After two decades of non-use, San Francisco’s legendary Hibernia Bank building in the Tenderloin is finally on a path to re-opening. While two years of renovations remain, the stickiest issues have been resolved. Mayor Lee has taken a personal interest in the Hibernia’s revival, and his staff has worked to resolve conflicts between city agencies over historic preservation and disabled access. The Hibernia’s interim role as providing a haven for drug dealers and public urination has also been curtailed, as owner Seamus Naughton promptly responded to community concerns about ongoing problems. The Hibernia’s re-opening will dramatically transform one of the Tenderloin’s worst corners, joining other nearby improvements in the most troubled part of Mid-Market.

Having banked at the Hibernia Bank at 1 Jones Street in the Tenderloin from 1980 to its closing, I am among the many who have long bemoaned its non-use. Since the current ownership group purchased the property in September 2008, rumors about its future have circulated.

Today, the obstacles to renovation and re-use have finally been cleared. The building’s future tenant is yet to be determined, but the space should be desirable due to the demand for offices on or around Market Street.

The Hibernia’s Problems

The Hibernia Bank was the only building in the area left standing after the 1906 quake and fire, but it barely survived long term neglect by its immediate past owners. For reasons never made clear, an entity associated with a Chinese medicinal society purchased the property and then did absolutely nothing to maintain, renovate, or occupy the structure.

When the Fang family purchased the SF Examiner, it sought to transform the Hibernia Bank into the paper’s home. That would have sparked a remarkable rejuvenation of the area, but the Fangs’ ran into a roadblock: the mysterious owners wanted $10 million to sell. Since millions would be needed for a seismic retrofit, the asking price dramatically exceeded the building’s value.

As a result, one of San Francisco’s greatest buildings sat vacant. For years. Drug dealers and pigeons occupied its front steps, and the intersection of Jones and McAllister became a place to avoid.

When the building went up for sale in September 2008 for only $3.4 million, a group including builder Seamus Naughton immediately purchased it. Many had concerns about a group purchasing the property with no clear plans for its use, and the lack of progress in the following three years appeared to confirm these fears. It seemed that the Hibernia was bought as a long-term investment and could sit idle for years.

It turns out that the Hibernia faced challenges beyond the seismic retrofit (whose projected costs ranged from a few million dollars to as high as $20 million, depending on the work plan). Naughton and his partners were caught between city agencies with conflicting goals about historic preservation and disability access when it came to the bank’s historic countertops.

Naughton and his partners know the city – he is currently building a 90-unit apartment building at the former KGO site at 277 Golden Gate that has been vacant since 1985 – but the combination of a tighter lending market and city disunity over their renovation plans put the project on hold.

Fortunately, Mayor Ed Lee’s many visits to the Tenderloin in the 1980’s left him an admirer of the landmark Hibernia Bank. After becoming mayor he committed to doing whatever he could to get the Hibernia reopened.

The mayor assigned staff to work out the differences between the various city departments. This was not easy, because both historic and disabled access agencies have legal mandates that cannot simply be waived or ignored. But all parties worked toward a solution, and a resolution enabling work to soon commence was reached earlier this year.

Interim Plans

While the great news is that the Hibernia is on track to be re-opened by 2015, the building’s interim status has caused significant problems in the community. Naughton built a wood tunnel barricade to protect pedestrians from falling bricks, but this tunnel became a haven for drug dealing and public urination.

Two weeks ago, I met with Naughton along with tenants of the adjacent Boyd Hotel and representatives from the Community Housing Partnership and Mayor’s Office. Dina Hilliard of the Tenderloin/North of Market Community Benefits District, whose group has long worked to improve the area around the Hibernia, arranged the meeting.

Naughton acted promptly on the concerns, and the wooden barrier protecting drug dealers from detection was removed within a week. He is making other changes to improve the quality of the site prior to and during the renovation process.

The architectural firm of Perkins + Will is donating its services toward working with the community on a plan to make the block of Jones south of Golden Gate a positive place to be. Former CBD leader Elaine Zamora proposed a plan a few years ago to close off that sector of Jones to traffic, and that is one of the many options the architects will explore.

With the Hibernia bracketed by affordable housing programs at the Boyd and Civic Center Residence, and with CHP now headquartered at 20 Jones, transforming the first block of Jones into a pedestrian-friendly space would greatly improve the quality of life for low-income residents. And the block’s visibility from Market Street means that those concerned about that area’s future also have an interest in making Jones Street a success.

When I started Hastings in 1979, Harrington’s Bar was next door to the Hibernia and the area was bustling with positive activities. Its revival has taken longer than anyone expected, but under Naughton’s leadership the Hibernia’s reopening is finally on track.