San Francisco Flower Mart sale leaves uncertainty among tenants

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NO BED OF ROSES ­— The future of the San Francisco Flower Mart, which serves as a central distribution base for Californian and imported flowers, has tenants and customers alike worried as new developments loom. photo by Tomo Hirai/ Nichi Bei Weekly

NO BED OF ROSES ­— The future of the San Francisco Flower Mart, which serves as a central distribution base for Californian and imported flowers, has tenants and customers alike worried as new developments loom.  photo by Tomo Hirai/ Nichi Bei Weekly
NO BED OF ROSES ­— The future of the San Francisco Flower Mart, which serves as a central distribution base for Californian and imported flowers, has tenants and customers alike worried as new developments loom.
photo by Tomo Hirai/
Nichi Bei Weekly

The San Francisco Flower Mart is an iconic institution for the Bay Area’s floral industry. Built in 1956, the warehouse on Sixth and Brannan streets houses more than 60 flower growers and distributors that serve both Bay Area florists and the public.

In July, Kilroy Realty Corp. announced a plan to merge with the San Francisco Flower Growers Association through a deal the company has valued at about $27 million. The Flower Mart Website states that it is currently managed by two entities: the association and the California Flower Market, Inc. 

With Kilroy’s acquisition of the San Francisco Growers Association, the San Francisco Chronicle reported tenants and San Franciscans became wary of the Flower Mart being uprooted when neither Kilroy nor the association gave official word about leases, prompting former Mayor Art Agnos and former Supervisor Aaron Peskin to speak out for the tenants. According to the article, Kilroy’s CEO, John Kilroy, said the market would be incorporated in its future development, but they have yet to release official details. 

Keeping the Flower Mart in Place

Bob Otsuka, executive vice president and general manager of the California Flower Market, told the Nichi Bei Weekly Sep. 29 he is “close to reaching a deal with a developer” to build a subterranean wholesale flower market on the current site. In a not-yet-finalized plan to take over as operator of a new facility, Otsuka said he hopes to manage both the Growers Association and Flower Market tenants in the new facility.

In a statement dated Sept. 3, the San Francisco Flower Mart announced that it is “not going anywhere! … The California Flower Market, Inc. is committed to maintaining our San Francisco Flower Mart on the corner of 6th and Brannan Streets.”

According to the statement, the California Flower Market is negotiating to become the sole operator of the new facility and hold a master lease of the market place. The statement states that, “this is the only viable option to keep the flower market alive in San Francisco. With an updated site, we will be able to stay in our conveniently located market and service our customer base. The San Francisco Flower Mart will remain the traditional anchor in a neighborhood that is going through an exciting transformation.”

Otsuka told the Nichi Bei Weekly that they intend to keep the flower market in the city. “We know the city wants us here and we’re fully supportive of that,” he said. He said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly, that the change of ownership has yet to occur between the undisclosed developer and the Flower Market, but “will be transparent and will not impact the workers in the Market” when the deal is closed.

Meanwhile, the other half of the market owned by the SFFGA voted to sell their land to Kilroy Sept. 11, according to The San Francisco Examiner. The sale raised concerns from the SFFGA’s tenants. A tenant at the SFFGA, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Nichi Bei Weekly she has heard nothing from her landlords. “They don’t tell us anything,” she said. “I need to know what I need to do. …” The tenant, who has worked at the Flower Mart for more than a decade, said she doesn’t know whether she should plan to move.

The SFFGA did not respond to multiple inquiries for comment regarding the sale. Kilroy said that it would not make any additional comments on the property at press time.

Changing Needs and Industry

Prior to organizing formally, local growers came to sell their flowers by Lotta’s Fountain in downtown, starting in the late 1800s, according to the Flower Mart’s Website. However, after the 1906 earthquake, Otsuka said the city outlawed outdoor commerce, requiring the growers to buy or rent space to sell their products.

The California Flower Market, Inc. was incorporated in June of 1912, Otsuka said. “It was formed by a group of Japanese American flower growers in the San Francisco Bay Area to create a market place to sell,” he said.

At the time, Otsuka said the San Francisco Bay Area had three primary groups of flower growers comprised of Japanese Americans, Italian Americans and Chinese Americans. The three groups got together to rent their first wholesale market space on Fifth and Howard streets in 1924.

Since then, the market has changed. The Bay Area’s local growers saw a decline over the decades over a myriad of reasons, namely, Otsuka said, the influx of cheap imported flowers from Columbia and Ecuador, which cut into growers’ local and export revenue. Otsuka said not many of the family-run local Japanese American nurseries remain. Last June, the Yabusaki Dwight Way Nursery in Berkeley, Calif. closed and many others have gone out of business before them.

“We’re dealing with Sansei, Yonsei and even Gosei generations of family businesses. In a classic business model, when you go from one generation to another … only about 25 percent survive,” Otsuka said. “Sadly, the ones that are great supporters of the market, a lot of those families have

moved out of the flower business.”

Karman Kwong, owner of Karman Kwong Nursery, said many of the local nurseries have quit. Kwong started his store in 1984 and said many of the market’s older tenants have quit. “There are no more young Japanese people here,” he said. “You can count the number of Japanese and Chinese growers on your hands now.”

Kwong said he was not surprised that the younger generations left the industry. “You need to work long hours. Most folks just want to work long enough to get their kids through college. It takes real dedication.”

The decline of local growers, however, does not reduce the availability and selection of flowers at the Flower Mart. Otsuka said the market has since transitioned from becoming a grower’s market to a distribution center for California flower growers, which represent about 60 percent of the flowers sold at the market, and flowers imported from around the world. “For the general consumer, the variety, the offering of flowers, has greatly improved. We now have flowers available year-round, even seasonal flowers, since they’re coming in from south of the equator.”

In planning for the new subterranean facility, Otsuka hopes to implement improvements to address issues the Flower Mart currently faces.

“You used to have a bunch of small growers coming up to the market in their pickup trucks, dropping the flowers off and driving away,” he said. “Now, most of the flowers come by semi-truck. We do not have a loading dock … we need to modernize the facilities and that’s our intention.”

Tenants and Customers Unsure

Sean Nestlerode, manager and vice president of Torchio Nursery Company, said the nursery has been a part of the California Flower Market since 1986. He told the Nichi Bei Weekly he wasn’t sure how to feel about the potential development. “It’s hard to have any opinion when there’s no concrete information,” he said. Above all, he said, the market should remain where it is because the large concentration of growers provides healthy competition for the floral industry.

In responding to the potential subterranean market, however, Nestlerode was equally cautious. “If they’re going to rebuild it, we need to relocate. Where’s it going to go in the meantime?”

Similarly, Kwong said he wasn’t sure he could continue if he had to move out. “If (California Flower Market wants) to sell, I don’t think I’ll try to find another place.” Even if he could stay, Kwong said he could only see himself continuing for another two or three years.

Another tenant from the SFFGA’s section of the flower market who wished to remain anonymous said their lease was set to expire at the end of the year, and they weren’t sure what to expect. “I’ve heard by word of mouth that the Japanese side will take over the whole market, but we haven’t received anything in writing,” she said.

While the market is open to the public, 90 percent of the customers are members of the floral industry, Otsuka said. Ana Neira, store manager for Mission De Flores in San Francisco, said she hopes the Flower Mart will not go away, noting that the location has tradition and is convenient. When asked about the new proposed facility, she said she was concerned about parking. “(Parking is) already difficult,” she said. “This is prime real estate, more people means more cars.”

Kathy Toy, vice president of Ikebana International San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, said local ikebana instructors depend on the market. “The Bay Area is a mecca for ikebana in North America,” she said in an e-mail. “We need the unusual materials provided by the dedicated vendors at the market.” Without the market, Toy said the quality of ikebana would decline “considerably.”

Toy said an underground market would be fine, but a temporary market would be needed while it is built.

The San Francisco floral industry has gone through many changes since its street vending days by Lotta’s Fountain, but permanent closure does not appear to be on the table. “It is the wish of the (California Flower Market) moving forward, that we continue being involved with the flower business to provide the product to the consumer at large,” Otsuka said. “That’s the most important part.”

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