential building at 3953 24th Street and build a four-story, condominium-retail complex is winding its way through the city's Planning Department.

"I think they're eager to start," said consultant Lu Blazej, who represents the development group of Jeremiah Cullinane, Denis Cullinane, and Eileen Long.

Blazej said construction could start "within six months" on the project, which will have two commercial storefronts and six apartments for seniors.

Chocolate Rules

While waiting for the return of the good old boom days, some businesses along the block continue to hold on with a loyal cadre of customers. One is Jack Epstein, who dispenses sumptuous goodies across the counter of his Chocolate Covered candy store.

"It was not an easy year," said Epstein. "But I feel like a survivor." m