Mission Activists Power-Walk to City Hall to Flex Muscle

Last week’s protest showed a mix of street politics and procedural savvy, capped off at a Planning Commission hearing. Plus, The Frisc takes a look at the state of the Mission Street corridor.

United to Save the Mission on the march.

The forecast had been for light rain last Thursday afternoon, but that didn’t deter more than 100 people who turned out for the March for Mission Street. It started as a couple of dozen folks setting up on the corner of Mission and 20th. By the time the ambulant PA was set up, the afternoon’s agenda called out, and the ritual formalities got under way, the crowd spilled out into the street.

This being San Francisco, it wasn’t anyone’s first rodeo. There were signs handed out and banners unfurled, orange flags for the organizers to hold aloft. Police motorcycles and vehicles took their places and started cordoning off traffic. Legal observers donned green day-glow caps embroidered with “National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer.” (I approached one observer and asked to take his picture; he said no. He also said he couldn’t even talk. Why not? Concern that he might “get doxed.”)

Then off we went, walking north on Mission Street in a tight procession that stretched longer than a city block. The phrase that caught my attention in the days leading up to the rally rang loud: “No Valencia on Mission Street! No Valencia on Mission Street!

Of all the neighborhoods I’ve called home in San Francisco, the most exciting hands down was the Mission. I rented an upstairs flat on Guerrero Street, back when the Farolito burrito cost $2.54 plus tax, and I’d hit Dance Mission twice a week. Pretty much whatever you needed you could walk to: produce, meat, and natural-food markets, discounters, bookstores, video rentals (remember those?), the dynamite Italian deli, the city’s largest ball of rubber bands. Numerous bars and not-that-fancy eateries were steps away. The lot across from my stoop sold palm trees, which looked glorious from my bay window. I got to know places in the neighborhood and still make a point to keep in touch.

One block over from where I lived, on Valencia, the constant for more than two decades has been change. The turnover rate for businesses on that street was 50 percent in the 1990s, and most of those served the area’s historically Latino community, according to an SF Planning report on Mission Street finalized in 2015. The subsequent decades on Valencia have been no different; headlines like “Makeover on four blocks,” “Before and after,” and “Another round of massive change” tell the story.

The same specter of transformation is driving the movement to spare Mission Street, the neighborhood’s heart, from the gentrification whirlwind. “Once Mission’s gone, the Mission’s gone,” remarked Spike Kahn, founder of the neighborhood arts space Pacific Felt Factory, at a Bay Area political event in December.

Mission, between 19th and 20th.

The city’s political class is taking notice. Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes the Mission, told a local blog that she didn’t want Mission Street to “go the way of Valencia.” The neighborhood already has new regulations in place to protect tenants, nonprofits, and businesses.

Ronen and the late mayor Ed Lee also pushed for zoning rules “preserving and enhancing the prevailing neighborhood character” of 24th Street — the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District — and they were unanimously approved by supervisors last year. Moreover, extended controls on the merging of commercial storefronts and restaurants conversions in the entire Mission neighborhood were approved in early January this year. Some members of the community may feel neglected, but the new rules that aim to bring some stability to the neighborhood are what activists wanted.

Stepping back onto the sidewalk, I thought it relevant to explore how things look for merchants, customers, and visitors along Mission today, the corridor the marchers seek to save.

I started on 24th and Mission, at El Farolito right near the BART station, where inflation and other costs have ballooned the price of the regular burrito up to $7.25. My old haunt Dance Mission is still going strong, and is actually ready to relocate a few blocks north by December 2019. Up closer to 22nd is the two-store cluster of SF Soccer and Elite Sport Soccer, which was designated a protected legacy business by the city last fall. (Translation: It’s not going anywhere.) Know what else is on the legacy registry on Mission? The dive bar Doc’s Clock.

That, so to speak, is the old. The new is just across 22nd, and is called Vida. The eight-story building adds 114 condos to the “up and coming colorful Mission district.” The Vida development was a two-part deal: A separate site was acquired to abide by the requirement to include affordable units; and the adjacent New Mission Theater, dark for two decades, was restored and reborn as the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater, featuring five screens, in-theater dining and drinks, and — bonus! — the relocation of Valencia Street’s Lost Weekend Video into the Drafthouse’s lobby.

I talked with an Alamo staffer named Ryan (who preferred not to use his last name). He said he used to work at the Roxie, and that over the past several years “it’s been dramatic change” in the neighborhood. “It’s like living in a Sims game,” he added, while selling a patron a $50 Star Wars-branded gift card.

Jumping ahead to 20th, at the corner is Laundré, perhaps the swankiest place to DIY your wardrobe. With its all-white walls, fancy coffee, and Blue Note soundtrack (“Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” by Dexter Gordon, in freaky coincidence), Laundré looks more like a tech co-working space than a wash ’n’ dry. There’s art on the walls. Despite appearances, this is a local business accessible to everyone. Signage is bilingual, the soap is free, and the machines send you a text message when your spin cycle is done.

Beauty Bar, once labeled a gentrifying business during the first dot-com boom in the late ’90s, remains at its location on the corner of 19th. Taquería Cancún across the street has burritos for $8.49, which to me seems crazy, but this is where we are. (The highest price for bean tubes I saw on Mission was $9, at Mateo’s, but its “hefty” size may account for that.)

As the mass of people in protest headed uptown, at key stops a new speaker would climb a step ladder brought for such a purpose and underscore a talking point on the event’s agenda. One stop was in front of the One $ Store at the corner of 17th. A proposed multi-unit building for the site has been in the works since 2009, one of many flash points in the neighborhood’s fight over market-rate development and preservation of community businesses.

Next on the list was the plaza on the northeast corner of 16th, which has a BART station entrance and one-story Walgreens. Perhaps the plaza should be known as Waterloo, because if there were a history-defining battle over development in San Francisco, this would be it.

Planners, urbanists, public policy and transportation analysts, as well as environmentalists all say the best place to build as much housing as possible is on major transit lines. But this neighborhood feud reads like a script from Hollywood’s Michael Bay: The developer is called Maximus; the community has pushed back with its “No Monster in the Mission” campaign. Any transit-oriented development done there should be a “Marvel in the Mission,” activists say, with 100 percent affordable housing. “This is obviously trench warfare,” a spokesman for Maximus told reporters. Dios mío.

The military theme resonated when the procession stopped in front of the massive, historic Armory, and from the step ladder a couple speakers lambasted the idea of reusing the imposing Moorish Revival-style castle for office space. “No tech at the Armory!” protesters shouted.

In 2000, the building was in the exact same bind. Here’s how a prescient columnist described the situation:

Big plans for the 190,300-square-foot monolith were scrapped once again when anti-gentrification protesters intimidated the new owners by turning a recent Planning Commission meeting into a near riot. … [Activists] argued that a large, upscale office complex would drive up rents in the area, create congestion and further colonize the beloved working-class neighborhood …
When you look at the history of this brick-and-mortar Goliath, the activists look like they’ve made the same mistake that’s been made for the past two decades since a conversation about how to reuse the Armory began. They turned the Armory into a symbol of something it’s not. What it’s not: occupied.

Since then, a BDSM porn-production outfit swooped in and bought the building, but even those folks — who love a dirty dungeon more than anything else — can’t hang on. There has been talk of repurposing the Armory as event or entertainment space, but that will be complicated because the voters passed Proposition X on the city’s 2016 ballot, which says space for production, distribution, and repair (known as PDR in planning circles) that is converted must be replaced.

Pushing on toward the Central Freeway underpass, Civic Center was now a few blocks away. As the skies turned grayer, I met David Gonzales, president of the Ship Clerks’ Association, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 34. He told me he was born at SF General (Zuckerberg General to you and me) and raised at 22nd and Folsom. These days he lives in San Leandro.

David Gonzales, Mission native (in sunglasses).

Gonzales — age 62 but with his shaved head and muscular fit looking many years younger — recounted how his grandparents owned their home, but after they died the property was sold by older relatives. He and his own family found themselves priced out of the Mission and ended up in South San Francisco. The theme of displacement keeps coming up in debates about city life: Once you have to leave San Francisco, it’s nearly impossible to come back.

Even with rain threatening, Gonzales rode his bicycle down from the waterfront to participate in the protest. As we walked, he held his bike with one hand, pointed the other down at the street, and said, “This is home.”

Gracias Madre near 18th may not be anyone’s home, but it sure feels like it. Natural wooden furnishings, plank floors, a broad and inviting bar, wine bottles that now hold water, and fresh flowers set the comfortable room. You can order handmade tortillas and a private-label wine blend. I chatted with manager Mikey Agundez, just back from an 8-month stint studying organic farming in Oregon, about Mission. He called what’s going on in the neighborhood in general “la controversia,” and I realized it’s inevitable that the local tensions will come up in these conversations. At one point a customer walked up to the host stand by Agundez and asked to buy a T-shirt, for $24.

Though the business owners may not live nearby and the farm-to-table taco is $6.50, I can imagine that, whether as a job creator or a welcoming cafe with outdoor seating, Gracias Madre wants to serve longtime residents, activists, and newcomers alike.

Let me run that by you again: outdoor seating on Mission near 18th. The stretch of blocks between 18th and 16th, for years, were not ideal places to relax and enjoy streetside refreshment, and it was interesting to see it’s not that way anymore. Markets like Duc Loi and Mi Ranchito keep running, cheap tacos can be had at Castillito and Castillito Yucateco, and so can cheap thrills at the Mission Secrets porn store, which probably does as good a job fulfilling local adult needs as the Armory’s former S&M tenants.

At South Van Ness, when it began to drizzle, the protest finally bumped up against the doors of power. The step ladder was set up in front of SFMTA, the city agency that runs Muni, to slam the bus-only red lanes down Mission Street. They are destabilizing businesses by removing cars and parking spots, and not worth the minuscule schedule improvements, according to activist Roberto Hernandez. Along the route, the marchers borrowed a vintage Rolling Stones song and chanted “I’ve got a red lane and am going to paint it blaaack.” City Hall was next.

The marchers sought to see the mayor and district supervisors. After a brief pep talk on the east-facing steps, about half the contingent went in and through security. The marble walls and floors echoed back voices and footsteps to the door of Room 200, the office of Mayor Mark Farrell on his second day on the job. The group found the door was … locked.

A mayoral aide was summoned. “Why is the door locked? That’s not nice,” said Hernandez. They shook hands and hugged, and the aide pledged to take the message from the Mission to the mayor. Around the halls people went, knocking on supervisors’ doors. The legislative aides they met knew the drill: They’d pass on the message. There was one more card for the marchers to play, two stories up.

Cities are lived in buildings, blocks, and streets, which are basically shaped by zoning. Even in places like San Francisco where there is acute interest in local control, decisions about projects — how they meet the zoning rules, bend the rules, or do away with them — happen in rooms with just a few people. There are seven commissioners on the Planning Commission. These decision-makers were whom the marchers had walked to face.

At issue was a proposed six-story, 60-unit building at 2750 19th Street, replacing a one-story furniture company. First floated in 2014, the project made it through the process to a Planning Commission hearing at the end of November 2017, which at one point needed to be cleared out by sheriffs. The commissioners told the project’s backers to meet with community representatives, work out an arrangement for the use of the ground floor as PDR space, and come back in January.

Now it was January, and the Mission march was timed to perfection. After perfunctory remarks by the sponsor and architect about purported community benefits and design tweaks, public comment began. If you haven’t seen how this municipal sausage gets made, check out item No. 15 in the video embed below:

Before the march last week, Carlos Bocanegra of La Raza Centro Legal told The Frisc that the city would see “a lot of emotion … a lot of frustration at feeling powerless at new developments displacing [our] friends, at being ignored.”

One after another, march participants at the podium denounced the displacement affecting the Mission’s businesses and residents, the lack of affordable options, and how new developments were exacerbating these problems. Organizers like Hernandez, Bocanegra, PFF founder Spike Kahn, and others said that the backers never reached out to the community, despite the commission’s demands at the previous meeting.

The project backers, for their part, looked straight out of Central Casting as they sat in the front row in business suits, smirking, shaking their heads. (A call to Steve Perry, the architect who presented, to talk about the alleged lack of outreach was not returned.) Commissioners on the dais took turns rebuking the project backers, and instructed them again to meet with community members. They would take the proposed development back up in March.

This was just one project, but it was a sort of a microcosm of San Francisco’s struggles to deal with its housing crisis. It was also an exclamation point at the end of a daylong statement by Mission activists, from in front of Bruno’s at 20th and Mission to the rotunda at 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place. An organized community action made up of folks who claim to get shut down, while other neighborhoods seem to succeed at warding off development, showed they can get a handle on the levers of power — and the officials in charge got the message.

Follow Anthony Lazarus on Twitter: @Sr_Lazarus

For further reading: “Gentrifying Valencia,” 1997