The stage is set, and a chic stage it is: Black pavers ripple across a former alleyway with an oak tree on one end, six ginkgoes on the other and a patch of dark spiky grasses in between.
But plazas must be judged by how they function, not how they look – and the artsy design of the Mint Plaza is no guarantee of long-term success.
Instead, the space opening Friday next to San Francisco’s Old Mint is a gamble. It’s a developer’s wager that the landscape south of Market Street will continue to evolve, and a bet that a stylish community is waiting to emerge and stake a claim.
“We’re trying to create a little urban neighborhood, a destination within this part of San Francisco,” said Patrick McNerney, whose Martin Building Co. spent $3.5 million to transform what was a 300-foot-long stretch of Jessie Street, running west from Fifth Street alongside the long-closed Old Mint.
The plaza’s not an act of civic philanthropy: McNerney’s firm owns four buildings facing the plaza and another around the corner, all pre-World War II commercial structures that now contain 83 lofts for sale or rent. There’s also office space and a nightclub, while three restaurant spaces are being carved out along the plaza.
One restaurant will open next month, an offshoot of Chez Papa from Potrero Hill. Another space is leased to a restaurateur who is still deciding on a theme. The third awaits a tenant. There’s also renewed activity across from the plaza behind the Old Mint; Blue Bottle Coffee is set to open after the holidays, planning to replicate the caffeinated scene that defines its alleyway location in Hayes Valley.
McNerney’s firm and the new businesses also hope to make live music a weekly occurrence, along with other cultural events and Friday evening block parties.
The plaza will be privately managed but publicly accessible at all hours. It even will offer free Wi-Fi access.
Although workers on Wednesday were fine-tuning the plaza – sealing the pavers and adding benches along the two in-ground planters – the ambience is a change from the Jessie Street of old. For decades the alley was a dingy spillover from Sixth Street, a broad swath of concrete and asphalt where indigents slept or petty criminals dealt drugs. Most automobile traffic involved valet crews ferrying luxury cars to patrons of the shopping mall on the east side of Fifth Street.
So the transformation isn’t a simple matter of closing down a street and waiting for patrons to arrive. This isn’t the SoMa equivalent of Belden Place, a once-humble alley in the middle of the Financial District that’s now filled with seating for eight restaurants. It’s on the far edge of Union Square and Yerba Buena Gardens, truly off the beaten path.
For the plaza to succeed, it must be a place that people stroll out of their way to visit – especially because the promised conversion of the Old Mint into a civic museum is at least three years and a $40 million fundraising drive away.
Wisely, the plaza design by CMG Landscape Architecture doesn’t try to call attention to itself through fancy fountains or other design pyrotechnics.
The one visual flourish is at Fifth Street, where a statuesque oak tree was trucked in from a nursery in Gilroy and installed as an eye-catching natural accent. Within the plaza, the closest thing to an icon is a long metal arbor that lines up with the converted buildings and tilts back slightly, as if looking up at the Old Mint’s thick sandstone walls.
By next summer the arbor should be cloaked in red and orange trumpet vine – the boldest shot of color in a plaza that otherwise is muted.
The plaza also has an ecological tinge. The pavers are gray concrete with a terrazzo-like finish, for instance, but a thin gap between each one allows rainwater to drain into the sandy ground below. As for the half-inch gap that slices across the face of the plaza, from the planter filled with spiked grass to the one that holds the oak, it’s a stylish culvert to drain heartier storms.
“Mint Plaza became an exercise in how little we could design, how little was necessary to create a public space,” said Willett Moss of CMG. “We want this to be like an Italian piazza. … You think of those spaces, they have almost nothing in them. It’s all about the activity.”
Another reason for the low-key approach: the plaza’s neighbors. The Old Mint is the obvious landmark – the Greek Revival fortress has been there since 1874 – but the humbler structures are handsome as well. This is how cities used to look, tough and spare with adornments like metal fire escapes to catch the eye.
“The architectural atmosphere is rugged. The scale is strong,” Moss said. “We didn’t want to infringe, or pretend that we could compete.”
The premiere on Friday will be festive, with live music and dancing as well as political speeches and free sparkling wine. The real test lies in the weeks ahead: when days are short and often cold, and the crowd-drawing restaurants have yet to arrive.
McNerney brushes off doubts that the Martin Building investment will pay off.
“I’m very confident,” McNerney said. “We’re stakeholders here. We know the area. Ten years ago, this wasn’t a place where anybody wanted to go – at least not in a positive sense.”