JCF may buy buildings to aid rent-strapped agencies

Jewish agencies in San Francisco having panic attacks over rising rents may find an affordable solution on the horizon.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation signed a purchase agreement Tuesday to buy 131 and 141 Steuart St. — a pair of connected buildings next to its current location.

If the $28.25 million sale goes through, the JCF hopes to bring the Jewish community closer together — literally.

It wants to rent nearly all of the space in the new buildings to Jewish agencies at less than market value, thereby creating a concentration of Jewish social services in the trendy Embarcadero-South Beach area.

S.F.-based Jewish agencies feeling queasy about soon-to-expire leases and skyrocketing rents could have the calming opportunity to move into a prime location at a cut rate.

"We have heard dozens of stories of nonprofits in San Francisco suddenly being without a space to serve their clients," said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

"That the federation would consider taking this bold step in order to secure the [future] of nonprofits within our community…is forward-thinking, courageous and a move that will redound to the benefit of our community for years to come."

JCF has until Sept. 18 to complete due diligence on the two six-story buildings, which offer bay views and contain 75,000 square feet of rentable space.

By comparison, the JCF's current building at 121 Steuart St., which it built and began occupying in 1984, has about 36,000 square feet — although it, too, has sterling views of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island.

If the purchase goes through — closing is scheduled for Nov. 2 — JCF will become the landlord of three restaurants: Chaya, Shangai 1930, and Long Life Noodle Co. & Jook Joint.

But the JCF is still studying the situation and isn't locked into anything yet.

"We are considering the purchase but there's still quite a bit of due diligence to be completed," JCF President John Goldman said Tuesday. "There's still a lot of time before it's a go or a no-go."

One of the biggest factors will be the timetable for current tenants vacating.

Another consideration is financing.

Goldman said the funds to purchase the properties — which are being sold as a single parcel by one owner — will come 50 percent from a loan and 50 percent from major donors.

He wouldn't disclose how much might come from his family's philanthropy, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, but he did express a reluctance to stage a big fund-raising effort at this point.

"One of the issues we're sensitive to is that there are several major capital campaigns in the area right now," Goldman said. "We in no way want to detract or siphon off from those campaigns."

Goldman said a recent "quick survey" revealed that 11 local Jewish entities will have "some issue" with their leases, such as an expiration or a rent increase, in the next few years.

Some of those agencies might be interested in making the move to Steuart Street, although others might be scared off by the specter of working directly in JCF's shadow.

"Sure, some agencies might be concerned about having us watching over them," Goldman said. "But it's a two-edged sword. Can you find cheaper space in the city? And this is one of the best-located sites for [public] transportation and access. It's attractive not just for agencies, but also for their clients and for lay people who work downtown."

Perhaps the most notable agency exploring a move to Steuart Street is Jewish Vocational Services, which has outgrown its 77 Geary St. offices and has a lease due to expire in September 2001.

"If the space and the price are right, we're really open to it," JVS Director Abby Snay said when asked about a possible move to the new JCF property. "But we're looking at many options right now."

Snay cited the location as outstanding, especially considering her agency's ties to the business community. But she also wondered about other things, such as whether the floor plan will suit JVS' needs.

Goldman has some floor-plan questions, as well, which he said will be answered through due diligence over the next three weeks.

Other questions, he said, include: Can less-than-market-value rents cover mortgage payments? How much renovation is needed? Are agencies truly interested in moving there? When do the leases of current tenants expire? And what about parking?

"We have to figure out if this is worth pursuing," Goldman said.

But, he added, "to have space that's adjacent [to JCF] happens once in a generation if you're lucky."

Other candidates that may move into the new building are the tenants currently renting space in the JCF building at 121 Steuart St., including JCRC, Camp Tawonga and the local office of the American Jewish Committee.

JCF is practically bursting at the seams in its own office, a space that should be big enough for its 90 employees and its own projects, such as the Israel Center. But because the building houses other occupants, JCF has been forced to turn three of its conference rooms into workspaces.

Goldman stressed that JCF doesn't want to move any of its own operations next door. "We have absolutely no intent or desire to expand," he said. "We are doing this to serve the community, to provide opportunities to our agencies that may be in need."

Although he said comparable properties and locations now rent in the $60- to $100-per-square-foot range, Goldman couldn't say how much JCF plans to charge until the situation is further assessed.

As for the current high cost of real estate in downtown San Francisco, Goldman countered potential critics of the purchase by saying, "Like any investment, you have to take a long-term view. The [$28.25 million] price might look awfully high right now, but you don't want to look back and say we made a mistake by not pursuing it."

Goldman said the JCF would have no problem assuming the leases of the three Asian restaurants, all of which have long-term leases at least through 2016, he said. After all, those leases represent a steady flow of income.

"But it looks like about two-thirds of the space would be available for nonprofit agencies," he added.

A conglomeration of Jewish nonprofits "would be a sensational development for the San Francisco-area Jewish community," Kahn said. "It would foster camaraderie, encourage collaboration and be economical at the same time."

Consolidated Jewish campuses exist in some 10 communities across North America, including St. Louis, Winnipeg, Denver and San Antonio, although none is downtown.

The first Jewish campus opened in 1988 in Overland Park, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, Mo.

Nine separate agencies — including a federation, a Jewish community center, a Hebrew academy and a Holocaust center — operate under one roof there, scattered on three floors and more than 212,000 square feet.

"I would say we're a resounding success, and so would the community," said Alan Bram, the executive director of the Jewish Community Campus in Kansas City, an entity that manages the whole operation.

"There's a lot of cross-pollination. If someone comes in for service, they can talk to one professional and just walk a few yards away and talk to another," he added. "There's lots of cooperative programming and coalitions and communication is much better."

Multiagency Jewish campuses, albeit small ones, already exist in San Rafael and Los Gatos.

Moreover, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay is exploring the formation of a campus for many East Bay agencies. A report is due out in the late fall, said Ami Nahshon, the East Bay federation's executive director.

"We're working with consultants and community agencies to manage some of the growth we are all feeling," Nahshon said. "A number of agencies are maxing out on their space, so we're looking for ways to share space and make more efficient use of space."

The S.F.-based JCF is excited about the prospect of doing just that.

"This is not a one- or two-year deal," Goldman said. "We're looking at it as a long-term investment to the benefit of our community."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.