With the gilded cupola of city hall at his back, and the stucco steeple of Mission Dolores peeking over Victorian A-frames ahead of him, Vince Alvarenga took in the view from his rooftop with obvious pride.
This was one stop on a housing complex tour that he gave with the enthusiasm of a real estate agent, touting the washer and dryer units—available in each residence—and individually decorated backyards. Every few minutes he paused to chat up the maintenance workers he passed on the way, reminding them to prune the young trees on the sidewalk or tighten a loose light fixture.
From the rooftop solar panels to the dyed cement floors of the community room, everything about the development is new. Everything but the name, displayed in metallic letters on the façade at 15th and Valencia, the southeast corner of the five-acre property: “Valencia Gardens.”
“Just because we have the Valencia Gardens name doesn’t mean it is the same Valencia Gardens as before,” Avarenga stressed.
If the 30-year-old sounded like he has a chip on his shoulder, he doesn’t. But he’s keenly aware that to succeed, the Valencia Gardens built atop the rubble of the original 61-year-old public housing complex must be starkly different from its predecessor.
By the time housing authorities decided to level the first Valencia Gardens in 2004, the name represented all that was wrong with large-scale federal housing projects: drug dealing, bureaucratic corruption, structural neglect. Surrounded by a fence, it had all the charm of a prison.
Alvarenga still remembers visiting his grandmother there and the unpleasant walk to her apartment in the center of the complex. “I would get looks,” he recalled, adding that people often mistake his pale skin for being white rather than Latino. “It felt like it wasn’t the right place to be.”
But that was then, and the distinction between the old and the new is one Alvarenga strives to make extra clear. For the last year and a half on the job, he’s been trying to fight off the multitude of problems that beset the original complex, and create a livable community that will become a model for public housing.
“I think the longevity of this can actually surpass the 50-year lifespan it’s been given,” he says, placing his own estimate at “100 years or more.”
With an adolescent face and clothes that hang loose, Alvarenga seems an unlikely fit to manage the 16 buildings. Unlike most managers, his phone rings softly and infrequently. His desk lacks the chaotic mess of a challenging job. As he walks among the two and three-story townhouse-style units, his rubber soles make no sound, no commanding warning of his arrival.
In fact, everything about Alvarenga, who earned his degree in chemistry from San Francisco State University, is modest.
He described managing Valencia Gardens as a balancing act.
“There are so many things I have to manage,” he said during a short afternoon break. “I have to stay on top of everything, and that can be very exhausting.”
His ability to keep his cool may be credited to a black belt in shaolin kenpo karate, a martial art Alvarenga began practicing two decades ago in Ingleside where he grew up. When he returns to that same studio at least twice a week as a student and volunteer teacher, the motto written on the wall reminds him: “Objective is to end the conflict, not win the conflict.”
It comes in handy as Alvarenga works to keep peace with the surrounding neighborhood and among the 725 residents who speak more than half a dozen languages. His strategy is to find a middle ground before problems escalate.
“He’s stuck in the middle,” said Lolita Eddings, a mother of four and president of the Residents Council, which represent the seniors, low-income families, and people with disabilities who live at Valencia Gardens. Just as in the past, residents must pass a background check and credit check to be approved for a unit. Alvarenga says occupants are evicted only as a last resort, and only four residents have been made to leave since the development reopened.
Eddings explained that on the one hand, Alvarenga is a manager who answers to the property management company, John Stewart Co. On the other, he is a resident who shows obvious concern for the community, especially the children.
“I had started a Friday Night Fun and Vince would set up everything,” she said. “All I had to do was come and monitor 30 to 50 kids.” He organized activities like that, Eddings added, after his normal work hours.
On a recent Wednesday, Alvarenga stepped in and out of situations like a chameleon, participating just as naturally with the five women on the holiday party committee—each with a ringing voice and a strong opinion about potato salad—as with two suits from a security company bidding for the soon-to-expire contract for the private guards.
After lunch, the weekly food bank delivery arrived, and he rolled up his sleeves and unpacked boxes with a handful of resident volunteers, using the opportunity to inquire about family members.
Still, despite the tree-lined side streets and Alvarenga’s attention to detail, the renovated Valencia Gardens is not without its troubles.
“It’s not peaches and cream living here,” said Demetria Page, who is vice president of the Residents Council and moved here from Bayview with her two children in 2006.
While unpacking canned green beans for the food distribution, Page listed some of the residents’ concerns: mistrust of security guards, management favoritism, and strict regulations, like the prohibition against sitting on stoops and playing football on the small streets carved into the block.
Alvarenga said he gets most complaints about the prohibition of barbeques, but he defends it. “Even though that sounds unfair,” he said, the ban exists because the structures are wooden. Likewise, he said, the rule against double-parking keeps the streets clear and is “designed for the benefit of residents.”
Alvarenga said the complaints are the kind of growing pains that are to be expected for an experiment in new public housing. “We are our own little town, so-to-speak, within San Francisco,” building, out of nothing, a community. “It takes a bit of time.”
Part of his job as manager is to make sure the complex is integrated into the neighborhood, and he looks at the recent opening of a gourmet coffee shop across the street—and its popularity—as evidence that the neighborhood feels differently about the new Valencia Gardens.
That’s just one of the many accolades the project has collected. Earlier this year the American Institute of Architects bestowed an award for housing and community design. Mayor Gavin Newsom has boasted of its success as an Internet-wired community.
In fact, Alvarenga pointed out, the new Valencia Gardens is not just an improvement on its predecessor, but may be the most desirable residence in the neighborhood—at least in the event of an emergency. If a blackout were to hit the neighborhood, the senior building, which includes the computer center, would continue to be powered by its rooftop solar panels. “So we would be able to communicate with any part of the world,” he said. “And,” he added, because of the units’ electric stoves, “we’d be able to cook.”