John Borg, who has occupied a 20th and Illinois streets building for almost 30 years, will soon move from Dogpatch unless he can find a new space for his sustainable schwag enterprise. Borg runs Eco Imprints, Inc., a City and County of San Francisco green-certified product enterprise that’s part of Green America’s Green Business Network. The company distributes custom goods that leave a lighter impression on the planet than conventional items. Borg’s proprietary brand, Steelys Drinkware, is a line of reusable stainless-steel cups, bottles, straws, and food containers, practical alternatives to single-use plastic, which glut landfills and pollute the ocean.
In 1992, when the neighborhood was considered a sketchy, no-name industrial area in Potrero Hill’s shadow, Borg secured a master lease on the Olympia warehouse and became one of Illinois Street’s first live/work residents. He fell in love with the area, researched and promoted its industrial maritime history, and became a community activist.
Borg was among a small group of residents who started the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association (DNA). He served as its first president, lobbied to secure the community’s status as an historic district, and was part of a cadre of activists – which included Goat Hill Pizza’s co-owner, Philip De Andrade, and View publisher Steven Moss – who helped shutter the Hunters Point and Potrero power plants. Over the last decade as other inhabitants emerged to take leading roles, Borg curtailed his neighborhood involvement to focus on raising his two children, both now teenagers, and growing his business.
The Dogpatch space Borg occupies is among the last of many low-density utilitarian warehouses that used to line Illinois Street, replaced by larger, modern, apartments, condominiums, and mixed-use buildings. The two-story cinderblock structure was named after the U.S.S. Olympia, the flagship of Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The famed steel warship wasassembled directly across the street at Pier 70, when it was a thriving, world-renowned, ship building complex.
The Syme Family owned the property for roughly 100 years, renovating the structure in the early-1970s before selling it in 2016 to Ronaldo J. Cianciarulo, of Mindful Investments, L.P. Once Borg’s lease expires in January 2022, the building will be razed by Bay Area developer Workshop1 and replaced by a six-story edifice, with ground floor retail, basement parking garage and two dozen condominiums averaging roughly 800 square-feet each.
Borg, along with a staff of five, occupies the Olympia’s second floor and subleases most of the first floor to an architectural supply company. His roughly 5,000 square-foot space has the vibe of a homey creative studio. It includes administrative offices, storage racks, a distribution area for shipping samples, a “lab” for designing and testing products, and a large showroom. In addition to workstations and samples, it’s filled with original artwork, vintage posters, industrial artifacts, pop cultural ephemera, and found objects collected over many years.
“When you have a lot of space, you tend to fill it up,” Borg said.
Ironically, Borg helped pave the way for redevelopment of the Olympia warehouse. In the late-1990s he co-founded the Potrero Central Waterfront Committee, a group of residents and merchants concerned about the area’s emerging rapid, unchecked, redevelopment. The committee held a series workshops, which resulted in Borg authoring an influential 60-page policy paper, The San Francisco Central Waterfront Community Land Use Recommendations Report, published in 1999. The publication provided a community-based framework for sustained and managed development of the Central Waterfront that sought to enhance and protect its unique history, character, and livability while providing for the City’s future needs.
“That report spurred the City to work more closely with our community on redevelopment. A lot of our recommendations were eventually incorporated into City guidelines, and it’s now all coming to life some 20 years later,” Borg said. “This includes demolishing my leased warehouse to make way for a larger mixed-use project. I fought with neighbors to preserve the soul of this area, and to a large extent we succeeded. Dogpatch has become wildly popular now. As a result, I’ll probably be priced out.”
As the clock ticks down to his eviction in less than two years, the ongoing public health crisis has altered Borg’s attitude. “The reuse market has collapsed,” he said. “In no small part because of lobbying by the plastics industry.”
He’s considering scaling his business differently to use less space, and moving to the Sunset or Richmond Districts, or even Marin County.
“This is where my heart is,” he said. “I feel strongly about this neighborhood and community. I’ve had a good run here. This is a dynamic, changing City and more dense uses make sense. I’m pleased with the popularity of Dogpatch and the historic resources that are now celebrated and preserved. I do lament some of the tech-bro culture and big corporate tenants that have displaced so many artists and small businesses, but it’s not just happening here.”
“I get people sell their buildings,” another long-time Dogpatch resident and DNA vice president Susan Eslick said. “John also gets things change and there will be development, but it would be great if there were more spaces for smaller businesses to function. I would love to find him a space in Dogpatch; with his energy and history in Dogpatch it would be great to see him continue being here as part of the fabric of the neighborhood.”