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South to the Future 

Walking Tour of Mission Lofts Turns Housing Crisis Into History

Wednesday, May 3 2000
May 3, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO -- The sun is just starting to peek through the morning fog when the first group of tourists arrives at the designated meeting place at Bryant and Mariposa streets in San Francisco's Mission District. As those gathered trade cameras for inspection and discuss the weather, a few wander off to the nearby Circadia coffee shop to fetch hot drinks.

At 8:30 a.m., the group's tour leader, Dr. Gil "Bugsy" Feyerabend, arrives in tan shorts and a sweat shirt emblazoned with the UC Berkeley logo. After a round of introductions, the group of 16 sightseers and a solo guide begins to prance down Mariposa Street. Just minutes into their romp, they'll come upon the first landmark of their tour -- the historic Artaud Project live-work lofts.

Gesturing at the majestic brick building with his Oakley sunglasses in hand, Feyerabend tells the story of the cutting-edge artists who first occupied the building in 1971 when it was an abandoned tool and die factory. It was that occupation, argues the guide and visiting architecture professor at the University of California at Berkeley, that ultimately led to the creation of live-work zoning laws in San Francisco.

"This is where it all got started folks," Feyerabend remarks. "This is ground zero for the live-work explosion." As the entourage begins snapping the first photos of the tour, the urban architecture docent picks up a pebble from outside Noh Space, one of several performance galleries inside the Artaud building, and tosses it gently against a second-floor window.

"Get your cameras ready people," grins Feyerabend, "'cause you're about to see a real live live-work artist." Moments later, a sleepy-eyed woman in her late 40s props open the window, leans out, and yells, "All right, Bugsy, what's it going to be today?"

The salt-and-pepper-haired artist, identified by Feyerabend only as Marta, recalls for the crowd below her first months in the unfinished warehouse space. As the crowd yells its collective thanks, one of the tour participants asks if she might take her photograph. "Sure thing," hollers Marta, who winks and gives the photographer the finger.

Less than a block away, the tour converges on a series of recent live-work buildings looming tall and square beside a squat Vietnamese restaurant named Hung Yen. As the tour wends its way across a total of four newly opened loft towers, Feyerabend fills in the details of their construction, relating arcana such as how the development obtained its parking variances and even the kind of concrete used in most live-work housing.

While a few of the tourists stop to run their hands across the surface of the walls of one live-work unit, Feyerabend gets the rest to calculate the returns on an average live-work unit construction project. "About 250 percent more than for a non-live-work housing unit," concludes the architecture scholar as he warns one of his flock, "Watch out for that doggy do!"

Despite the early hour and the relatively dour surroundings of this mixed industrial-residential area, most of the tour members appear to be having a blast. For Mary Agnes Bettleheim, a 43-year-old single mother and real estate agent from the nearby city of Tiburon, the tour is a rare treat.

"I usually work weekends," says Bettleheim, who also helps coach her daughter's softball team, "but I scheduled this tour three months ago. I just love Bugsy and this whole urban live-work thing."

As the motley crew continues its jaunt down Harrison Street, past an indoor rock-climbing gym and a host of three new live-work loft buildings, tour participants pepper Feyerabend with questions about the infamous architecture movement that was to San Francisco in the '90s what Victorian building trends were to the city in the teens.

"When the demand for housing spiked in the 1990s, 'live-work' ceased to be a term that described a space used for both living and working," Feyerabend explains to a graduate student from Mills College who left her Moraga apartment at 6:15 a.m. to arrive in time for the tour. "It became code for a new way of living alone within open floor plans, under high ceilings, in contact with raw materials such as corrugated steel, concrete, and finished plywood."

Pointing toward a taco truck perched nearby on a sidewalk, one of the tour members remarks that the aluminum-encased vehicle and the upscale living quarters recently built across the street from the truck are "variations on the same tune." Replies Feyerabend approvingly, "You ain't just whistling Dixie."

Upon arriving at another massive live-work condominium on 21st and Harrison streets, Feyerabend howls, "So who's ready for some action?" Waving at a security camera perched atop the entrance to the building, the tour guide approaches the door and is buzzed inside. With his audience in tow, the guide bolts up a narrow set of stairs and into the live-work unit of an intellectual property lawyer named Janice. Here the group will enjoy sparkling mineral water and organic fruit tortes, courtesy of the tour operator, before heading off to another round of buildings.

Says a perspiring Bettleheim, "My next-door neighbor is always chatting up the murals in the Mission because of some tour she took five years ago. Wait till she hears about this."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments?

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