Arch Returns to Potrero Hill

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Plenty of parking at arch’s new location. Photo: Paul McDonald

For nearly 15 years, Arch Art and Drafting Supplies catered to design students, engineers, architects and artists from the corner of Missouri and 17th streets. The more than 7,000 square foot facility, painted a stunning copper color and adorned with a thatched wire sign spelling out A-R-C-H, offered a rare resource for anyone looking for materials with which to make unique creations for a multitude of purposes.    

As the neighborhood attracted high-end condominiums and well-funded (bio)technology startups, property values skyrocketed.  Arch founder Susie Coliver was confronted with a 500 percent rent hike, with a 90 day deadline to depart.  After a stop at a small temporary location, the story has a happy ending, with the company freshly settled at 10 Carolina Street, “beyond the end of the road” as Coliver puts it.

Coliver, a San Francisco native, received a degree in Environmental Design from the University of California, Berkley in 1976.  She took an entry-level position with Robert Herman Associates.  Initially the office “go-fer,” she realized she was spending an excessive amount of time running errands to get supplies for the office. In 1978, when she was 26 years-old, with the help of a partner Coliver opened Arch Drafting Supply in an alley located in what was then San Francisco’s design mecca, at 43 Osgood Street, between Broadway and Jackson streets. 

Almost 40 years ago the internet wasn’t available to source products, or search for unique, niche items that appealed to architects, urban designers, structural engineers, graphic designers, illustrators, advertising agencies and landscape architects.  By amassing a store full of carefully curated objects, Arch eventually became – as Coliver puts it – the “Cheers” of the design community, then a tightknit group, professionally and geographically. 

After six years at 43 Osgood, Arch re-located to nearby 407 Jackson Street, purveying its wares from that location from 1984 to 2001.  After a 17 year stint, according to Coliver, “Times changed, rents rose, the need for drafting supplies waned as computers came into pervasive use and design professionals scattered throughout the City.” In 2001, Arch found a new home on the Hill, close to the California College of the Arts, at 1111 Eighth Street.  The store became a comforting neighborhood beacon of quirky offerings.

Coliver’s Missouri and 17th streets landlord was an elderly man, who eventually died at age 103.  The owner’s family inherited the property, and, unaware of how much Arch had become a beloved part of the neighborhood fabric, sought to secure higher rents.  Rather than negotiate a possible compromise, Coliver’s new landlord gave her 60 days to come up with the rent increase, extending that an additional 30 days. 

Coliver turned to her network to find a new home; she feared Arch was hopelessly close to shutting down.  With CCA students and other regular customers taking up the cause, word made it to Greg Markoulis, who owns the massive American Industrial Center, which extends two long blocks on the eastern side of Third Street, from 20th to 22nd streets, housing hundreds of businesses.  Markoulis was sympathetic to Coliver’s plight, and aware of Arch’s revered neighborhood standing.  He asked Coliver what she could afford; they worked out a deal which saved the business, now significantly downsized. 

During the two years of running Arch from a small storefront next to Long Bridge Pizza, Coliver searched for a spot that’d enable her to expand back to 7,000 square foot, sufficient to accommodate all of her more than 20,000 items.  She found that with an unusual partner, Larry’s Towing, Inc., with whom she now shares a building, the deal sealed with a handshake.

Arch now operates from a spruced up portion of a large building that used to house tow trucks, batteries and other automotive detritus.  The vehicles are parked outside at night now, in the large parking area that accompanies 10 Carolina Street. Arch and Larry’s Towing harmoniously split the rent on the property.

Original 1852 front door. Photo: Paul McDonald

The front door, dating from 1852, which accompanied Arch along its 38 year history, has been installed.  According to Coliver, the store is about 70 percent complete, with a seminar/lecture room still to come, along with the constant challenge of managing inventory.

Throughout her time with Arch Coliver has simultaneously been a principal with Herman Coliver Locus Architecture, which specializes in designing affordable housing, schools, and spaces for nonprofits As the longstanding Arch staff settle into their new digs, Coliver can ease back into spending more time on her other career. 

Meanwhile, the Missouri and 17th streets building is unoccupied, married by graffiti.