Back to the Future in West Portal
By Joel P. Engardio
Time travel is possible on a train through the Twin Peaks tunnel. Enter at Castro station and emerge in West Portal to experience the past. Or is it the future?
At first glance, West Portal evokes another era with its movie house and village of small shops. Longtime residents remember the charm of 1950s San Francisco and have preserved it.
But look closer, and the idyllic scene is interrupted by the present-day reality of empty storefronts. No enclave is immune to the challenges of retail in an Amazon-dominated world.
Yet when Vas Kiniris examines West Portal, he sees a vibrant future — if the neighborhood is willing to embrace enough change to compete with Amazon and become a place where people of all ages want to gather.
“Merchant corridors can no longer survive just serving surrounding neighbors,” Kiniris said. “You need to offer unique experiences to attract new customers from all over town.”
The doctor is in
Kiniris is a merchant corridor doctor. He uses his architecture and design background, along with 30 years running his own retail store, to prescribe ways to revitalize small business districts.
“Authenticity is important for a neighborhood, and there’s a lot to love about West Portal being a throwback to a simple main street,” Kiniris said. “But it lacks an overall vision. It needs a wellness program with an infusion of gradual, holistic innovation.”
Kiniris ran Zinc Details, a popular home design business, before taking a paid position this year with the San Francisco Council of District Merchant Associations. Now Kiniris works directly with merchant groups around the city to help them survive economic and demographic change. He currently oversees the Fillmore and West Portal business corridors.
“I’ve studied the rise and fall of great streets around the world,” said Kiniris, 52, who was born in Greece, immigrated to the United States at seven, worked in his family’s Mission district grocery, attended UC Berkeley, lived in Europe and returned to San Francisco in 1990 to open a small business. “The framework for a vital merchant corridor is security, maintenance and marketing — along with being adaptable. That’s my mantra.”
Diagnosing West Portal
One of Kiniris’ prescriptions for West Portal is to generate foot traffic by producing family-friendly events like a Halloween costume contest and a snow day featuring a snow machine. A wine walk catered to adults on date night. A weekend farmer’s market is in the works.
The most important goal is a winning mix of merchants. That’s why Kiniris wants City Hall to relax the permitting process for opening a small business.
“Getting approval to change a laundromat to a brewery shouldn’t take a year,” he said, “An entrepreneur trying to bring some sparkle to West Portal can go bankrupt waiting for permits.”
Kiniris is OK letting outdated and underperforming establishments close.
“I don’t equate small business with charity,” he said. “Good businesses have to earn their customers. You can’t rest on your laurels. You have to keep things fresh.”
How is Kiniris’ vision being received in West Portal?
“There will always be naysayers,” he said. “My job is to offer survival tools, but the will to change has to come from within.”
Restaurant owner Vittorio D’Urzo is on board. The San Francisco Chronicle recently named Trattoria da Vittorio one of the city’s best Italian eateries. D’Urzo’s take on Calabrian cuisine attracts diners to West Portal from across the Bay Area, which makes Kiniris’ job easier.
Still, D’Urzo wants more improvements on his block.
“West Portal has big potential,” D’Urzo said. “A French restaurant would be nice. The farmer’s market has to happen faster. And we need to build housing.”
More housing, more customers
Few people live on West Portal Avenue because it was down-zoned to one story in the 1980s. Yet a five-story apartment building has anchored the corridor since the Art Deco era. Why not allow new housing to match the height that has always existed in West Portal?
Kiniris said four or five floors of condos above retail would provide permanent foot traffic to support existing businesses and create demand for new amenities like a grocery — something area residents have long wanted.
Richard Donahue, owner of the iconic Philosopher’s Club, embodies classic West Portal. His bar has operated next to the Muni tunnel for 80 years. And at 66, Donahue is also a neighborhood fixture. He was born and raised a few blocks away.
“I was drinking at the Philosopher’s Club long before I bought it. A lot of things in West Portal are still the same from when I was a kid,” Donahue said. “But demographics are shifting, and we need embrace new opportunities in the 21st century. Gradual is key.”
Donahue supports more housing on West Portal, even above his bar — as long as it’s architecturally attractive. For him, new housing isn’t just about helping merchants thrive. It’s a chance for residents to keep their adult kids and grandkids in San Francisco. Donahue’s daughter recently returned home from college with a good job and few reasonable housing options.
Pace of change
Deidre Von Rock is the volunteer president of the West Portal Merchants Association. She is less convinced that housing is a panacea but said West Portal needs re-zoning to allow a greater mix of restaurants and retail along with services like co-working spaces.
“A WeWork with a café would be ideal. Bi-Rite would be amazing. I’d love a juice bar and to be able to get a meal after 9pm. A sports bar where you can bring your kids for dinner and watch the game with a beer would be a big hit,” she said. “If we don’t get creative, we’ll continue to be stuck with huge empty spaces.”
Von Rock emphasizes a slow and steady approach as she works with Kiniris to upgrade West Portal.
“We can’t just turn on new ideas like a spigot. We need buy-in. Otherwise blood will be shed if a parking lot suddenly becomes a farmer’s market,” Von Rock said. “Change and tradition are not mutually exclusive. Things have to change but the heart can stay.”
While Kiniris agrees, he also wants to act with some urgency.
“If we wait too long, we’ll lose relevancy. The status quo is not sustainable,” Kiniris said. “Millennials run the world now. But the rest of us can still be active participants in contemporary life. We can be perennials — always growing and blooming.”