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Gold Rush-era Jackson Square becomes hot again with retailers

A new retail cluster has sprung up in the city’s oldest commercial district: Gold Rush-era Jackson Square, with its red brick buildings and skinny alleyways.

Over its 165-year history Jackson Square has housed warehouses, artists’ studios, interior design wholesalers, antique and rare map dealers, and dot-coms. Beneath its streets lie the hulls of junked ships, and the windows along the north side of Jackson Street are adorned with cast iron shutters to protect against the next big fire.

But during the past 18 months, the neighborhood has been discovered by a collection of stores looking not only for more affordable rents than can be found in Union Square or the trendy neighborhood retail districts around Chestnut, Fillmore and Hayes streets, but also for a community of like-minded shops with a chance to redefine a historic area.
There is the French designer Isabel Marant at 455 Jackson, Guideboat (marine-themed apparel) at 441 Jackson St., Aesop (skin care products) at 445 Jackson and A.P.C. (clothing) at 407 Jackson. The fashion brand Theory opened at 412 Jackson, and a new North Face store, aimed at the “city explorer,” recently arrived at 701 Sansome St.

Shinola, the high-end Detroit maker of everything from watches to notebooks and bicycles, has set up shop on Hotaling Place, where it shares a space with the Seattle outdoorwear company Filson. Next door is Allbirds, which makes shoes out of New Zealand merino wool.

The influx of businesses has injected new bustle into the quiet tree-lined enclave, a neighborhood of 82 parcels and eight blocks that sits north and east of the Financial District in an area bounded by Broadway, Columbus Avenue, Washington Street and Battery Street.

The new retail stores complement restaurants like Quince and Cotogna, which have joined older dining destinations like Bix and Kokkari, said William Stout, who owns William Stout Architectural books at 804 Montgomery St.

“There are more people on the street than there used to be, especially between 4 and 8, which is good for us,” said Stout.

Alan Mark, who owns an eponymous condo marketing and sales business at 724 Battery St., said new stores seem to materialize overnight.

“It’s filling in quietly, all these stores that are very design-driven,” he said. “You go away for a week, or pick a new block to walk down, and there is a new store. It’s a quiet renaissance that a lot of people don’t know about.”

Other things are changing Jackson Square as well. The Battery, a members-only club at 717 Battery St. that opened in late 2013, draws heavily from the world of tech and finance. Since that time tech firms that have located in Jackson Square include Mattermark, Minted, Boku and Yola, while investment companies like Bay Grove Capital and Iconiq Capital have also moved in.

And across the street from the Battery at 288 Pacific, the developer Grosvenor Americas Inc. is building 33 condos in an eight-story building that wraps around the historic Old Ship Saloon. The housing will be the first to open in Jackson Square in a decade.

The last project to open in Jackson Square was 845 Montgomery St., where 13 units were constructed in the old home of Ernie’s, the famous restaurant that was re-created in the studio for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” The only other recent development nearby was just outside Jackson Square — the 69-unit 733 Front St., an office building that was converted to residential in 2008.

“It’s 33 units in a supply-constrained market that is as good as it gets in San Francisco,” said Steve Buster, a senior vice president with Grosvenor. “The beauty is, it’s five minutes from the Financial District, but it is its own historic pocket of the city. We love the story of Jackson Square — we think it’s being rediscovered.”

To say that Jackson Square is being rediscovered may be true, but it’s also something that has happened every so often in the post-World War II era. A 1985 Chronicle story headlined “Jackson Square has been saved — again” explains how the defection of the city’s fabric and furniture showrooms to Showplace Square led to an in-migration of antique stores. By 1985 there were 10 antique stores on the 400 and 500 blocks of Jackson Street.

While some antique shops, like Daniel Stein at 458 Jackson, have remained in the neighborhood, most gradually moved out in the late 1990s and 2000s. By 2003, professional firms looking for office space started to take over the district’s ground floor retail spaces, prompting Supervisor Aaron Peskin to pass an ordinance requiring Planning Commission approval before switching from storefront to office space on Jackson Street.

Matt Stegman of the Jackson Square Historic District Association said the proliferation of new retail on Jackson Street is evidence that the legislation was effective, although he wishes it applied to Pacific Avenue as well as Jackson. He said the new retail — and the housing — is “low impact” and helps maintain a balanced mixed-use district.

“Everybody is really pulling together and saying, ‘Wow, it’s a different, evolving Jackson Square, but it’s maintaining its atmosphere,’” said Stegman. “The goal is not to let it get destroyed by the wrong mix. I think the focus on retail and residential has been beneficial to people dedicated to maintaining our small but precious neighborhood.”

Pamela Mendelsohn, a broker with Cushman & Wakefield, said retail tenants looking for a Jackson Square presence outnumber available spaces. Rents are between 20 and 40 percent less expensive than top retail streets like Fillmore, Chestnut and Hayes.

“These are unique merchants looking for a place in the city where they don’t feel like the offering is too commercial, who wanted something a little edgier,” she said. “Word is out.”

Two years ago Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger founded shoemaker Allbirds. The start-up renovated a 6,000-square-foot building from 1849 at the intersection of Hotaling Place and Jackson Street. In two years it has grown from two to 40 employees. In April they opened a small ground-floor retail space.

“We are over the moon to be here,” Brown said. “We haven’t advertised the store, but there is a surprising amount of foot traffic. It feels like it could be New York or Paris or San Francisco. It’s the most beautiful part of the city. The history is palpable.”

Shinola creative director Daniel Caudill said he looked all over the city before settling on Jackson Square.

“Union Square is an amazing shopping destination, but this is more fitting with our brand,” he said. “It’s very much a neighborhood,” he said. “You can feel the buzz. It’s very different than it was when we first opened.”

Other recent investors simply like Jackson Square because it changes less than other parts of the city.

Eric Passetti, a San Francisco native and history buff, recently bought the Old Ship Saloon at Pacific and Battery. Two decades ago, Passetti’s first job was as a valet in Jackson Square at the Essex Supper Club on Montgomery Street. To him, the neighborhood “sort of feels the same as it did 20 years ago.”

In taking over the Old Ship, he purposely left it mostly unchanged.

“In my business, so often we see places that are over-thought, heavily conceptualized,” he said. “I appreciated the Old Ship and wanted to leave it alone. I’m proud to be a custodian of an old place and happy to be laissez-faire about it.”

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