Greening a city ... and pushing other colors out

  • The colorful old African American neighborhood of Bayview in the San Francisco fog.

    Patrick Boury
  • Mural in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco.

    EKAI/cc via flickr
  • Arc Ecology executive director Saul Bloom says the proposed redevelopment won't benefit the Bayview community.

    Peter DaSilva
  • Marie Harrison of Greenaction speaks at a 2006 rally calling for final closure of the PG&E Hunters Point power plant.

    Greenaction
  • The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, circa 1940s. A radiological testing lab and other industrial operations would later result in the site being added to the EPA's Superfund inventory.

    LOC, HAER CAL,38-SANFRA,195A-3
  • Artist’s renderings of the proposed development at the old Hunters Point site.

    Lennar Urban
 

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In Bayview, the debate over redevelopment has been heated. After 30 years of neglect, many residents welcome the project, with its promise of jobs and amenities in a neighborhood with few stores, no major supermarket, struggling schools and limited access to public transit. But others say the job projections are unrealistic, the plan doesn't include enough affordable housing, and most of what it does include is still too pricey for the average resident.

"If I see one more report on how sustainable our developments are, the top of my head's going to come off," says Arc Ecology's Bloom. A New York native with a grizzled ponytail, Bloom organized against the Vietnam War, in the labor movement, and once tried to fly a hot air balloon into the Nevada Test Site to stop a bomb test. Now, he's among the leading critics of the city and Lennar Corp. "I support development on the site. There's no question about it: This community needs development," he says. "But we're talking about smart development."

Compounding the economic worries, some doubt that the Shipyard will be fully cleaned up and fear that the construction itself could put local residents at risk. (The EPA insists that it will not.) The Shipyard houses the typical detritus of heavy industry -- plumes of solvents in groundwater, PCBs, lead and chromium from metalwork -- as well as more bizarre souvenirs of its days as one of the Navy's radiological testing laboratories. Ships exposed to radiation during nuclear tests in the Pacific were towed to Hunters Point for study, and animals as large as cows were irradiated to observe the effects of fallout.

The Navy is responsible for cleanup, under the oversight of the EPA and the state of California. Parts of the Shipyard will be cleaned to residential standards; one of the most contaminated sections, a former landfill along the waterfront, will be partially excavated, and then capped and topped with a park. In 2004, the Navy handed over the first parcel of land to the city; the full cleanup is set to be completed by 2018 -- 29 years after it was listed for cleanup.

Lennar, meanwhile, has not endeared itself to the neighborhood. Starting in 2008, a subcontractor for the company did heavy grading that kicked up clouds of dust, including puffs of pulverized serpentine, which contains naturally occurring asbestos. Local activists maintain that the dust caused nosebleeds and rashes. And assurances from the EPA, San Francisco Department of Public Health and Bay Area Air Quality Management District that it did not pose a health risk have done little to alleviate their concerns. In the San Francisco Bay View, a local paper that calls itself "the voice of Black Liberation," Bayview resident and physician Ahimsa Sumchai wrote that the development would have such significant health impacts and displace so many black residents that it "meets the UN standard definition of genocide."

This kind of hyperbole and caustic distrust has its own backstory. In the 1940s, African Americans began moving to San Francisco as part of the Great Migration from the South. The Shipyard was a major employer, and one of the few in the area that hired black workers. Even after World War II, it continued to employ some 7,000 workers, and Bayview developed into a solid blue-collar black neighborhood. By the 1960s, it had one of the highest rates of homeownership in the city, a distinction it retains. Many of the city's neighborhoods had property covenants barring minority buyers or renters; Bayview was one of the only ones that welcomed African Americans.

"There were areas in San Francisco when we moved here that the only black person's face that you saw were the ones working in the houses, doing childcare or housecleaning or cooking," says Marie Harrison, a 44-year resident of Bayview, and a community organizer with the environmental justice group Greenaction who helped spearhead the campaign that led to the decommissioning of PG&E's local power plant in 2006. "The only place for us to live was in the Fillmore or in the Bayview."

Talk to anyone about the new development in Bayview, and pretty soon they will mention the Fillmore. Known as the "Harlem of the West" for its bustling black-owned business district and burgeoning jazz scene, the neighborhood was razed in the '60s as part of San Francisco's "urban renewal" campaign. It was one of many anti-blight drives that swept through cities at the time, earning the bitter nickname "black people removal." The land sat vacant for years, and many Fillmore residents moved to Bayview. The Fillmore leveling was among the first projects of the nascent San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, now tasked with redeveloping the Shipyard.

The agency has come a long way since then. In an interview at its office downtown, Thor Kaslofsky and Wells Lawson, the city's two point men on the project, listed Bayview's environmental justice issues and discussed San Francisco's history of African-American flight as well as any activist. They say the city has bent over backwards to ensure that Bayview residents have a voice in the development -- and a chance to benefit from it.

"Gentrification issues are really a significant concern for the city," says Lawson, who coordinates the project for the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. "(But) we do want the land values to increase in this area. That's the premise of redevelopment, fundamentally: to take what's blighted and use public investment to increase the land value. The question then is, how do you maintain neighborhood stability?"

The city is attacking the problem with a suite of programs designed to prepare local residents, homeowners and businesses to, as Lawson puts it, "ride the wave" of rising costs of living. The hope is that the jobs the build-out generates, primarily in construction, will raise local incomes alongside property values. The project includes a program to help local developers get contracts at the site, and requires outside contractors to make a "good faith effort" to hire locals.

Additionally, the city and Lennar have assembled an $83 million "community benefits agreement." It includes $20 million to help homeowners retain and upgrade their homes and $9 million in job-training programs to help locals get jobs during the build-out and afterwards, in the businesses the city hopes will follow. There's also money for pediatric health programs and college scholarships. Perhaps most importantly, 32 percent of the housing units built will be sold below market rate. (The proportion was raised from 21 percent after local activists put up a fierce fight.) In fact, San Francisco has already put in place many of the measures pushed by the Obama administration's Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

Despite all this, Marie Harrison remains deeply skeptical. "(They) promise these young folks: 'This time, we're gonna give you jobs, we're gonna train you, and you're gonna be able to buy these houses.' " But, she says, many Bayview residents simply lack the necessary skills or education to take the jobs that will be available. And similar promises have gone unfulfilled in the past. In 2004, the city began construction of a light-rail line down 3rd Street, the neighborhood's main commercial corridor. Construction was supposed to create jobs and reinvigorate the struggling business strip. But almost no local residents were hired. Only after activists, including Harrison, raised a fuss, were some locals hired to handle traffic signs for short stints. The experience embittered many. "I cry when I hear my folks going through this," Harrison says. "It is just miserable for them."

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