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East Cut, San Francisco: A Newly Rebranded Neighborhood Takes a Bow

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SAN FRANCISCO — After commuting from his home in San Mateo, Calif., to Austin, Texas, for several years, Cristian Azcarate landed a job at the San Francisco-area headquarters of his company and settled in the Bay Area permanently. He and his husband decided to sell their home in Silicon Valley and buy a place that felt as close to the opposite of suburbia as possible. They settled on the East Cut, one of San Francisco’s most recently renamed, and densest, neighborhoods.

Mr. Azcarate, 41, a director of a cross-respiratory field team at Genentech, the biotechnology company, and his husband, Darrin Ketter, 49, toured several high-end buildings in the neighborhood, which is located in the northeast corner of San Francisco, at the foot of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. They were initially put off by the steep homeowners association fees. Though they’d sold their house in San Mateo, the couple also owned a weekend home in Walnut Creek, on the other side of the San Francisco Bay, so they were considering the carrying costs of double homeownership. They settled on a condominium in the Harrison, a 49-story building that opened in 2017.

“It reminded me of a really high-end, New York City-type of building,” Mr. Azcarate said. The 49-story tower has interiors by the celebrity designer Ken Fulk, as well as valet parking and continental breakfast served every morning. “We looked at a lot of high-rises and they felt very sterile, like offices. This one felt warm and homey.”

Mr. Azcarate also liked the location. Genentech’s corporate shuttle picks him up two blocks away for the short trip to South San Francisco. Mr. Ketter, who works in commercial and residential real estate for Sares Regis Group, can walk to most of his meetings in the financial district and South of Market (known as SOMA), and comfortably work from home a couple days a week.

The couple were initially looking for a one-bedroom, but they liked the building and the lifestyle of the neighborhood so much that they upped their budget and bought a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo for $1.3285 million. They arrived in 2017.

Mr. Azcarate likes the proximity to the Embarcadero, the city’s eastern waterfront, where he takes in the views on his jogs over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County. He has used the building’s concierge for dinner reservations, to plan a trip to India and to help find someone to install a chandelier in the dining room. And last year, he hosted his 40th birthday party in the top-floor lounge, Uncle Harry’s. He and Mr. Ketter have ended up spending so many weekends in the city that they decided to rent out their place in Walnut Creek.

One downside: Mr. Azcarate said he still has to explain to people where the East Cut is. But he’s happy to sing its praises: “I think our neighborhood is one of the greatest in San Francisco.”

Technically part of SOMA, the East Cut, which includes areas formerly known as Rincon Hill and the Transbay Transit district, has forged a new identity in recent years.

The neighborhood was officially named in 2017, and includes several of San Francisco’s most luxurious glass condominium towers, many offering 24-hour doormen, swimming pools, elaborate gyms and concierges. There are also several designated affordable-housing complexes and income-restricted middle-class housing.

The East Cut Community Benefit District, a nonprofit that formed in 2015, finances the ongoing neighborhood cleanup and branding campaign with annual parcel taxes from local developers, commercial tenants and residents. Andrew Robinson, the ECCBD executive director, said the group wanted something that nodded to the area’s deep history, even if it’s now known for its brand-new buildings. Colorful banners tout phrases like, “Gold Rushers Settled Here” and “Tall Ships Made Land Here.”

The name is a reference to the 1869 leveling of Rincon Hill at Second Street, which created easier access to the waterfront. “We were looking for a historic reference that also captured the modern feel of the neighborhood,” Mr. Robinson said. “This is San Francisco’s first really high-rise, dense, walkable neighborhood.”

The centerpiece of the neighborhood is the 5.4-acre Salesforce Park, an elevated green space built atop a bus terminal and reachable by elevator or gondola from below. The park is a quiet reprieve from the high-rise canyons that surround it, with grassy lawns and curving paths. There’s plenty of programming as well, from yoga classes to toddler play groups. (These activities, as well as almost all others around the city, were recently suspended as part of the fight against the coronavirus).

The East Cut also has dozens of “POPOs,” or privately owned public open spaces. Typically located at the bases of office buildings, these indoor spaces are sometimes set up with coffee shops, seating and even communal desks.

In 2019, the median sale price for a home in the East Cut was $1.506 million, with 211 home sales, according to the San Francisco Association of Realtors. That’s a climb from the 166 sales recorded in 2016, but not so much from the $1.494 million median sales price that year.

Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the area was $4,317 a month in 2019, up 4.7 percent from 2016, according to rental data from Apartment List. That compares with a median San Francisco rent of $2,475 for a one-bedroom, which grew 2.2 percent over the same period. (Apartment List calculated median rents for the San Francisco ZIP code that includes most of the East Cut.)

Justina Colunga, a real estate agent with Vanguard Properties, said she tells clients who are looking to buy new construction that supplementary tax costs for neighborhood improvements are especially high and will be in place for the next 23 years. (The taxes could run an additional $20,000 a year on a 2,200-square-foot condo, she said.) Newer buildings in the area also tend to have smaller square footage and higher homeowners association fees than older buildings, but come with more amenities — a trade-off buyers need to weigh. (HOA fees at new buildings typically start at around $1,000 a month for the smallest units and rise from there.)

The East Cut, which covers about seven square blocks, is dominated by blue and green glass skyscrapers, giving it a different feel from most of the rest San Francisco, where new construction is relatively rare and low-rise, and historic architecture is the norm. There are buildings like 181 Fremont, a 500-foot tower that includes offices for Facebook on the lower floors and 55 luxury condos on the higher floors, including a $46 million penthouse with interiors by Mary Ta and Lars Hypko of Los Angeles-based MASS Beverly.

Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

With newly designed pedestrian plazas and streetscapes, the East Cut feels a little like an architectural rendering of a futuristic city. There’s a newness to everything.

Because of its proximity to the Bay Bridge, traffic and exhaust from cars at rush hour can be intense. But it’s a fairly pedestrian-friendly area with new bike paths and better sidewalks in the works along major thoroughfares like Folsom Street, and easy access to the waterfront.

Mr. Robinson, of the East Cut Community Benefit District, said plans are in place to create a central neighborhood hub on Folsom Street. The area has begun to coalesce with a new streetscape with wider sidewalks, trees and bike lanes. There’s a Philz Coffee and Avery Lane, a commercial alley with a green wall, and public art underneath the Avery, a new building with 450 rentals and 118 luxury condos.

The neighborhood is still very much in transition. Though many of the East Cut’s major building projects have been completed in the past year or two, plenty of construction remains underway, with commercial spaces waiting to be filled. Some residents feel that it’s too quiet on weekends, with some of the restaurants open only on weekdays.

Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

There are not yet any schools in the East Cut. San Francisco Unified School District operates on a lottery system, which means children are not guaranteed to attend schools nearest to their home. (The system was created 18 years ago in an attempt to desegregate classrooms.)

The closest elementary school is Bessie Carmichael School PreK-8 Filipino Education Center, in SOMA. During the 2018-19 school year, 33 percent of third-graders taking the California Smarter Balanced Assessment Exam met benchmarks for English language, compared with 56 percent in the school district and 49 percent across California. In math, 22 percent met benchmarks, compared with 51 percent in the district and 50 percent across California.

Thanks to the East Cut’s central location — adjacent to SOMA and the financial district, and home to large offices for companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Salesforce — many residents say a walking-distance commute is the neighborhood’s biggest draw. Corporate shuttles pick up workers in the neighborhood to take them to work, including to office campuses in Silicon Valley. The neighborhood was also home to the Temporary Transbay Transit Center, which recently moved into the Salesforce Transit Center and serves Amtrak, AC Transit and Muni, among others.

During the gold rush era of the 1800s, Rincon Hill, as it was called at the time, was one of San Francisco’s most fashionable neighborhoods. Many of its buildings were leveled in the 1906 earthquake and fire, and it was rebuilt mostly with industrial and warehouse storage for the shipping industry. The Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco and Oakland and the rest of the East Bay, opened there in 1936. After the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, the Embarcadero Freeway was removed, changing the character of the area dramatically and prompting city planners to rethink the once-neglected industrial area. Salesforce Tower, the city’s tallest skyscraper, opened in the East Cut in 2018.

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