Above Image: Bay West CEO Tim Treadway. Photo by Nikki Ritcher.
Henry Adams Street has always been a place of making. In 1915, the sturdy brick Showplace was a building-materials warehouse, a way station for the nails and lumber that would give form and shape to San Francisco. In the 1970s, visionary developer Henry Adams cemented its destiny as a crossroads of makers and designers, architects and builders, when he acquired the Showplace and Galleria buildings, and brought in the first design showrooms as tenants. Yet, also integral to the literal and cultural making of the Design District were Bill Poland and Tim Treadway, partners in Bay West, the company that owned, developed, and managed the San Francisco Design Center for over 40 years, concluding its tenure in February. Building on the work of Henry Adams, and together with colleagues and community, they helped transform the Design District into its current status as a thriving mixed-use hub. Today the SFDC is home to the exquisite work of local artisans and leading international design houses alike, a fulcrum for directional design thinking, and a philanthropic force. We spoke with Tim Treadway about the Bay West team’s lifelong dedication to creating one of the West Coast’s defining design destinations, and its legacy of purposeful placemaking.
Bay West team members Trudy Drypolcher, Tim Treadway, and Bill Poland in 1981.
H: Tim, would you share your and Bay West’s origin story with us?
T: I grew up and went to school on the East Coast. I completed graduate business school in 1979 and moved to the West Coast for a job—it was the first time I’d ever been to California. I anticipated being here only a year, and then was scheduled to be transferred back to New York. But along the way I became friends with my coworker Mary Clifford, and she introduced me to Bill Poland, her boyfriend at the time, and future husband. Bill had just started Bay West, a real estate development company, and I was interested in the business. I also liked living in the Marina, and the California lifestyle. So right before I was supposed to go back to New York, in the fall of 1980, I quit my job and stayed in California to work with Bill—a life-changing decision to say the least.
H: How did Bay West get its legs?
T: While it had had some earlier success, Bay West had only a modest amount of capital. Bill had ownership in several small office buildings—and the multistory warehouse at 888 Brannan, which ultimately became the Gift Center—but we were basically a start-up real estate company. Bill’s family had history in the industry—his father was in the furniture business—and he got to know Henry Adams.
Then, in May of 1981, Henry Adams passed away, and his partners, the Blumenfeld theater family, managed the properties for a while, before ultimately deciding to put them up for sale. With the help of Bill’s other investors, we purchased the Showplace, the Galleria, and several other nearby properties in April 1983.
H: What was the neighborhood like when Adams started developing it?
T: The area had a deserted, abandoned feel—it was in the middle of nowhere. Across the street from the Showplace was the Yellow Cab taxi parking lot, complete with barking dogs! Many years later, this site would be developed into the Fashion Center and then become Zynga’s headquarters. The Showplace was the first building Henry Adams envisioned as the new Design Center: In 1973, he brought tenants there from the Ice House, the original Design Center building in Jackson Square. Then he bought the Galleria building a few years later.
H: What were the original identities of the Showplace and Galleria?
T: The Showplace was a building-materials warehouse, and the Galleria was cold storage. Henry Adams shaped the Galleria from four properties: the brick building on the corner of Alameda, a vacant lot, and two other adjacent brick buildings. The beautiful, dramatic atrium was constructed on the vacant lot and joined the four buildings into one structure. Henry also had a vision to create an exhibition hall for events—the Gift Show, the Furniture Show, and many other trade shows. He transformed the long railroad station on Brannan Street into the Trade Show Center, later renamed the Concourse. We had every kind of event you could imagine in there.
H: What was your own first major Design Center project?
T: The first project that I took on, in 1983, was creating the Contract Design Center, the redbrick building on the corner of Seventh and Townsend. The idea was to create a separate building dedicated to office furniture, distinct from the Showplace and Galleria’s focus on residential furniture. The empty warehouse building stood alone on the corner, with a dilapidated shed on the adjacent lot.
After we renovated the 80,000-square-foot building and leased it to tenants, we decided to build an expansion, with Steelcase as our anchor. We developed a new building to adjoin the older brick one, and our designer, Orlando Diaz-Azcuy, devised a connecting atrium—a white box that turned out to be the building’s signature design statement.
After succumbing to various economic and industry forces, the building was converted to a technology hub, with Advent and Salesforce as its two major tenants. But the project was my passion from 1983 to 1989. And Martha Thompson was very involved—she showed me the ropes in the beginning.
H: At the time, you were leading the Seattle Design Center as well.
T:Yes, we started managing the Seattle Design and Gift Centers in 1991, and ultimately purchased them in 1999, then sold them in 2005–07. For 16 years, I would go back and forth between San Francisco and Seattle. Over time we leveraged our relationships with our San Francisco tenants and several open locations in Seattle. Again, Martha Thompson was very helpful. We also managed the Laguna Design Center [in Southern California] for several years. So in the nineties, I would often start my weeks in San Francisco, continue on to Laguna, head up to Seattle, and then return home.
H: While it must have been exhausting, was this period also inspiring?
T: It was both exhilarating and incredibly fun. It was perhaps the height of my professional career to be working in design on literally the entire West Coast. But it was also an absolute team effort. Bill Poland has been a remarkable influence in my life—his vision and inspiration. Martha Thompson has been just unbelievable.
There were, however, some very difficult times—we had the earthquake in 1989, which was a dramatic start to a deep recession that had already swept the country. The Bay Bridge went down, and our showrooms lost a lot of business; many had difficulty paying their rent. It was a tough period, and we were helping every way we could. Ultimately, it all worked out, and we got through it.
And then there was the fire in 1999. We were doing a big seismic project, and on the weekend of July 4 a welder’s spark started a blaze. One side of the Galleria roof burned completely, and the atrium floor had ten inches of water. Miraculously, no one was injured. There was $14 million in damage however, and sleepless nights for several weeks. But our team pulled together, and we were able to fully reopen the building in a little more than six months. That had a good ending.
H: When did you start to detect a shift to the new tech economy?
T: The nineties were kind of a transition. It was a tough economy. But at the same time, the SFDC was just getting better. Our mantra was to keep bringing in the best tenants we could. The tech economy really came in after 2000.
H: In just the past five years, the neighborhood has undergone such a dramatic transformation, including the construction of One Henry Adams, the new apartment project across the street from the Showplace. Would you share a bit about how the district has evolved?
T: The neighborhood really has changed. The tech movement didn’t just transform the Design District, of course, but all of San Francisco. We believed for many years that our neighborhood was in need of more services, and housing was a natural fit in order to create a 24/7 mixed-use neighborhood. Our mantra was attracting pedestrians and activity to sustain the heart of the Design District. Getting the entitlements was not easy. It took almost 12 years to develop the two apartment projects—the Concourse site on Brannan Street and One Henry Adams Street—off the ground. With the end of COVID-19 hopefully in sight, a real vibrancy will emerge in this evolved mixed-use environment.
H: As you leave the SFDC, you of course have other projects you’re working on, but I think the Design Center might have a distinct place in your heart.
T: Nothing will ever compare to the Showplace and Galleria family of employees, showrooms, vendors, and friends. It really has been a major part of my life—something I will always cherish. At Bay West, we’ve had many employees with us and the Design Center for over 25 years. We had Giants outings, bowling days, hot dog days, and of course holiday parties, where I literally witnessed many of our employees’ children grow from little kids to college graduates. The camaraderie and love I will never forget.
H: You’ve mentioned your colleague, SFDC president Martha Thompson, several times. Martha also retires this year. Would you share a bit more about her contributions?
Martha began her extraordinary career at the Design Center working with Henry Adams, and rose to become president. She dedicated over 40 years to championing our community, which reveres her for her unwavering advocacy. Bill Poland and I have tremendous gratitude for her incredible commitment—without her dedication the SFDC would not be what it is today.
H: The new management company as of March 1 is Jones Lang LaSalle. Would you share a bit about the company?
T: JLL is a global commercial real estate management firm that has experience with design centers as well. They’re being very respectful, and I think they understand the value of having a great tenant mix—the importance of keeping all those key design tenants together in one place.
H: That’s how the magic happens, don’t you think? In real space there’s human chemistry.
T: Oh, there’s no question. The collaboration, the personal relationships, just walking around—and, at events like Design San Francisco, all the designers seeing new things, listening to speakers, always learning. You can send me all the image links in the world, but I still want to go see a piece. I want to sit in a sofa and know how it feels.
H: It’ll be interesting to discover the new reality post-COVID-19, which resources end up staying in physical space.
T: Everything goes in cycles, and we’re in one of those now. Think of how much traffic there was prior to COVID. Think of the air quality as a result of all those cars. Now, if you reduce all that by 25 percent—let’s just say the end result of this is that 25 percent fewer people commute into the city, or they take one day off a week and work from home. Those are big numbers in terms of reductions in pollution and traffic. I think that’s positive—it’s reshaping the entire business world.
Bill Poland and Tim Treadway in December 2020.