SF cannabis shop’s upscale transformation mirrors neighborhood’s shift

Harvest Off Mission
San Francisco Harvest Off Mission marijuana dispensary review SOURCE: Brian Feulner, Special to the Chronicle

At the base of San Francisco’s Bernal Hill, where single-family home prices have doubled in four years to fetch $1.2 million each, the forces of gentrification have claimed a new prize: the once-lowly pot shop.

After a year of evictions, lawsuits, a major structure fire and subsequent renovations, Harvest Off Mission held a grand opening with about 100 guests on Dec. 15. Located in the Bernal Heights neighborhood, at 33 29th St., it features a private, members-only lounge in the back, and a luminous, Apple Store-like, weed-buying boutique in the front. The sleek new store replaces the run-down, dorm-room vibe of the 11-year-old Bernal Heights Collective.

Gone is the old pot shop’s intimidating, bulletproof glass and black-iron-bar foyer, its surly and hairy staff, the rap soundtrack and pungent aroma of ganja. In its place, a floor-to-ceiling transparent glass facade allows anyone to admire the stylish design inside. At the opening, the Beach Boys’ Christmas Album looped on the sound system. A large but charming security guard handed out fliers to passersby, who walked in and enjoyed a paperless sign-in process after showing a valid medical marijuana recommendation and state ID.

Amid glass chandeliers, herringbone wood walls, elm tables and track lighting, Harvest Off Mission sells stainless- steel, $200 devices for inhaling cannabis vapor. Pure, white, powdered extracts of the botanical drug go for up to $131 per tablespoon. Whoopi Goldberg’s name-brand bath soaks and infused miso soups promise to treat pain without euphoria, augmenting traditional offerings like super-stony cannabis flower buds with names like Master Blaster and Cookies.

“Part of my heart still weeps, but I am OK with it,” said San Francisco grower Neil Dellacava, who frequented the old Collective and attended Harvest Off Mission’s grand opening. “I love it. It gives off the comfort of a place you can know and trust.”

And that’s the point. Amid a national fight over pot legalization, high-end interior design aimed at mainstream consumers has become a political statement.

Harvest Off Mission is the creation of a 47-year-old Oakland father of two, Marty Higgins, who left a career in real estate investment banking, including five years as the principal of the Apartment Group, Inc. It’s the second dispensary Higgins has bought, gutted and renovated with investor help; the first was the Hemp Center on Geary Boulevard. Each time, critics have howled.

In October 2015, Higgins purchased the Collective’s building, and in March 2016 moved to evict the Collective. In response, the Collective’s new manager, Sean Killen, sued Harvest and publicly blasted Higgins.

“In the moment, we were emotional and defensive,” said Killen, a former technology worker.

Killen has since dropped the lawsuit. “We’ve run out of steam. It’s a free-market thing. We’re not going to oppose anyone. We’re just going to try to serve our patients,” he said. He intends to reopen Bernal Heights Collective in a different retail space a few blocks away and has a Planning Department permit hearing Jan. 26.

With Harvest Off Mission, Higgins said he is dedicated to a new type of retail cannabis experience. Vintage pot shops often alienated mainstream consumers, he said, especially older, wealthier baby boomers and women.

“Our mission is to change the way people think about and consume cannabis and help change that negative perception — take the seediness out of it,” he said.

Indeed, the crowd skewed older, with more women than men. They wore chic boots, stockings with dresses and fancy coats, scarves and handbags.

“It reminds me of a Barneys (New York) or a beautiful Whole Foods. It’s pretty impressive,” said Kathryn Azad from Los Gatos. Azad attended the grand opening with Los Angeles fashion marketing professional Cynthia Erland, formerly of American Apparel.

“This is really the new generation of retail for dispensaries,” Erland said. “We’re not hiding behind closed doors anymore. It’s welcoming. This is the zeitgeist for sure. San Francisco is at least five to 10 years ahead of Los Angeles.”

Cannabis is in its final stages of normalization in San Francisco, said Evan Horowitz, who runs cannabis-investor pitch parties inside the Twitter building. The multimillion-dollar Urban Pharm dispensary opened in 2016 just down the street from Twitter on 10th and Market streets. The upscale Marina district gets its first pot shop in 2017.

“On Geary (in the Inner Richmond, now) you can combine a visit to Harvest with a stop at Whole Foods and Lululemon. That’s what I love about it. It’s part of my routine, and it’s not a big deal,” Horowitz said.

City agencies originally confined licensed pot shops to rougher parts of town, due to a combination of commercial zoning restrictions and powerful neighborhood opposition. Store owners were usually activists and risk-takers, rather than experienced retailers. First-generation owners also were loath to make business improvements because they feared losing everything in a federal drug raid.

Today, full recreational legalization is the law in eight states and Washington, D.C., which together account for more than 21 percent of the U.S. population. Thirty-five states have medical marijuana laws. As times changed, Bernal Heights Collective failed to keep pace.

“It was not well-managed,” Killen said.

“I told them, ‘The dorm room thing’s gotta go,’” said Shelly Cook, a Bayshore district resident of 30 years. Cook grew and sold the cannabis strain Super Lemon Haze to the old Collective.

“I just wish the old place had evolved,” said Cook, noting that “there’s 95 percent less people of color now.”

Dellacava said he empathizes with the low-income customers of the older clubs. They lost one of their safe spaces, he said. “I understand why they’re mad. (But) change is inevitable with anything. This is where cannabis is moving into as a business.”

The oldest black guest at the Harvest Off Mission grand opening wasn’t angry, though.

“This is nice. Very nice. It’s even bigger and better,” said Horace Thomas, a 70-year-old resident of a downtown single-room-occupancy hotel. The former janitor and political activist has been smoking pot for 35 years and heard of the party through the pro-pot Brownie Mary Democratic Club. “You learn a lot from (cannabis). It breaks down racial lines, ethnic lines, cultural lines, sectarian lines and gender lines. It pulls people together. You meet a lot of people through it.”

Just then, a young Harvest staffer dressed in a Santa costume appeared from the back room with a big red bag and handed Thomas about $50 worth of free cannabis flowers in a monogrammed glass jar.

Thomas smiled and said, “I’m glad I’m here.”

[This story first appeared on SFChronicle.com]

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