| Eastern Neighborhoods: Community Meeting Gone Awry
By Jonathan Farrell May 13, 2009
Since the announcement of the forming of Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, critics have worried that the 13-member committee will be biased toward the wishes of the Board of Supervisors. The supervisors will nominate most of the seats as applications are now being accepted and the five remaining seats are to be appointed by Mayor Newsom.
There was no mention of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee at the Mission Street Heights Community meeting held on April 14. Instead the focus of the meeting was upon the issue of “small business displacement,” and “smart growth” which despite six wall maps displayed then included only vague references to the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.
The upper meeting room of the Woman’s Building was filled to its 80-person capacity that Tuesday evening as local merchants, business owners and residents gathered to partake in a presentation and discussion sponsored by the San Francisco Planning Commission.
The topics of affordable housing and maintaining local businesses were discussed by many people, (such as Larry de Carlo of the Mission Housing Development Corporation) each having a concern as to whether or not the City can truly realize the Mission District’s unique situation. The Mission is the only neighborhood in San Francisco that has two BART stations, which brings thousands of commuters back and forth from all parts of the Bay Area each day.
This fact alone is very significant and is not lost on administrators like Tom Radulovich. He serves as a BART director for District 9 (which includes the Mission as part of his jurisdiction). Radulovich while in favor of “smart growth” for the Mission District is among the critics of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.
According to local business owner Phil Lesser, the April 14 meeting would have been a perfect opportunity to inform the public in detail about the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan. But no mention of it was made during the two-hour presentation, which included an open discussion.
“I am in favor of affordable housing and small business,” he said. “Yet, I have spent more time on this Eastern Neighborhoods Plan issue than getting my PhD in economics,” said Lesser as he stood up to address the entire room.
Lesser who is an active member of the Mission Merchants Association, is among those that voice concerns about the feasibility of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.
The meeting at the Woman’s Building that Thursday had originally been set for April 10 as part of a Planning Department meeting, but Lesser told the Mission Dispatch that he petitioned to have the meeting expanded into a public forum. Two subsequent update meetings about the plan were scheduled at City Hall in April one on the 23rd and the other on April 27. Details were not available in time for this publication.
As featured in the April and previous issues of the Mission Dispatch, there are merchants and business owners who are wary of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan. Despite its ambitious intention to revive the once-thriving industrial areas of the City, critics see the plan as shortsighted.
Lesser feels that the plan in its present draft will only hurt the Mission. He was disappointed that the plan was not discussed in better detail, especially the forming of a Citizen’s Advisory Committee.
The purpose of such a committee is to provide input on the prioritization of public benefits, serving as an advisory to the Planning Dept., an implementation committee, the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. To sidestep this process would be a disservice to the larger community.
Another unique aspect to the Mission District is that along with its eclectic cultural mix is the blend of residential, commercial and industrial areas. As the Mission has changed over the years, so has the use of some of the buildings and their potential for better service to the community.
It is because of the changes that occurred in the Mission during the dot-com boom that the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan was formed.
Lesser and others fear that uneven and poorly thought-out zone code changes may only create chaos in the district. Much of the blue-collar industry that defined the Mission as a working class neighborhood has left the City.
Based upon his understanding, Lesser feels that the future is pointing towards bio-tech, ecologically based projects and other 21st Century endeavors. To uphold a traditional blue-collar model within the plan is stepping backward. Lesser said that the Board of Supervisors is completely ignoring the formidable data provided by economic policy analysts.
Try blending all this with affordable housing and efficient use of transportation; city planners have a very difficult goal set before them.
This is where talk about “height and density” gets complicated. SF Planning Dept. project managers Claudia Flores and Ken Rich presented to the audience a handout sheet. This grid style paper entitled “Draft Tools & Ideas for Affordable Housing and Local Business Retention,” was complex and for the everyday person, a bit confusing.
The back to back spreadsheet listed 12 potential ideas. The first one being, leaving codes at existing height levels. If left at current height-level codes this limits development potential and doesn’t address small businesses.
“Our main concern for now is Mission Street,” said Flores, “especially around the public transit areas” (like BART stations at 16th and 24th streets). Would the allowing of taller building heights at 85 feet or higher be beneficial to the Mission? How would an increase in building height codes impact smaller businesses?
These questions were part of the discussion. And if building heights were extended beyond 85 feet would that damage the charm and character of the Mission District?
Flores mentioned to the audience that “small businesses are vulnerable to being displaced.”
Many agreed, yet others pointed out that business would not thrive unless new businesses are allowed to settle in the neighborhood. Fears of “big-box” or “formula-chain” type of retailers entering into the area causes concern of too much gentrification.
The struggle to maintain the Mission’s unique character while working to attract viable business has been a difficult balance. Radulovich expressed at length his views saying that “building code heights do need to vary,” keeping in tact the historical elements of the Mission such as the Victorian Era structures while maintaining enough open spaces for the public to have sunlight and air space.”
Many people present at the meeting were hearing about the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan for the first time. And some merchants and business owners were annoyed that not all were fully notified of all the meetings, surveys and such connected to potential future plans.
Some in attendance were for building height increase while others were not. Flores mentioned that the Board of Supervisors set various restrictions.
Lesser later mentioned to the Mission Dispatch that the Planning Dept. and Planning Commission can only make recommendations. The final decision is in the hands of the Board of Supervisors.
“None of these ideas we are presenting are the solutions,” said Rich. His work as project manager with Flores has become very intensified. He admitted that, “we’re trying very hard to harmonize as this is a very sensitive issue.”
All present, like building owner Chris Block want to see the Mission retain its presence in the City as a vibrant and diverse neighborhood. “My concern is that (potential) future needs are being pitted against the current needs of the residents,” said Block.
Gillian Gillett of the San Jose Ave. and Guerrero Street Coalition, hopes that people will see the precious uniqueness the area has to offer. “Mission Street is crying out for some really creative solutions,” she said.
For more information about the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan visit:
To learn more about the application process for the Citizen’s Advisory Committee, visit:
Or, call the Board of Supervisors at 415-554-5184.
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