Generating New Dollars for the Arts

September 2, 2014

City tosses beleaguered nonprofits $4.5 million. That was the headline on the front page of June’s edition of Central City Extra, our community newspaper. In response to this temporary-fix measure, Brien Cheu, director of community development at the Mayor’s Office of Community and Housing Development, was quoted as saying:

Is it possible, if we came up with some creative financing, to create a substantial, multitenant space, along commercial corridors where transportation is easy, especially by low-income individuals? Rather than focus on rent subsidies we want to create as many structural fixes as we can, so we’re not back here in another five years.

Well, Mr. Cheu, many of us in the Tenderloin and arts community have been wondering the same for years now. In fact, if we approached you with an opportunity to help us build exactly such a multitenant space for several cherished arts and education groups along a very prominent commercial corridor with very easy public transit access, what kinds of creative financing might you have in mind?

950

In the article Supervisor London Breed noted that the ADA-compliance work needed at the African American Cultural Center on Fulton could alone absorb nearly the entire $2 million (thank you Supervisor Avalos!) of the allocation earmarked for the arts. The same could be said for work needed to get CounterPulse up and running at 80 Turk, or the Luggage Store Gallery on Market.  I know LINES Ballet was absolutely thrilled just to get hot water heaters installed; my goodness maybe we can do better by one of the world’s most renowned dance companies in our own hometown.  There are many examples.

Still, the appropriation is a start. Two years ago, over twenty community-based arts, education, service organizations (and one affordable housing developer!) signed a letter requesting that the city capitalize on the boom in property taxes and create a fund to reinvest in the neighborhood for long-term structural stabilization solutions.  We got a “no,” with the rationale being improving the neighborhood would gentrify it. (We should all take pause and think hard about what we’re saying here.  Think about what we’re saying to poor people.)  Ironically, our failure to be creative, as Mr. Cheu is now calling for, left us in a weakened position to respond to the displacement of nonprofits resulting in the very gentrification those advocates who opposed creative public measures claimed they were concerned about. A self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy.

City Hall was for a local “capture and reinvest the property tax boom” mechanism before it was against it.  In spring, 2012, at a breakfast hosted by farmerbrown, Mayor Ed Lee addressed a prominent group of Tenderloin/mid-Market arts & education stakeholders and local foundations and announced he would get behind the formation of a local property tax capture district to invest in neighborhood projects.

From the March 27th, 2012 memo the Office of Economic and Workforce Development staff prepared for the Mayor to prep him for the breakfast:

NOMNIC’s Board feels very strongly that for complicated, ambitious projects like 950 Market and others to come to fruition, the City needs to find a financing source.  Your Central Market Economic Strategy agrees and calls for the pursuit of an Infrastructure Finance District (IFD).  IFDs would arguably be an achievable city funding strategy given its utilization would help underwrite the development of cultural/educational facilities at 950 Market, the Strand and Market Street Cinema.  NOMNIC is also looking into other finance mechanisms such as a cultural/educational facilities bond to take on mid-Markets derelict properties.

A blast from the not-too-distant past!  At that time my old crew NOMNIC (better known as the Tenderloin Economic Development Project) and I were fighting to make 950 Center for the Arts happen and were also advocating for repurposing other major derelict assets like the Market Street Cinema, Crazy Horse and the Strand.   We envisioned a multi-tenant 950 Center for Arts & Education, a new landmark home for the beloved Alonzo King LINES Ballet Dance Center up the block, and a mid-Market destination for the annual SF International Film Festival at the new home of the San Francisco Film Society. (Initially very skeptical, SFFS’s visionary Graham Leggat was warming up to mid-Market before he tragically passed.)

Going back earlier, to summer 2011, I collaborated with the mayor’s staff on my article for SPUR: Four Ways to Transform Mid-Market.   

The mayor hasn’t acted on the finance district yet.  Word is some in city hall got concerned about communities all through the city wanting their own tax capture districts, creating a chaotic situation for the city.  Also, some key local affordable housing developers declined to support it because there wasn’t money for new construction affordable housing through the readily available post-redevelopment tax capture mechanism (IFD).

While we haven’t heard back from the mayor and some on his staff is now reportedly hostile to reinvesting local tax dollars in the Tenderloin, Supervisor Kim took a very modest initiative to create a fund based on property tax revenues so the precedent has been set.  Maybe we don’t need to form a district after all and can just add more to Supervisor Kim’s recently created fund.  We can call it the “After Decades of Neglect, Exploitation, and Extreme Socio-Economic Segregation We’re Going to Reinvest the Gains from the Tech-Fueled Real Estate Boom for the Benefit of Equitable Development for Tenderloin Residents Fund.  (We’ll worry about the acronym later.)

And, also very encouraging, director Brian Cheu is calling on city hall to get creative.  So maybe the door is still open.  Maybe there’s still time.  I of course have to think so with so much at stake.  If not, let’s at least have the integrity to be straight-up with our arts community and tell them we’re cool with their moving elsewhere if they can’t make it in San Francisco.  Unless, of course, that would result in big empty dark spaces on Van Ness, in which case we might finally get inspired and float a bond measure for the arts.