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83 McAllister Street

June 3, 2018

At the intersection of McAllister and Leavenworth is the coolest building in all of the Tenderloin.  It’s racially and culturally diverse.  It’s mixed-income.  The units are small (mine was 250 square feet) but beautifully designed with huge windows so you didn’t feel like you were living in a shoebox.  It was my home for five years.

83 McAllister is an adaptive reuse project designed and developed by Group i.  It was a for-sale project, which made it unusual.  Even more unusual was its economics: all the units were sold below market rate, which was made possible by its creative, minimalist design.  It’s the project that inspired SPUR to create its “Affordable by Design” study group.

It’s also the project that led me to introduce Group i’s founder/president to American Conservatory Theater.  I was introduced to ACT by the mayor’s office, which at the pre-tech-boom time was all over the arts as the way to revitalize mid-Market.   (Larry Harvey called it.)   ACT was desperately looking for an affordable housing solution for their conservatory students (I imagine they still are), and in 83 McAllister I found a designer/developer who offered one creative solution.

Joy Ou, Group i’s visionary Founder/President and Ellen Richard, ACT’s then new Executive Director, became friends and working partners.  Years later they came up with $24 million dollars for the construction of permanently affordable arts space a few blocks away.  Not too shabby, and roughly equal to the annual budgets of the San Francisco Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts combined.  Sadly, the city – including Supervisor Kim – and the San Francisco Foundation, shrugged and squandered the $24 million dollars for permanently affordable arts space and programming for thousands of low-income children and adults.  On a positive note, about a year later Joy & Ellen were joined by Loretta Greco and Jamie Mayer, and the four brilliant women created the deal to build the Magic’s new space on Turk Street.  The new space will be the first new construction mid-Market arts space in decades.

When I heard the Magic was being opposed by a handful of usual-suspect TL xenophobes, I volunteered to move back to help.  I was lucky, my former next door neighbor, Juan, was taking a sabbatical year traveling overseas.  Juan is a SFUSD elementary school teacher.  I didn’t know public school teachers got sabbaticals, but that’s very cool.  The rent had ballooned during my year away and was expensive (for me), but at least all of it went to an elementary school teacher.

I was happy to be back.  My old unit next door was bought by a nurse, Miki.  The Gonzalez Family still lived on the 2nd floor.  Mr. Gonzalez is a hospitality worker at the Hilton on Kearny Street.  He sells handmade Mexican cowboy boots as a side hustle. Another neighbor down the hall waits tables at a restaurant downtown.  The building has Asian, Latino, African-American and white residents.  Young, old.  People who pour coffee and change linens at hotels, and tech workers who write code.  All under the same roof, sharing the same community room, roof deck, laundry room, gym, bike room, mailbox room.

I initially didn’t get the idea of homeownership of apartments in the city, and I would debate this with Joy.  There was just no such thing in East New York Brooklyn, as far as I knew.  Joy argued that homeownership creates wealth for moderate-income households. This seemed farfetched to me, until I rented my unit from an elementary school teacher, with a nurse and hotel worker as my neighbors.

The 950 Market Street Project had on-site affordable for-sale units as part of its original program.  The price points were $187,298 for a studio, $209,355 for a one-bedroom and $231,651 for a two-bedroom.  While the number of on-site homeownership would be less than off-site rental – a legitimate disadvantage given the city’s extreme shortage – we would have had a mixed-income project with homes accessible to moderate-income households like, for example, the teachers, nurses and hotel workers at 83 McAllister.

One Tenderloin affordable housing organization argued that the buyers of these on-site affordable units were: “Not our people.”  That’s too bad, in my view, as well as ignorant, intolerant, and xenophobic.  What’s wrong with housing teachers, nurses, hospitality workers and their families?

Cynics critical of nonprofits might say that “Our People” are any they can profit from. The on-site affordable units meant no money for the local nonprofit affordable housing groups, whereas the off-site affordable project will direct millions of dollars into the hands of the groups who objected to affordable housing for nurses, teachers and their families.  They’ll put a funders-attracting label on it, like “Step-Up Housing,” which are commonly known as apartments, in less doctrinaire cities around the world.  Apartments that feature toilets, kitchenettes, showers and fire sprinklers.

But why did we have to choose between on-site and off-site affordable?  A city not hostile to housing development would have found a way to leverage the developer’s investment of $370 million so we could have achieved both, not to mention more permanently affordable arts space.  New York City, for example, would have leveraged the developer’s project with 33% more buildable space in exchange for more affordable units (or arts space).

Why don’t we leverage to build more affordable units in San Francisco?  It’s my understanding Home-SF, championed by Supervisor Katy Tang, is an attempt to do so. That program was not in place yet for 950, though it would not have mattered if it was. The director of a local housing clinic, Randy Shaw, threatened to sue the project if it went over the zoned height limit, regardless if the height/density bonus produced additional affordable housing units.  This limited the project to be consistent with the height of the Warfield Theatre and other structures built for a city that existed one hundred years ago.

This struck me as odd: A champion of affordable housing threatening to sue a project – or put in on a ballot – despite the creation of more affordable housing.  But, as I later learned, Mr. Shaw was also a champion of local downzoning, and protecting downzoning is endemic to historic preservation advocates in San Francisco.  It’s no secret that historic preservation is often a major deterrent to the development of affordable housing.  I also wondered: Who would pay for the lawsuit against the project?  As the housing clinic is a publicly-funded organization, presumably you and I would pay for the lawsuit, which meant we the people would be lobbying against affordable housing production.  Ironic.

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Richard DeLeon’s “Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975-1991.” and Kim-Mai Cutler’s fascinating “How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained)” are both excellent resources for understanding this dynamic.

My takeaway from reading DeLeon, Cutler, and following local housing news: If faced with the choice to build more affordable housing/more affordable program space by building taller and denser, most politically active San Franciscans will oppose the affordable housing/space.  This stems from a) a long-standing fear of the city becoming the long-dreaded west coast Manhattan, and b) most San Franciscans are housing secure, and care more about potential threats – real or perceived – to their existing housing and charming village-like lifestyle, i.e. more people.

Both of these concerns are understandable. It’s certainly true, in my view, that an entire cityscape of truly awful high-rises went up during the downtown building boom era, so fears of destroying what’s left of the city’s beauty are reasonable from that perspective.  And the downzoning of the Tenderloin protected many low-income people, or at least the buildings they lived in.  But that was true a generation ago; now, in 2018, it resulted in a stunted project that could have created over a hundred more units of housing, or 40,000 square feet of permanently affordable arts program space, or some combination of both.

It’s unfortunate our choice seems limited to historic preservation of a 19th century fishing village or high-rise Manhattan.  At least that’s how it often plays out in our discourses.

Local control, in the case of the Tenderloin/Mid-Market, has exacerbated polarization. Supervisor Kim’s local control method awards powerful nonprofits at the expense of the small and weak. The Kim method awards politicians that profit, figuratively and literally, from securing favors, financial and political, from whomever wins the face-offs. And vice-versa.

More specifically, in 950, local control resulted in the arts, youth development, affordable housing, a pair of fraudulent individuals demanding five million dollars, and social services all squaring off.  I was involved because of my years of work with the local youth and arts organizations.  The only reason the arts and youth development – two historically disenfranchised Tenderloin constituencies – were at the table at all was because the developer, who had strong community ties, insisted they be included.  The housing clinic went so far as to try to dissuade the youth groups from talking to the developer.  A “950 Coalition” consisting of a couple of guys who are regulars at all Tenderloin meetings purported to speak for the entire neighborhood.  There wasn’t an Asian, Latino, African-American, Yemenese, or any youth in sight; in a group claiming to represent the Tenderloin. Supervisor Kim’s leadership seemed to consist of gauging which group offered her the highest potential political dividend – including the fraudulent extortionists, who were “connected” to voters and money she wanted.

Is this what we want?  Pay-to-Play is as old as politics certainly, and likely all the mayoral candidates do it, but what I witnessed with Supervisor Kim’s opportunistic handling of the 950 Project was especially disturbing.

Here’s another specific example.  At one point during the entitlement process, the housing clinic spearheaded an attempt to eliminate a small arts nonprofit from the community space.  A “community organizer” even authored a letter to this effect, signed “All the Residents and Staff of the Housing Clinic, TNDC, and Hospitality House.”  This claim, of course, was a complete farce, and one of the most glaring examples of misrepresentation of a community I have ever seen.  Fortunately the developer didn’t surrender and abandon their partnership with the nonprofit arts organization.

These local skirmishes are arguably small stuff.  In the end, what truly mattered was that city hall was off the hook.  It was under no pressure to leverage private sector investment.  San Francisco is matching the 950 Market Street developer’s 370 million dollars with zero.  Zero.  In one of the richest cities on the planet: zero.  In an area that has suffered from disinvestment for decades and whose people have endured an astronomically high rate of concentrated extreme poverty, San Francisco offers zero.  We should have had both on-site and off-site affordable housing, and/or a permanently affordable space for arts education and human development.

Years ago I told the 5 Blocks documentary crew that San Francisco doesn’t know how to do development. I was wrong: it’s not that we don’t know how, it’s that we don’t want to.  Perhaps we should just be honest and openly say we accept this to avoid the alternative: Building housing for more people we don’t want coming to the city.

From my own experience, low and moderate income people don’t care about more density or more height; they would accept both in a heartbeat in exchange for a more affordable city.  They also don’t care about all the fucking historic plaques; they’d trade a thousand of them to have their own toilet.  But they’re not very politically active, mostly because they’re too busy with the struggles of daily life.  Their spokespersons, unfortunately, routinely misrepresent their views and interests.

Community Benefit Agreements produce tangible and positive benefits.  But they are fundamentally limiting, favor the powerful – sometimes powerful nonprofits can be what disenfranchises a community – and give the city a free pass when it should be matching developers investments with real resources, financial and otherwise.  CBAs should complement, not supersede, the city’s match.  If we had a city match to what the city has made off the tech boom, we would have a far more equitable landscape.  But the city kicked up its heels while we settled instead for elbowing each other for Community Benefit Agreements and demonstrations in front of Google buses.  Clearly, the passengers of those buses are “Not our people.”  As it turns out, neither are their teachers or nurses.

Signing-Off

June 2, 2018

I’m overdue to sign-off, at least on weighing-in on Tenderloin matters.  I don’t live in the TL anymore.  I lived in the TL for five years and worked there for six, but I’m not in the hood everyday like before.

I spent most of 2017 traveling. Working with nonprofits in red state USA. Witnessing and learning about a different kind of poverty, much of it rural.  I also visited great world port cities; San Francisco could be one if it ever decides to join the rest of the world.  Saw a refugee camp in Italy, cleaner and more dignified than many of the streets in the Tenderloin/Mid-Market.  Much cleaner in fact.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Gustave Flaubert

I also caught up on some reading.  Years ago a fellow Turk & Taylor 21 Club bar patron gave me a copy of Richard DeLeon’s “Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975-1991.”  I finally got around to reading it.  I was astonished to read of the affordable housing “crisis” in 1980s and 1990s, and mayoral candidates pledging to solve the homeless “crisis.”

The affordable housing “crisis.”  The homeless “crisis.” Circa 1980s/1990s.  Makes me wonder about our current use of the word “crisis.”  Maybe we should substitute “concern” for “crisis,” given our fairly passive response to both over the years, continuing to this day.  It reminds me of my friends at Hospitality House settling for perennial “add backs.”

The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand San Francisco’s extreme bipolar dynamic of pro-growth vs. anti-growth forces, a remarkably simplistic bifurcation of vulgar downtown capitalist interests vs enlightened progressives that remains prominent to this day.  A good argument can be made that both groups have caused significant damage to the city and its people.  Given that the progressive, anti-growth contingent have held sway for the past few decades, they arguably should get the lion’s share of credit for our failure to respond to housing demand and homelessness.

I moved out of the TL after the Magic Theatre and the 950 Market Street project successfully made it through the city’s affordable housing killing entitlement process. The city’s “local control” project approval process was a circus that allowed NIMBY, anti-children and xenophobic spokespersons to run amok.

A few more essays to wrap it up.  I meander, and leave you mostly with questions. And some pictures for fun.  I start with square one: home.

Have you been to Marfa?

Marfa is a small town in the high desert in West Texas. Population around 1800. It’s an arts destination. Marfa’s in Presidio County, one of the poorest counties in the United States.

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Sustainable Energy

 

Marfa has one traffic signal that blinks. At least that’s all I remember seeing.  If you go you must visit Marfa Burritos.  Fantastic.  It’s Ramona’s joint. As you leave, Ramona will say farewell with a cheerful “Adios Guapos!”  I went there for breakfast and lunch, and would have gone for dinner if it was still open.  Anthony Bourdain was there while we were visiting.  We talked about Puerto Rico a bit.  He said: I got lots of love for Puerto Rico.  Bourdain ordered the asado.  I went for the egg & chorizo. You can’t go wrong either way.

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Be sure to stop here.

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Outdoor dining @ Marfa Burrito

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Ramona: she’s always happy to see you.

Some of my closest friends here in SF don’t want any more development. Or wonder if the city’s built-out.  Yet they’re both involved in facilities development projects for permanently affordable arts space.  Arts people.  They’re brilliant, inspiring to me.  They save lives, including mine.   The whole thing with money and architects and engineers and developers and construction – i.e. development – is hard, but it’s what we have to do if we want affordable living or work space.  Unless we lived in Marfa.  My friends grew up in the city or have been in the city for decades.  One of my friends hates this guy Ron Conway; she blames him for the affordable housing crisis.  Another wonders: Is there a point where the city is full?  The specter of Manhattan looms.

My California cycling legend buddy Tony Tom grew up at Jones and Broadway. He remembers doing wheelies in the middle of the street.  He said he could do that because no cars would pass by, back in the day.

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Tony with his daughters.  Tony owns the coolest bike shop anywhere: A Bicycle Odyssey in Sausalito. 

 

I suppose I always thought of cities as ever-evolving cauldrons of people, economies, cultures, civilizations.  I never considered the prospect of a static city until I moved to San Francisco and learned of its deeply conservative, anti-city ethos.

I look at much of San Francisco, with its landscape of one and two-story buildings within minutes walk of major public transit stations, and I don’t get the references to Manhattan.  Not even Queens or Brooklyn for that matter.   My friends are probably talking about the giant, blunt force redevelopment projects like the Embarcadero Center and Yerba Buena.   I can see how those projects left a long, traumatic, residual stream of anti-development sentiments in their wake.

I don’t know Ron Conway; maybe he’s an asshole.  I saw he is a major contributor to anti-gun violence efforts; that impresses me as a very good thing.  Either way, it’s arguably better to build affordable space than to endlessly fixate on one asshole or one benefactor.  So I’m happy for my arts friends’ real estate development projects.

On the other hand, what if Jeff Bezos chooses Marfa for HQ2?  If I were a Marfa resident, I’d be all over opposing that.

Sad to hear of Larry’s passing today.  He had a kind spirit.  I wrote this a couple of years back.

Chillin’ with the Original Burning Man on the Luggage Store Gallery Rooftop

I know it’s impossible for natives to believe this but I didn’t know what Burning Man was when I arrived in the Tenderloin in 2009.  The mayor’s office certainly knew who they were, and they knew Burning Man had recently created the Black Rock Arts Foundation.  “Burning Man is loaded!” the mayor’s staff said.  “They can revitalize mid-Market!”

Larry Harvey, Burning Man’s founder, is an inquisitive, super smart guy with a friendly spirit.  He and his colleagues were weighing the prospect of settling their headquarters in mid-Market.  Larry was moving forward cautiously with eyes wide open under his famous Stetson hat.  One late afternoon on the rooftop at 1007 Market Street, the home of the iconic Luggage Store Gallery, we chatted and looked out at the intersection of 6th & Market, one of the most fascinating intersections of any city anywhere.

I sensed the hesitancy about moving to the area.   I think one of Larry’s concerns was whether Burning Man would be perceived as an interloper.   I remember offering him my two cents: “You see that intersection down there?  That is a great city meeting place for all.  It belongs to no one; it belongs to everyone.  If you come it will belong to you just like it belongs to everyone else.”

While moving to the area was a question mark, Larry was clear on his view of city hall’s mid-Market arts district plans.  He told me: “They will let us furry animals out for a while, and then when they don’t need us anymore they will put us back in our cages.”  (Easily one of the more memorable observations during my five years in the TL.)

With that we walked back to the death-defying ladder leading from the roof down to the third floor rear window at the Luggage Store Gallery.   I don’t know what ultimately led Burning Man to move to the neighborhood or what led them to leave.  I do know that, not long after, the city proved Larry Harvey’s Little Furry Animals Theory right.

Below are Supervisor Kim’s deletions of various arts initiatives in Mayor Ed Lee’s October 2011 draft plan for Central Market.   As is clear, Supervisor Kim opposed the mayor’s office creating – or even exploring – new funding resources for the arts, arts facilities, and affordable housing for low-income artists (even privately funded).  Catalytic community arts projects are not “a priority.”

These edits demonstrate an entirely different position on the arts than what Supervisor Kim has communicated publicly.

Supervisor Kim’s deletions of Mayor Ed Lee’s plan:

  • Create a mini-grant program to fund artists and arts organizations that will implement this type of programming.
  • Create incentives for developers and property owners to develop and maintain facilities for arts organizations and uses.
  • Support privately-funded development of housing that includes live/work housing for low-income artists that engage the local community.
  • Provide support to catalytic commercial and housing development projects—including arts and culture establishments as stand-alone or mixed-use projects—that transform large portions of vacant property.

 

It was a unanimous vote by the Planning Commission.  Congrats to Craig Young and ilana Lipset!  The public comments were across the board positive, though there was one from an undefined mid-Market “coalition” that expressed concern about the risk of “psychological displacement” as higher-income residents move into the neighborhood.

Psychological displacement.  I’m guessing this means that the Tenderloin’s poor, living in protected rooms/housing, will look at the new people moving in – their new apartments with toilets and fire sprinklers, the businesses that cater to them (the Black Cats, the Biigs), maybe the clothes they wear – and feel an immediate need for psychological counseling services?

This, by the way, is a primary reason why the arts are so important.  We want a level playing field to counteract “psychological displacement?”   Then we should invest heavily in arts facilities, public markets, playgrounds, rec centers where we all can meet, break bread, and share these fundamental human experiences regardless of our backgrounds.

Here’s my admittedly non-scientific take on the situation.  Nice people who have money will move into both 1028 and 950.  They will be neighbors and interact with the Tenderloin’s nice people who have little or no-money.   Have money, have little money, have no money – we will all be nice people together.  Of course, there are low-income, middle-income and high-income people that are jerks, but we’ll deal with them.   There will be a yellow one that won’t accept the black one, that won’t accept the red one that won’t accept the white one.  And different strokes for different folks.  And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby.

As a simple guiding principal I propose: New or long-term resident, rich or poor, you respect the Tenderloin – and its residents – or you need to leave.

Poor people are not necessarily helpless people.  Quite the contrary; in the Tenderloin you will find some of the strongest people you’ve ever met.  No psychological counseling necessary, though moving toward a healthier, more integrated community, sharing the same stuff everybody needs, would be nice.  Time for the champions of segregation to step aside.  We’re all Everyday People.  Oh sha sha.  We got to live together.