Should San Francisco Draw Line in Sand at 3400 Cesar Chavez?

by Randy Shaw on July 16, 2007

On July 17th, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will decide whether to give final approval for a 60-unit condo project at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Mission Streets. With thousands of high-rise luxury condos under construction in the city, the 3400 Cesar Chavez project seems a curious symbol for an all-out war against market-rate housing. But housing activists believe the Supervisors must draw a line in the sand against this project; they argue that its Mission location, close proximity to affordable family housing, and its inclusion of a 24-hour Walgreens – whose pervasiveness creates a generic quality to city neighborhoods – renders it unsuitable for the area. Should the Board use 3400 Cesar Chavez to send a message that the city does not want more market-rate housing, or is the appeal of the project’s environmental impact statement the wrong vehicle for this statement to be made?

Not since the battle over the Bryant Square office project in 2000 have Mission and citywide housing activists so vigorously opposed a single development. But the difference is that the proposed former mega-project involved a dramatic transformation of a Mission District block; 3400 Cesar Chavez includes only 60 units (9 affordable), and pales in size to the huge condo projects that the Board has consistently approved in recent years throughout San Francisco.

For project opponents, the issue is clear: San Francisco’s General Plan calls for more affordable housing than the city has been building, and the city does not need the 51 market-rate condos proposed for 3400 Cesar Chavez. According to Joseph Smooke, executive director of the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, the project “brings pricey housing and a chain store to a neighborhood that needs neither.”

But if “need” is the test, one might ask whether San Francisco “needed” to build multiple forty-story luxury condo towers with no units available for under $1,000,000. The Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors have approved thousands of condo-units in South-of-Market and elsewhere which are far less likely to provide first-time homeownership opportunities than those proposed for 3400 Cesar Chavez.

Moreover, housing activists were largely silent when huge condo projects were approved for Bayview-Hunters Point. These projects will have a far greater gentrifying impact than the 51market-rate units at 3400 Cesar Chavez.

As I wrote back in May 2005, elites are reshaping San Francisco by making Mission Bay a hub for biotechnology, Rincon Hill a refuge for wealthy condo owners, and much of Downtown, SOMA and Civic Center a radically-transformed home for upscale residential and office development. Many have expressed concern that these projects are changing the voting demographics of District 6, and have sought to restrict market-rate housing in the area.

But at the Board of Supervisors, battles over market-rate projects have had little connection to their size or gentrification impact, and have been almost entirely based on their location. A 14-unit project on Dolores Street in Noe Valley involved seven hours of hearings before the full Board, while the redrawing of the city’s entire skyline has been approved in a fraction of this time.

Joseph Smooke believes that the Cesar Chavez fight “is a neighborhood issue that has citywide implications.” But the multiple large condo projects that the Board has quickly approve in the Bayview could also be said to have such implications, and yet few housing activists outside the Bayview mobilized against these gentrifying-causing projects in the city’s largest remaining African-American neighborhood.

Of course, the fact that housing activists did not oppose market-rate condos in the Bayview, SOMA or Downtown, does not mean that Mission activists should not oppose such projects in their community. But this contrast weakens claims that the Cesar Chavez fight has “citywide” implications, rather than again demonstrating that it is harder to get market-rate condos approved in the Mission than in less-organized neighborhoods.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell strongly supported each and every condo project in the Bayview, which facilitated Board approval. The Board of Supervisors gives great deference to the District Supervisor’s position on a project within their turf, and both Chris Daly and Tom Ammiano (the project is in District 9) will vote to send the Cesar Chavez project back to Planning.

The activists opposed to the condos at Cesar Chavez have an alternative vision. They want the city to buy the property and have the site used for affordable housing and a day laborers center.

If San Francisco had site control, using the site as the activists propose is a no-brainer. But the odd aspect to 3400 Cesar Chavez is that the Supervisors are being asked to support the alternative vision for the site after the Planning Commission has already approved the project (while the issue before the Board is only the sufficiency of the environmental statement, there would be no point for the Board to delay the project if it did not support the community alternative).

The Mayor’s Office of Housing claims it does not have the nearly $6 million to acquire the site. But project opponents argue that the Board approved $33 million in new affordable housing funds that would have enabled the site’s purchase, only to have Mayor Newsom refuse to allocate the money in his 2007-08 budget.

In December 2006, the developer offered to sell the site for affordable housing. But the city only offered a small payment to secure an option for purchase, which was too late in the game for the developer to change his plans. If this specific site is uniquely desirable for affordable housing, why did the city not make a straight-out offer to purchase it in December, and why did no nonprofit seek to acquire it prior to the creation of condo development plans?

In the Tenderloin, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) pounces on every strategic site. TNDC recently acquired control of the most valuable remaining site in the entire neighborhood, the huge land area at Eddy and Taylor Streets that was once slated for a tourist-oriented pavilion.

If the northwest corner of Cesar Chavez and Mission was so vital, why did the nonprofit sector not acquire it years ago? And if it is not unique, then why can’t another site on Cesar Chavez be found to build the community-backed project?

Strategically, those opposed to more market-rate housing in San Francisco need to be pro-active. Instead of seeking to ban such housing, or limit it to certain areas, they battle on a project-by-project base, waging uphill fights against developers who have already invested significant sums on behalf of their projects.

It’s akin to tenant activists not seeking to enact rent control laws, but instead fighting steep rent hikes on a building-by- building basis.

Activists cannot defeat gentrification by only waging project-by-project fights. Nor can gentrification be meaningfully slowed without nonprofits acquiring sites and building their own affordable housing; in the Mission, shockingly few nonprofit family housing sites have been acquired in recent years, and activists cannot expect market-rate developers to simply pass up available land.

TNDC currently has nine (!) sites under control. If nonprofits in the Mission were equally aggressive, we wouldn’t be worrying about the gentrification impacts of 3400 Cesar Chavez, as there would be several hundred affordable units being constructed throughout the neighborhood.

The Board’s June 17 vote on whether to uphold the project’s environmental impact statement is expected to be close, with Board President Aaron Peskin potentially the deciding vote. But whatever the outcome, it is time for San Francisco’s policy toward market-rate housing to be set by the Board or the voters, as the current case-by-case approach does not provide the protections that both activists and developers deserve.

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