Thursday, October 9, 2008

Leaning and Learning

I geeked out last night.

I sat in the classroom for a class called, “Economic Development, Housing and Neighborhoods in San Francisco" I was audience to panel with April Veneracion from SOMCAN, Tony Kelly from the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association, Nick Pagoulatos from MAC and Dolores Street Community Services. from the Post War Period to the Present,” taught by Calvin Welch.

The topic: Eastern Neighborhood Plan and how the represented organizations have been organizing from the ground up as “amateurs” against City Planners, Redevelopment/Real Estate, and other “Professionals.”

Some talking points and observations:

SOMCAN was borne out of rampant redevelopment in the SOMA. As a response, a small and hardy group of concerned community members linked arms and ideas and mobilized a significant number of SOMA residents. Taking heed to the needs of those who are most likely to be displaced (i.e. people of color, immigrants, low-income), SOMCAN made sure to assist in dealing with eviction notices, receiving services, and working towards building neighborhood-friendly institutions. Some results were the rebuilding of Bessie Carmichael, the opening of Victoria Manalo Draves Park, and the saving of the Trinity Hotel Apartments.

The Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association was founded in 1926 continues to service the Potrero Hill district. Tony Kelly introduced the organization as a set of residents and property owners that work for the neighborhood, simple and plain – they house no experts other than those that know the neighborhood simply because they’ve lived there for over 10 years. The Boosters have an integral voice and have recognized their neighborhood is invariably affected as much as the residents of the SOMA and the Mission.

Nick Pagoulatos also comes from a legacy of vibrant, dynamic, and sustainable Community Based Organizations (CBOs) that operate out of the Mission. Upon first glance, it seems that the Mission is impervious to the wiles of City Planning and Redevelopment, however, the increase in market rate housing has create conditions almost parallel to a slow bleed that won’t clot. Longtime residents (some families have been renting their property for over 20 years!), are being displacement to the rippling effect of rezoning, and landowner buyouts to convert the said properties into market rate (i.e. uber expensive) prices.

It’s still about the economy. Land scarcity in this 7x7 region pushes on this bottom line. Questions of who’s paying who for land dictates who lives where and what business gets done, and it make sense in a very elementary way, yet when you involve egos and (perhaps) greed, then the arena turns into a gladiator’s ring as opposed to an open forum. Allusions aside, it’s difficult to operate in housing and planning CBOs within an economic system that inherently is about competition more than it is about equity, and that’s the crux of the problem. I’m not asking for a coup, far from that – like most of the organizers from these neighborhoods, I’m part of that voice that asks to use the tools that have been put forth by those from the neighborhoods. This translates into this sensible idea that everyone pays an amount appropriate to their abilities. The city works with tax increments—the hotel industry has always been a tapped source. Another area to explore is how to go about legalizing certain offices that have planted themselves in locations that aren’t zoned for that use. Or actually holding developers to their end of the deal when it comes to a building fee per square footage (often redevelopers are given the option to include affordable housing or paying out to the city a certain amount, most often opt to pay out), but I’ve read that there have been enough administrative loopholes or just straight stinking attempts to follow-through that causes a loss in uncollected hundreds of millions of dollars that would go back towards building affordable housing. To note, if land is scarce, and building up and out is even more difficult, simply because there is no more land then the next viable step would be to appropriate “Air” space (just learned that term last night)—floors in these newly proposed developments with height increases… all of these options, and several more have been understood to diffuse this potential bomb and subsequent explosion of this idea of a downtown filled with the privileged.

Which actually segues me into another talking point where a young gentleman of color brought up a befuddling question (to me at least) to our panel—I’m paraphrasing here, but I understood his question and his context as such – with a “Conservative” Base (i.e. status quo, profit driven), that has consistently either through policy or outright explicit conversation expressed distaste in working with CBOs and their constituents to get them more housing and to operate on a premise of equity, why bother continuing the fight? He additionally pointed out that this whole sub-prime mortgage loan debacle was said to be blamed on the low-income (Do low-income folks even qualify for these loans?). He capped with this disarming, yet valid question/statement of “What’s so bad about Gentrification?” Perhaps terming gentrification as “bad” is a misleading understanding, I mean folks who pay and have that mobility and access to resources should be able to live wherever they want right? It’s not a bad thing, that’s the nature of our economic system. I don’t necessarily agree, a home is a home and anyone should have the liberty to choose where they live… Aside from displacement, there are other nuances that make gentrification’s processes and movement distasteful – don’t get me started on Co-opting and Re-appropriating cultures… okay, I’ll stop and get off the soap box.

Needless to say, I’m refreshed by local politics. Nick had asked about the blog and how I got started, and I just told him simple and plain – City planning is the penultimate form of art. What does that mean? As an artist you dictate, manipulate, position folks into a narrative by means of your chosen medium. As an artist one can inspire through a painting, photo, etc. to incite change – however, most of art is to be deciphered, and there are expressions that mask the message, leaving the audience either in sublime appreciation, or quizzical confusion. In City Planning the block is the medium and form, as planner you dictate narrative directly, you cause people to rethink their positions in life – folks either mobilize, think about mobilizing, whatever, the bottom line is that you create an internal/external movement.

I wish I can make it out next Wednesday, when the class hears speakers from the “other” side.

For more updates on the progress of the Land Use Hearings go to the MAC blog:; if you want the nitty-gritty, go to the SFGOVTV website for recordings of the hearings.