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The Outerlands: The Excelsior

Rather than leave their ’hood, one family tore down their dilapidated childhood home to resurrect it as a modern, urban dwelling.

 

Three years ago, when the real estate market was as booming as the San Francisco skies during Fleet Week, the Henriquez family was faced with a choice. The house they had purchased in 1980 was getting too small to support their tightly-knit extended family—not to mention it was dark, drafty and poorly designed. Lizette was already living there with her aging parents, while her brothers Juan Carlos and Mario both wanted the option of returning one day. “We’re Latin,” Juan Carlos jokes. “There’s no shame in living with your parents.”

On paper, the decision looked easy. The mortgage was nearly paid. They could sell, turn a tidy profit, and resettle in the East Bay or elsewhere with money in the bank. Yet not one of the three adult children wanted to leave the city they love—or the Excelsior neighborhood they grew up in after immigrating from El Salvador in the 1980s. Moving would also have upended their parents’ lives, both of whom rely mainly on public transit to get around. And then there was the commute: Both Mario and Lizette work for the city of San Francisco, and neither relished the idea of crossing the Bay Bridge each day. Ultimately, they decided to stay put, refinance and remodel.

“When we started talking to architects, everyone said we were crazy [to take on such a complicated project],” recalls Mario. “We couldn’t even get a lot of them to talk to us.” But then they met A+D Architecture + Design’s Sandra Vivanco, whose firm has long been committed to sustainable, community building. Vivanco presented them with a vision of not just remodeling and expanding, but completely rebuilding.

And so they did. Their 19th-century home was torn down and in its place they built a multi-generational structure to house the entire extended family. Their parents live on the first floor, while Lizette lives on the second. There’s also space to grow. “There are two extra bedrooms upstairs [on the third floor] if my brothers want to return, “ says Lizette.

The new house, which was completed last September, is a vision of eco-friendly modernity—filled with energy-efficient appliances, low-flow toilets and large windows that help warm the rooms. There are bamboo floors, rubber EPDM roofing, post-consumer paper stone accents and decking made from reclaimed resources. But most importantly, the house is beautiful, with soaring open spaces and a wealth of natural light.

Remaining in the Excelsior means they can still frequent all of their old haunts such as Los Planes De Renderos, a Salvadoran restaurant, and Casa Lucas Market #3, a great grocery. “The neighborhood changed a lot in the past 10 years,” notes Juan Carlos. “Now there are a lot more young people. The older people may not like it as much, but I think it’s changing for the better.”

 

What to Do in the Excelsior

Historically home to many Italian, Irish and Swiss immigrants, the Excelsior ultimately attracted Salvadorans and other Latinos in the ’70s. Recent years have seen an influx of Asian immigrants, as well as San Franciscans looking for more space near the boundaries of the Mission. Bounded by 280, Geneva, Mission Street and McLaren Park, the neighborhood has green space at the top and a commercial strip at the bottom. Asian and Latin groceries are the norm—the biggest being:

Manila Oriental Market 4175 Mission St., 415-337-7272, where you can find an amazing selection of live seafood and whole fish. Just off of Mission, the pupusas at the cash-only.

Los Planes de Renderos 12 Persia Ave., 415-585-8645 will win your heart. If you still have an appetite, Pacitas Salvadorean Bakery 10 Persia Ave., 415-452-8442 next door serves three kinds of heaven in a single slice of tres leches cake. Broken Record, meanwhile, is where the hipsters hang out drinking whiskey, playing darts and eating pulled pork sandwiches.

The Excelsior is not only convenient to the massive McLaren Park Mansell Street and John F. Shelley Drive, but at the hilltop on the park’s edge you’ll find,

Crocker Amazon Playground (Geneva Avenue and Moscow Street, 415-621-3260), where you can try your hand at baseball or bocce. Farther downhill is Excelsior Playground (Russia and Madrid streets), where there are soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts and a children’s play area.

Photos by Jen Siska.