With All This Empty Commercial Space, Maybe it’s Time to Start Squatting

Updated: Jan 27, 2022 14:55
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There’s 12 million square feet of this just sitting empty.

With the money running out and the uncertainty of the eviction moratoriums, I’m sure many San Francisco renters are wondering where they will go when it all comes crashing down. Those with a good grasp of history will find inspiration from the past, and in San Francisco, that past is clear: squatting in vacant commercial real estate is the answer.

In 2021, there were 8.7 Salesforce Towers’ worth of vacant office space in San Francisco. That’s 12 million square feet, just sitting empty. That’s space that could be put to better use in a way that truly reflects the post-apocalyptic reality we inhabit today. That’s space that no bitcoin startup wants, that no wellness app is taking, that no fintech bros are playing topless cornhole in.

There is a long and vibrant history of squatting commercial real estate in San Francisco. One of the great squats of San Francisco was the Vats. If you’re in tune with punk rock history, you’ve encountered the influence of the Vats, where bands including M.D.C., The Dils, D.O.A., The Dicks and D.R.I. performed or stayed.

The Vats. (Photo by Carla Leshne)

In 1982, M.D.C. moved from Austin TX, looking for a better life. They found it in the derelict Falstaff brewing factory, located next to the freeway that divides SOMA and the Mission. Next to it was the more well-known Hamm’s brewery, with its 25 foot tall illuminated beer glass that could be seen from the freeway and the Seal’s stadium. The area had once been a true Xanadu of shitty beer production.

The son of the owner of the Falstaff brewery imagined that he could turn the space into an artists’ center, and he rented space in it to M.D.C. for $200 a month, rent that they only occasionally paid. The enterprising band colonized the large metal brewing vats that were stacked five stories high. They invited all of their friends to join them, and the space was quickly populated with many of the most influential bands of the early hardcore/thrash scene, along with the usual slightly deranged hangers-on.

The Vat Rats, as they called themselves, quickly realized a classic paradox of living in commercial space in San Francisco. Since the building was legal and there were people living in it, the water and power could stay on. However, since the building was not legal to occupy, the landlord could neither collect rent nor evict the squatters. Eventually, the Vats dissolved due to harassment by the police and the more predictable forces that bring down temporary autonomous zones. However, the vats re-energized interest in squatting that continued through the 80’s. For an excellent first-person account, look this great article from Found SF.

By the end of the 80’s, pressure on the city from people living in commercial spaces led to a law that allowed the conversion of some commercial real estate to residential, especially in SOMA, referred to in this entertaining article from 1997 as “a decaying 1.5-square-mile industrial area.” The people living illegally in commercial space had moved opinion far enough to get some recognition from City Hall. As is always the case in San Francisco, developers gamed the system to their advantage and gifted the city with all of the corrugated-metal live/work spaces that blight SOMA and the Mission.

Squatting continued in the open, with Homes not Jails occupying vacant houses starting in the early 90’s. Commercial real estate was still a good target for squatters throughout the next twenty years. One audacious example was the takeover of the site formerly occupied by Palace Billiards at 949 Market St.

If you’ve spent any time wandering the streets of San Francisco, looking at the sidewalk while listening to The Stun Guns’ “Brand New Year”, you’ll have noticed “Scam Punks” carved into the sidewalk. Erica Dawn Lyle, of Scam Zine and sometime guitarist for Bikini Kill, is responsible for those. She was also instrumental in the 2001 takeover of the old Palace Billiards site.

In the calm before 9/11, Erica and others ran power and water into the site from the abandoned theater next door and set up the vast space as a free cafe, art gallery adorned with murals and show space. From the beginning, their plan was to be audacious. How else could one describe a 600-person punk show in the middle of Market St where no-one was supposed to be? I remember seeing hundreds of bikes locked to any available post up and down Market Street. Sometimes the best way to hide a secret is to put it in plain sight.

Today, 949 Market is a giant, empty glass palace, built to be a mall that never materialized and ready for squatting again. There are those millions of empty square feet in San Francisco. They are yours to discover and reclaim for the people. They might still be stocked with ergonomic chairs and over-sized conference tables left behind by whatever bitcoin ponzi-scheme inhabited the space before. So be bold. If anyone asks, just mutter something about crypto-self-driving-biotech and pretend to be talking on your phone. Act like you own the place, and maybe you will, for a while. History is on your side.

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Ernst Schoen-Rene

Ernst Schoen-Rene

Ernst Schoen-Rene is a surly troll who lives under the freeway in San Francisco. He enjoys playing punk rock music, writing, the lively arts and chasing people around his street with a stick.