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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?


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.

The arts community, once it gets itself organized, should do what Rocco Landesman did and buddy up with the team that always gets the big bucks: affordable housing.  In 2012 we voted for Proposition C to create a $1.5 billion dollar trust fund for affordable housing.  There will very likely be another bond measure in 2015 for another half billion dollars.   That’s $2 billion approved for affordable housing in a span of three years, and the given the desperate need for affordable housing the number should go higher. I know I’ll vote for it. The arts community should advocate for it.

I would argue that bond money for inclusionary affordable housing should also include money for inclusionary arts, inclusionary education, inclusionary recreation. We can’t live by rooms and sandwiches and meds alone.

Isn’t this the driving principal behind HOPE SF?  Healthy, balanced communities?  Five percent of $2 billion would provide $100 million for a real war chest that Brian Cheu and Tom DeCaigny can use to get past endless triage-oriented approaches and invest in truly long-term solutions toward healthy, balanced communities.

And wouldn’t affordable housing developers who speak all the time about neighborhood development (even use the term in their organization’s name) support this?

I recently had lunch with a big name public finance guy to ask for his help with 950.  He scoffed and said the city shouldn’t be investing in the arts for the Tenderloin/mid-Market. “What the neighborhood needs is more cops and fire stations.”  Yeah, okay.  I’ve also advocated for more cops for public safety, so no argument there.  But why does it have to be at the expense of the arts? (In fact, in light of recent events, if any group could use a heavy dose of human development through the arts, it’s cops.)

I get this view a lot from folks who didn’t grow up in the neighborhood.  Don’t live in it now and never will.  They’ve never waited in line for the giant tin cans of peanut butter and blocks of cheese to take home, find a safe place to keep it from the always-waiting rats and wonder what more there is to life. (Good thing I wasn’t lactose intolerant back then!) Give them poor folks their rooms, their meals, their meds and throw in a bunch of cops.  Mission accomplished.

I’ve grown tired of explaining to privileged progressives why the arts matter to poor folks.  But the message is too important to stop.  Endless cycles of dropping out and incarcerations for most young people who share my background.  We don’t offer them nearly enough ways out and the arts are a most powerful way.  I take consolation that someone with the lofty credentials of Maria Rosario Jackson recently shared she struggles with the same constant challenge. To date my favorite testimony on the topic still belongs to the late Quentin Easter of Lorraine Hansberry Theater:

We had an especially well-attended Tenderloin Arts Advisory & Friends meeting this summer. Our friends at CounterPulse kindly hosted at their new home at 80 Turk. Representatives from 35 organizations attended including major arts funders as special guests. As usual for the TL Arts Advisory it was a very diverse crowd.

I reported to the group that we need a new format and organizational structure. Our great, collegial and informal gatherings have worked very well these past 5 years but the issues are now too big and too complicated – special use district for arts legislation; cultural equity funding; divisions between disciplines and neighborhoods, new facility development – for a one-person volunteer facilitating 90 minute meetings a few times a year.  We need systematic organizing and advocacy.

Over the years I’ve heard calls to expand the TL Arts Advisory to include friends and colleagues working in other neighborhoods.  My reaction was always concern that the needs of Tenderloin groups like the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, the Shih Yu-Lang Central YMCA, TL Boys & Girls Club, i.e. the small guys (my peeps), would quickly be lost in a larger circle.  One of the wonderful aspects of our advisory is to see these groups sit alongside larger organizations like American Conservatory Theater, LINES Ballet, and form collaborative projects for the benefit of the neighborhood residents.  Community development through the arts; it’s been a wonderful development to watch unfold.

But we’ve now arrived at a place where the Tenderloin groups would be best served by being part of a larger, more powerful whole.  Perhaps, like Arts for LA, we can keep our neighborhood collaborative going while engaging with our colleagues from the rest of the city who would form neighborhood groups that would be part of the larger whole.

The TL Arts Advisory has a lot to be proud of. It was the well from which inspiration was drawn that gave rise to the campaign to build 950, the creation of CAST, the impetus behind special use district legislation for the arts.

After June’s meeting I was approached by a brilliant friend who leads a wonderful arts organization in the Mission.  She asked me “Why the Tenderloin and mid-Market?”   A neighborhood arts center. Special use district legislation for the arts.  Why us?

The answer: years of dogged, extremely difficult, extremely frustrating, at times militant, at times diplomatic, in-the-trenches advocacy by the TL Arts Advisory and the Tenderloin Economic Development Project.  I’ve been picked up and dusted off more times than I can remember by the Arts Advisory and my old board of directors at TEDP.  Nobody gave us anything for free, and the fight is not over.  (Really, with mid-Market business booming, why bother with the arts?)

Any neighborhood can do it.  All should.  I’ve heard arguments that the Mission has been more heavily impacted by the tech-fueled real estate boom than the Tenderloin/mid-Market has.  I don’t know the Mission community well at all but we are happy to break bread with our peers and see what we can build together.  And with the next community.  And the next.

Let’s see where we can all take this.

On February 21st, youth and staff from the Tenderloin Boys & Girls Club, the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, the Shih Yu-Lang Central YMCA, De Marillac Academy all converged and mixed it up with staff at Spotify, one of our new tech company neighbors at the landmark Warfield Building.   Spotify – thank you Mo – kindly invited the youth groups to showcase their work from their PhotoVoices Project exhibit Ain’t Nothin’ Tender.

There we’re many wonderful aspects to the evening.  I especially enjoyed seeing the youth excited about their photography exhibited at one of the much-fabled tech companies just blocks from where they all live.  Through the event Spotify helped demystify what a tech company was for the kids.  The event showed them how they belonged there just like everyone else.  (There were also many discoveries of shared interests in music, naturally, the event being at Spotify.)

I saw a glimpse of the future of the 950 Center for Arts & Education that night at Spotify.  Our kids, tech workers, parents, youth groups staff, local artists, all under the same roof and, to use a technical term, just chillin’.   The arts giving us a platform to share perspectives, interests, and the walls that separate us coming down, without us even realizing it.

I sometimes get asked by funders: “What’s your outreach plan?”   Or “What are your ‘social justice’ or ‘community engagement’ plans?   I’m always a little puzzled by these questions.  We all move forward together or not at all. Community outreach?  That question assumes a separation where none exists.  Maybe we should coin a new term: Community In-Reach.

The Spotify event started with the hard work of and collaboration between Judy Young at the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, Patricia Zamora of the Tenderloin Boys & Girls Club, James Alderson and our old friend J.D. of the Shih-Yu Lang Central YMCA.  De Marillac Academy’s Paul Avvento joined and brought copies of De Marillac kids’ first volume of poetry: Rise Above. That’s as good as it gets community in-reach, and we’re going to do a lot more of it and continue to bring the walls down.


The TL crew at the original Ain’t Nothin’ Tender PhotoVoice opening exhibit at SF Camerawork, a world-class gallery on Mid-Market where they now also feel at home.  More walls came down as their art and prose went up.  Their powerful experience was covered in the SF Chronicle.

Do No Harm.  This was the first piece of advice (or maybe it was a request?) I received upon arriving to the Tenderloin with the charge of doing arts-based community development five years ago.  The counselor in question was Richard Livingston, managing director of San Francisco’s venerable EXIT Theatre, which has been operating in the Tenderloin since 1983.  Over the years Richard has carefully and strategically positioned the EXIT for long-term sustainable growth and is one of the city’s smartest strategic thinkers in strategies for arts development, so I took his advice/request to heart.  Without Richard there wouldn’t be a home for Christina Augello, the EXIT’s founder and artistic director, to bring thousands of theater patrons to the Tenderloin year after year, all sustaining the arts and boosting the local arts-based economy.   Together Richard and Christina have created a sustainable model for arts development.

In addition to the considerable skills and talents of Richard & Christina, the EXIT capitalizes on one key advantage not available to most other San Francisco art organizations: their two facilities in two different buildings are on the ground floor of residential developments owned and operated by prominent affordable housing developers.   A savvy negotiator, Richard locked-in a below-market rental rate going out decades for the EXIT on Eddy Street.  Having demonstrated a successful operating track record there, Richard was approached by the nonprofit housing developer of a new complex around the corner on Taylor Street before they finalized their development program; they cut a deal where the developer built out the shell of a new street level black box theater as part of their new development; Richard took it from there and did all the internal build out. The EXIT on Taylor now leases this space to the widely acclaimed Cutting Ball Theater.

Lastly, Eddy and Taylor streets have been tough blocks for property owners to find ground-floor commercial tenants.  This puts art groups that can demonstrate operational capacity at a strategic advantage.  During my years of working with affordable housing developers, both for-profit and non-profit, I observed little if any advance planning around ground floor commercial spaces.   If the site makes sense, open a dialogue early to get in before final design/development decisions are made; a soundly managed community-oriented art organization could be just the ground floor solution many affordable housing developers are looking for.

New Facility Goals: The Efficacy of Predevelopment

There are situations where owning is preferable to renting.  The answer to this choice depends on many variables, a few of which include: timing; staff and board organizational capacity; strategic planning; site location; site control; coordination with your operating funding supporters; capacity to undertake a capital campaign and so on.

Credible predevelopment work is step one to any new art facility development effort.  The 950 Center for Arts & Education (Center) is a response to the huge and now especially urgent need for adequate and permanently affordable facilities for small and mid-size art and education groups.  The effort to build the Center began with a thorough analysis of several critical factors: site capacity; land use/zoning; financial modeling; organizational capacity; etc.

Where can funding support for these studies come from?  Let’s take a quick look at this City of San Francisco’s recent Request for Proposals:

RFP for Central Market/Tenderloin Economic Development and Arts Grants

P-590 (11-07) 5 of 24 September 25, 2013

C. Enhance the Creative Arts Community (in partnership with the SF Arts Commission)

Up to $175,000 is available for grants for predevelopment and construction activities for catalyst arts facilities under development in Central Market and the Tenderloin. These funds are a combination of OEWD funds and SF Arts Commission’s Creative Space funds and are subject to additional criteria.

Objective 1 – Predevelopment: Pre-planning for the development or acquisition of arts facilities. Funds may be used for overall plan development or specific components, such as: feasibility studies, design/architectural and engineering consultations, financial and management analysis, market analysis, site analysis, needs assessment, permits, capital campaign preparation, project management, etc. New developments aimed at providing shared arts programming space for multiple arts organizations may be considered if they can demonstrate stable, San Francisco-based arts community leadership, confirmed partners, and a fundraising plan. 

It’s all right here: design/architectural, engineering, financial and management analysis, market analysis, etc.  Assemble your team of the best consultants you can find.  Be transparent and clear with your funders on what you’re trying to achieve.  If you’re a third party developer – a community development corporation like the Tenderloin Economic Development Project – some funders will ask for demonstration of an agreement with the art groups and/or property owners before investing to support your studies.  These can take the form of Letters of Interest for the art groups and no cost options with property owners for a period of time they will take the property off the market to allow for your studies.

Beyond the technical there’s the human factor.  You will need one person who can shepherd the various spheres of resources and influence to get all parties on the same page: the end game is to build space that the organizations can sustain.  Sound operating support/earned revenue coupled with uncertain facility/site control and you have a problem.  Solving the facility/site control problem without ensuring the proper operating support/earned revenue program and you’ll have a different problem which will reveal itself sooner or later down the road.  The 950 Center for Arts & Education is now at a place where this all-important “rowing in the same direction” is being established so operating funders help vet what we’re going to build.

You’ll notice that this RFP is a result of a collaboration between the city’s arts commission and economic development department.  Herein lies another sustainable strategy solution: leverage resources for maximum impact.  Former NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman realized as much when he worked a deal for the National Endowment for the Arts to partner with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on various initiatives.  HUD’s budget, needless to say, dwarfs the NEA’s, and in the end the fate of what we aspire to do is determined by the availability of resources or lack thereof.

On the issue of resources, in San Francisco I’m known as an advocate (or agitator, depending on your point of reference) for equitable development policies from a city hall that is realizing enormous revenues (a good thing) from a real estate boom triggered by a rapidly growing tech sector (potentially a great thing, if we leverage the benefits beyond, say, new parking meters for our struggling neighborhood).   This advocacy will continue because the Tenderloin’s needs remain great and the essential capital funding for important projects is within the city’s ability to deliver, but it doesn’t negate the fact that 950 got its start through predevelopment funding provided by the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, San Francisco Grants for the Arts and most recently the San Francisco Arts Commission.   Most of mid-Market/Tenderloin art stabilization/capacity building efforts got an initial push-off from the collaboration between these economic development and arts departments. 

Shock Absorbing with Principal Truths

Leadership changes.  Political leaders come and go.  Staff and board members come and go.  Foundations change the paradigm.  Site control is secured; site control is lost.  The one benefactor who could single-handedly make it all happen just died and her kids have different philanthropic interests that don’t include your project.   Technology changes, and with it changes ideas on permanence of space and producing art; what does “placemaking” through the arts mean when we can produce and consume content anywhere with little portable devices?  These are all challenging and often unexpected seismic shifts that greatly impact sustainability considerations.  You will need to frequently remind all stakeholders (and yourself, sometimes) of the “Principal Truths” that matter enough to endure all of it.

Here is one “Principal Truth” in the Tenderloin.  These are the kids from the Vietnamese Youth Development Center (VYDC) outside of their storefront space on Eddy Street, right next to the EXIT Theater.  For many years these kids have had to deal with compromised facility and difficult street conditions involving rampant drug trafficking and alcohol use outside their front door.  The same can be said of the Tenderloin Boys & Girls Club on Jones and numerous other art and education organizations without adequate facilities for their programs.  950 Center was principally inspired by the motivation to build a space accessible to these groups where they will be able to interact and collaborate more effectively with their peers.  Four years later after many challenges this remains, for me, a “Principal Truth” of 950.

MAS Elvin Padilla VYDC

Here is a second “Principal Truth”: the critical need for Civic Placemaking.  Let’s take a look at where the Tenderloin is from this satellite photo:

satellite shot

The Tenderloin is a very low-income/extreme poverty community with a very extensive inventory of protected affordable housing surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in the country.  Over the past two years several of the biggest names in tech and related industries have moved in with thousands of new residential units for higher income households under construction.  Opinions vary on whether these new additions to the local landscape are positive or not; personally I think their arrival offers a fantastic opportunity to do inclusive, diverse city building.

The site of the 950 Center is smack in the middle of it all.  The Center, part of the exciting mixed-use development 950-974 Market, is at a supremely visible and accessible location where these very divergent worlds collide.   This is what makes it an especially important site to build bridges through the arts.   Indeed, placemaking through the arts is more vital than ever for the future of the Tenderloin & mid-Market.

Do places still matter in the digital age?  Here in New York City I remember as a kid taking the subway from arson-plagued East New York Brooklyn to Columbia University in Upper Manhattan.  I loved looking at the grand stairs leading up to the majestic library; I could feel and was inspired by the presence and power of it.   The same was true during visits to Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, home of the Brooklyn Central Library and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch.   The great libraries.  The farmers markets, art centers and other great civic meetings places.  Perhaps more than ever in the face of the atomization of civic engagement we need places that can build and hold together our civic fabric, places that can bring us together and inspire.

950 is in part an attempt to solve the problem of increasing social stratification, the gulf between peoples.  On this point it would appear that New York City and San Francisco have a great deal in common as both cities face one of the most pressing challenges of our time: the great but inequitable creation of wealth, otherwise known as the disappearance of our middle class.  In both cities the bridge building, placemaking power of the arts can offer one powerful solution, with the benefits realized by everyone.  As my friend Nan Keeton, Director of External Affairs at the San Francisco Symphony, insightfully observed, 950 is not just for the Tenderloin’s disadvantaged; all of San Francisco needs 950 and projects like it.

I think Nan is right. We should expand the question of sustainability to go beyond the arts; we must contextualize the arts as part of the urgent question of the sustainability of our cities for all of its citizenry.

Do No Harm, Revisited

We never finished addressing the advice/request of Do No Harm.  In the end, how do you discern what it means to Do No Harm?  When does it mean we mustn’t disturb the status quo?  When does it mean we must take action to not lose a truly rare and important opportunity?   Each community’s circumstance will differ.  Each organization, staff and board needs, capacities and visions will differ.  Our obligation to them as constituents we serve is to offer the best information possible in order for them to make responsible, informed decisions for their future.  Check your blind spots.  Incorporate regular sobriety check-points.  We have to balance, with one hand, the inspiration and passion that drive us to do this vitally important work with, on the other hand, an unsympathetic, calculating analysis of what is feasible and sustainable.

So, congratulations on your 5 year lease.  That said, 5 years is a blink of the eye.  If you have 5 years left on your lease without any plans on what happens after you are already in a very compromised position.   Think ten years out at a minimum.   Begin your sustainability planning now.  And remember your principal truths, you’re going to need them.


June 20, 2013.  From Prison Ceremony to Youth Fund-Raiser:  A Day’s Journey Among Three Groups Saving Lives

The sun was shining down on the prison yard at San Quentin State Prison. A glorious morning for a graduation ceremony.   A fantastic education nonprofit – the Prison University Project – would soon award Associates of Arts degrees to graduates/inmates before a very appreciative audience of family and friends.

Before and after the ceremony several of the inmates spoke of how the arts had changed their lives by giving them a sense of self-worth and a desire to learn more. Listening to their accounts made clear many, if not most, would not be incarcerated if they had access to art programming early and often in their lives. Listening to them made it painfully clear how limited the opportunities are for our young people to experience success via the thread-the-needle paradigm offered by our educational system.  Many of these men’s lives could have been radically different for the better had they had access to a more inclusive way of learning.

Later in the evening, two wonderful celebrations hosted by two perfect examples of highly-effective violence/despair/ignorance/poverty prevention programs.    The All Stars Project, an exemplary human development through arts & education program, celebrated its Annual Phat Friend Award Ceremony where youth give leadership awards to adults of their choosing after a methodical selection process (All Stars doesn’t do anything halfway).   Looking at the faces of the engaged youth on the selection committee my mind went back to the faces of the men @ San Quentin just a few hours earlier.  The importance of the All Stars Project could not be more striking or evident; the All Stars kids were young lives that would be saved.

Shortly after, a visit to the annual fund-raider hosted by the Vietnamese Youth Development Center (VYDC).  A landmark Tenderloin youth-serving organization since 1977, VYDC also saves kids and young adults through human development programming.   There one can also see hope and promise for a positive future.

It’s a short drive from the Tenderloin to San Quentin State Prison.  The journey is one that’s preventable.  Thankfully, because of groups like the All Stars Project and the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, it’s a drive and journey many of our children and families will never have to make.

Credits:  Image from the Prison Arts Project, a program that significantly reduces the recidivism rate.