SF’s largest tennis club has been demolished and a replacement promised. That’s why ex-members are now suing

For more than four decades, thousands of recreational enthusiasts have flocked to San Francisco’s largest tennis club, spread over two dozen indoor and rooftop courts in the heart of South of Market.

Today, the block-long lot at Fifth Street and Brannan Street is a barren, empty lot after the courthouses were demolished to make way for a massive, 1-million-square-foot proposed office campus. A new underground tennis club was promised as part of the 88 Bluxome project, but it was derailed after the pandemic pushed anchor tenant Pinterest into it terminate his leaseand construction never started.

A lawsuit last month dates from 2015 was reignited when tennis and recreation advocates sued property owner-developer Alexandria Real Estate Equities, which first tried to scrap the tennis courts from the plan and then considered selling the entire property.

The plaintiff, the nonprofit San Franciscans for Sports and Recreation, is seeking to block a potential sale of the property without its consent in San Francisco Superior Court. It’s the same group that secured a replacement tennis racket for the project in 2016, a deal that led to the project’s approval.

San Francisco business hours reported first the lawsuit news.

The tennis club before demolition, seen on September 2nd, 2020.

The tennis club before demolition, seen on September 2nd, 2020.

Carlos Avila González/The Chronicle 2020

The 88 Bluxome saga is one of the city’s most prominent examples of how the pandemic and remote working have plunged San Francisco’s development – already a brutal political struggle in boom times – into an historic downturn that has seen billion-dollar projects teetering on the brink are threatened.

Real estate developers and tennis players aren’t the only ones with something to lose: The 88 Bluxome project has tremendous community benefits, including land for 90 affordable housing units, a new park and two public pools that would expand the Gene Friend Recreation Center.

Seth Socolow, executive director of San Franciscans for Sports and Recreation, declined to comment. Alexandria did not respond to requests for comment.

A person with direct knowledge of the property confirmed that the 88 Bluxome site was listed for sale earlier this year but is not currently on the market

The project is one of the largest in the central SoMa area, where the city adopted a plan in 2018 to enable massive growth to accommodate more than 30,000 jobs and 20,000 new residents. The rezoning focuses on the severely delayed central subway projectshould now open in autumn.

The developers were collectively on the hook for $2 billion in community benefits like affordable housing, street improvements, and recreational spaces. Other major projects include the 2.3 million square foot Conversion of the flower marketmoving to Potrero Hill, and a falling tower with 960 apartments that would replace the Creamery designed by star architect Bjarke Ingels.

Now all these major projects are standing still and have not started construction yet as the uncertainty caused by the pandemic still looms over the office market. Persistently high construction costs, inflation and rising interest rates, coupled with declining office rents and a citywide vacancy rate of over 21% have made construction significantly more difficult.

John Elberling, a longtime SoMa activist and executive director of Tenants and Owners Development Corp., a nonprofit advocate for affordable housing, had no position on the tennis-focused lawsuit but called for the affordable housing portion of the site to be turned over to the city “no matter what.”

“I don’t expect any office projects in Central SoMa for at least the next 5 years,” he said. “There was a sea-change in the commercial office economy and workplace usage – worldwide – that was supposed to be gradual, but the COVID kicked in all of a sudden. This is a new era.”

That could mean projects need to switch to include more housing or biotech space, he said, but it’s too early to predict what will happen.

Elberling was among one of four groups suing the city over the rezoning, which was settled in 2019.

John Kevlin of Reuben, Junius & Rose, Alexandria’s attorney, said at a December 2021 public hearing that the developer is still paying nearly $2 million for public recovery, including the resurfacing of 24 public tennis courts in the city.

Right now, some tennis fans have to cross city limits to play their games. Many are now playing at a temporary facility at Cow Palace that Alexandria paid for.

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