San Francisco Chronicle: S.F.’s Glide Foundation plans a $200 million upgrade of its Tenderloin building, to ‘get more people off the street’

By J.K. Dineen, March 4, 2022

San Francisco’s Glide Foundation, known for dispensing hot meals and desperately needed social services on the city’s hard-luck Tenderloin streets, is planning a $200 million redevelopment that will transform what is now a cramped, outdated former women’s dormitory into a modern facility.

The new 10-story building at 330 Ellis St. would give Glide’s clients, staff, and volunteers the conveniences and space they now lack: a kitchen big enough for the 800,000 meals the group serves annually; an HVAC system to circulate fresh air into what is now a warren of hot, stuffy rooms; a lobby big enough that those who depend on Glide for a wide spectrum of needs — from substance abuse treatment to free health care — can wait inside rather than snake around the block to be gawked at by passersby.

Glide’s current sanctuary, home to rocking Sunday gospel services, would receive some modern improvements but would mostly remain the same while the building is constructed next to it.

Karen Hanrahan, CEO, and President, GLIDE Foundation

“The city’s needs and the needs of Glide itself outgrew this building years ago,” said Glide Foundation CEO Karen Hanrahan. “We have had to be creative about how to serve more and more people in a building that was built for a set of problems at a much smaller scale.”

Erby Foster, chief financial and operating officer at Glide, is seen inside a cramped pantry in the basement of its 90-year-old building in San Francisco.

Glide, founded in 1929 by Methodist philanthropist Lizzie Glide “for purposes of charity and worship,” has anchored the 300 block of Ellis Street since 1931. The church rose to prominence in the 1960s when Rev. Cecil Williams took over a small congregation and opened it to the neighborhood’s poor and disenfranchised — including drug addicts, prostitutes, and gay runaways.

Jazz and blues replaced more subdued hymns, and the church’s dedication to “unconditional love and acceptance” resonated with celebrities like singer Marvin Gaye, U2’s Bono, business tycoon Warren Buffett and Maya Angelou. In 2020 Glide legally separated from the United Methodist Church through a negotiated settlement agreement. That gave Glide legal title to the Ellis Street property.

Glide submitted a preliminary project application on Friday — the beginning of an extensive process of planning and fundraising, according to Hanrahan. While the most ambitious alternative would cost upward of $200 million, a scaled-back alternative could be possible if the money can’t be raised, she said.

The plan calls for “more spacious dining areas, a multi-functional reception and intake area for centralized navigation services, and increased capacity for expanded mobile services and remote outreach to serve the city’s vulnerable. It would feature multi-use and women- and family-centric program spaces, along with convening places to serve our community’s social justice, education, and training needs,” according to the project application.

“Glide has always evolved to meet the needs of the people around it,” said Hanrahan. “Today the needs and the scale of the challenges — with the homeless and all the issues around equity — are at a much larger scale.”

The current building has never gone through a major renovation. It consists of double-loaded corridors with scant natural light. Every square foot is jammed with supplies. The basement hallways are crammed with everything from cold storage units on wheels to crates of oranges. A shared workstation with a single computer is next to bins of coffee grounds and a box of mopheads.

The building’s elevator is so antiquated that a new part had to be custom manufactured when it broke a few years ago, leaving employees and volunteers to schlep up and down the six floors of stairs. “They had to re-create some parts from scratch by looking at old sketches,” said Erby Foster, Glide’s chief financial and operating officer.

During the pandemic, Glide has expanded its offerings by setting up tents on Ellis Street and providing pop-up services in other neighborhoods. “We have not missed a beat. We have been serving more people, both here and in other neighborhoods,” said Hanrahan. “The need has gone through the roof and we struggle to keep up. There are thousands of people who have to be attended to.”

On Thursday, Glide was a hive of activity as workers prepared turkey sandwiches for distribution on the streets. Volunteer April Conte had driven 40 miles from Petaluma to help out in the kitchen, as she does twice a week. She called Glide her “happy place” but did admit that the building could use some improvements.

“It’s so stuffy down here,” she said. “You work up a sweat because there is no airflow.”

Glide’s street outreach workers are at the forefront of the city’s drug epidemic, which has killed thousands over the last few years. On Thursday two of those staff members were celebrated at an impromptu gathering in the basement pantry after using five doses of Narcan to revive a Glide client who had overdosed on a mixture of heroin and fentanyl.

Hanrahan said the new building would help some of the neighborhood’s most desperate by bringing them inside for services.

“You look at the meals line that curves around the block. You see the double-decker tour buses going by. It’s a sad spectacle. It lacks privacy. It lacks dignity,” she said. “What we want to do is get more people off the street for longer periods of time. But we can’t do it in this building because we don’t have the space.”

J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jdineen@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @sfjkdineen

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