An Anonymous $100M Donation Could Help Keep Artists in San Francisco

A new project will address the uptick in artists leaving San Francisco amid rising housing costs.

Aerial view from hill of San Francisco skyline
The proposed project will be located in San Francisco’s Market Street. Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

For decades, New York City’s Manhattan Plaza has stood as a triumphant testament of subsidized and artist-centered housing in a city known for its high cost of living. Now, two San Francisco-based nonprofits are hoping to replicate the complex’s success by turning a local mattress store into an affordable housing project for local struggling artists.

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Mercy Housing of California and Artists Hub on Market are teaming up to develop 100 affordable housing units with the help of an anonymous donor’s $100 million gift, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. The nonprofits submitted plans for the site on 1687 Market Street to city officials earlier this week.

If approved, the address’s current McRosky Mattress store building will be demolished and replaced with a 17-story building complete with studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. The apartments will be reserved for artists, production-related arts and entertainment workers, arts administrators and their families whose household income falls below 80 percent of the San Francisco area median income, equivalent to $83,900 for individuals or $119,900 for a four-person household as of 2024.

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The lower four floors of the building, meanwhile, will host rehearsal and practice rooms, a 99-seat black box theater and a cafe. Architect Mark Cavagnero, who oversaw the city’s SFJAZZ Center and San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has been tapped to lead the project, which hopes to break ground next summer and complete construction by 2027. The venture is the first to be submitted in San Francisco under Assembly Bill 2011, which was passed in 2022 to fast-track affordable housing projects on commercially zoned lands.

An exodus of San Francisco artists

The size of the anonymous donation was based on the project’s initial estimate, said Randall Kline, president of Artists Hub on Market, in an interview with KQED. “This is really a person who doesn’t care about notoriety, but does care about the artistic and cultural life of the city,” he said, adding that the project was largely inspired by San Francisco artists exiting the city amid soaring rents. Around 62 percent of artists, art administrators and art educators identified affordable housing in San Francisco as their greatest need in a 2021 study commissioned by Dancers’ Group, Intersection for the Arts and Theatre Bay Area, while a 2017 study from the San Francisco Arts Commission found that 70 percent of artists living in the city since 2010 had either left or were planning to move.

Manhattan Plaza addressed similar issues when it opened in 1977 in Hell’s Kitchen to provide much-needed affordable units to those in the performing arts. The building has over the years been home to the likes of Alicia Keys, Al Pacino and Larry David, the latter of whom based the Seinfeld character Kramer off an eccentric neighbor in the development.

Mercy Housing California and Artists Hub on Market drew from the Manhattan Plaza and other artist housing initiatives when planning their project, describing them as having “proven transformational for the artists who reside in them and the cities where they are situated.” The West Village’s Westbeth apartment complex, which was the first federally subsidized artist colony in the country and counts Robert De Niro Sr. and Diane Arbus among former tenants, was also cited as a source of inspiration alongside the recently opened Hollywood Arts Collective in Los Angeles.

An Anonymous $100M Donation Could Help Keep Artists in San Francisco