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California and the West

In San Francisco's Tight Housing Market, Auto Shop Becomes Castle

Cities: Innovative residents turn repair garages, firehouses and churches into homes. They say if it has walls, it has potential.


SAN FRANCISCO — Former customers of Fritz's Automotive, a car repair shop that once did business in a gritty downtown neighborhood, have been to April Sheldon's house.

The parking lot is now a garden. An auto repair bay is a spare and stylish living room. An office has become a bedroom. With the original wood-beam ceiling polished to a gleam and a sleek block wall to shield the home from the street, Fritz's faithful would be hard-pressed to recognize their old haunt.

"I lived in a loft eight years ago, but I can't say I ever expected to live in a garage," said Sheldon, an interior designer who oversaw the building's transformation. "But in San Francisco, real estate prices are outrageous so you look at other options."

The search for affordable housing in the city gets tougher each year. The median price of a house in San Francisco now tops $400,000, which real estate analysts say fewer than 15% of the city's residents can afford.

So, many people pay sky-high rents. Others commute. But a few urban pioneers are looking elsewhere. With the idea that if it has walls, it has possibilities, they are turning churches, libraries, fire stations and yes, garages, into homes.

City officials have noticed the trend and say they want to support it. With new awareness that suburban sprawl eats up valuable agricultural land and open space, increasing density in urban neighborhoods has become a priority.

"People in the city, because of this tight housing market, are looking to industrial neighborhoods for housing," said Michael Berkowitz, a Planning Department spokesman. "We allow housing in industrial areas, but there are certain requirements to meet, so you do have to check with the Planning Department first."

Experience has taught planners to approach mixed-use zoning, which allows business, industrial concerns and homeowners to share the same street, with caution.

"The minute you have people living in an industrial area, they can say it's too dirty, too busy, that there's too much noise," Berkowitz said. "You have to be careful you don't then force out the industrial element, which is the engine that makes the city work."

Sheldon and her husband, photographer John Casado, like their South of Market neighborhood's hard-edged quality, and designed their renovation to blend in. They used the lean lines and generous proportions of the building, which Casado bought as an investment in 1983, to make the spacious, light-filled home they could otherwise neither find nor afford.

"I moved here from Silver Lake five years ago, and after just a few days of house-hunting I got very depressed," Sheldon said. "Even then the prices were outrageous and it seemed like everything was either a Victorian or a loft."

In desperation she visited the garage. Casado had fitted the three 25-foot repair bays with floor-to-ceiling windows, installed rest rooms and left the wooden beams and skylights intact.

She was sold.

The couple pulled up industrial carpet to reveal a concrete floor, which they painted, and used a rich palette of desert reds and golds on the walls. Sheldon installed a bedroom fireplace that shares a hearth with the living room. A compact kitchen runs along the back of the building. The concrete parking lot is now a patio and driveway fringed with flowers, trees and bamboo. The result is spare and dramatic--a comfortable space and a perfect foil for the couple's collection of primitive art and sleek furniture.

"It's a sanctuary," Sheldon said. "And there's no other way we could have afforded this much space in this city."

That same longing for space led Mark Dvorak and Laurie Ann Bishop to buy the former church they now call home. Unlike Sheldon and Casado, however, they didn't want to live in an industrial area. In search of an alternative to San Francisco's fabled Victorians and ubiquitous lofts, they checked out a police station and a firehouse.

Then they found an Arts and Crafts-style church in Eureka Valley, a residential neighborhood. Built in 1907, the building had a bell tower, vaulted ceilings in the vast sanctuary, and a second floor once used as office space.

"We knew right away that we wanted it," said Dvorak, vice president for store design for Gap Inc. "But I don't think we knew just what we were getting into."

The first problem was financing. Lenders seemed baffled by the notion of a church as a home. When Dvorak and Bishop finally found a mortgage, they paid more than the going rate for the loan.

The couple turned the church into 4,000 square feet of living space--three bedrooms, three baths, a kitchen and plenty of storage--a process filmed for the PBS show "This Old House." Although the show gave the couple access to some free building materials and other perks, it also forced them to telescope the seven-month project into less than four months.

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