Murals inside the Redstone Building commemorate the structure's legacy of labor organizing and community service. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
Affordable housing developer Mission Economic Development Agency is in contract to acquire the Redstone Building, a purchase tenants and supporters call essential to preserving the historic arts and social services hub, but still needs millions of dollars to finalize the deal.
MEDA spokesperson Christopher Gil said the developer has reached an agreement to buy the Redstone Building from property owner David Lucchesi for $15 million by Aug. 1, and that renovations, including a seismic retrofit, are expected to cost “many millions” in addition.
MEDA is still short some $7 million, so the developer, Redstone tenants and supporters are asking the City of San Francisco to commit $1 million by July 15. Such a pledge, according to Gil, would help assure other investors “that our organization can make the numbers work.”
The goal of the plan, Gil continued, is to “preserve the three-story landmark as a permanent center for cultural resources, while maintaining affordable rents for all current tenants.”
Although city officials have not identified a funding source, on Tuesday the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to approve a resolution, sponsored by supervisors Hillary Ronen, Shamann Walton and Gordon Mar, pledging support for the acquisition effort.
The resolution states that “one of the last buildings in San Francisco dedicated to maintaining the culture and community of the Mission District” is “being targeted by the same forces of real estate speculation that are displacing poor and working class people from San Francisco.”
“I am so sick of the nonstop displacement of the heart and soul of my district,” Ronen said in a statement. “I am impressed by the Redstone tenants’ determination and their creativity to save this precious Mission resource, and I am ready to do whatever I can to support them.”
Last Thursday tenants and supporters of the building, carrying banners and “speculators out” signs, marched from the Redstone to City Hall, and delivered a petition of support signed by more than 7,000 people. Ronen’s aide Amy Beinart said at the rally that the supervisor is advocating for financing to be made available through the city’s budget process.
Lucchesi listed the 55,000-square-foot building for sale in 2018, reportedly asking $25 million. Tenants of the registered landmark believe sale of the Redstone to a for-profit entity would lead to untenable rent increases—one prospective buyer, they say, was a co-working office company—and ultimately displacement for the longtime arts and nonprofit organizations.
Karl Kramer, a Redstone Labor Temple Association and San Francisco Living Wage Coalition organizer, said that the potential sale to a co-working company, along with anxieties about a controversial adjacent housing development, led some tenants to move out in recent years.
“It was obvious the co-working companies would have no interest in retaining the existing tenants—they’re in the business of renting couch space to techies by the hour,” Kramer said.
Currently there’s some two dozen tenants, Kramer said, and ample empty space, including performing arts and workshop facilities used until 2009 by Theater Rhinoceros, the groundbreaking queer theater company. Kramer said the anticipated MEDA acquisition has spurred talk of tenants collaboratively establishing a Center for Economic and Social Justice.
Kramer added that in addition to pressuring the city, Redstone tenants are seeking philanthropic backing. Separately, a crowdfunding campaign organized by the Lab seeks $50,000 towards buying its own space from MEDA if the deal goes through.
The San Francisco Labor Temple opened in 1914, and for decades played a key role in the city’s labor movement. It was the headquarters for unions including Bookbinder’s Local 125, the first all-women union, and in 1934 was the nexus of a historic general strike. The building sold in 1968, gradually acquiring its current mix of arts, social services and cultural advocacy tenants.
In the 1990s, the Lab and the Clarion Alley Mural Project commissioned artists including Barry McGee, Chuck Sperry and Carolyn Castano to paint murals commemorating the building’s legacy of labor organizing and community service. One of the city’s only publicly viewable artworks by the late Mission School artist Margaret Kilgallen is the Lab’s hand-painted sign.
Dena Beard, executive director of the Lab, described the murals as a prescient collection of the Mission School, a movement associated with unconventional materials, everyday forms and social commentary. “Every piece is really indicative of the artists’ styles at the time,” Beard said. “It was major recognition for what we now consider a hugely important movement.”
Beard said she’s currently having the body of work appraised in order to better impress its value on the organization she expects to be the Lab’s next landlord.
Gil, the MEDA spokesperson, said it will take a “true community-wide effort from the City, investors and philanthropy to keep the Redstone's tenants in place at affordable rents, thereby stopping their displacement not just from their building, but San Francisco itself."
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.