Mission District business owners and residents voiced concerns last week regarding a new citywide initiative designed to improve neighborhood commercial districts in San Francisco.
As part of Mayor Ed Lee’s 17-point economic plan, the Invest in Neighborhoods Initiative is a pilot program intended to improve 25 commercial districts throughout the city. The newly launched program will offer services ranging from neighborhood beautification to resources such as a loan program and advising for lower 24th Street businesses.
However, several community members seem to be skeptical of the program that will be implemented in the coming weeks.
“What’s made 24th Street vibrant over the last 23 years since I’ve been here has had nothing to do with the City. It has had everything to do with the nature of the people who own businesses and shop in the neighborhood,” said Eric Eberman, a former business owner.
The first phase of the Invest in Neighborhoods Initiative began with a $50,000 grant that the Mission District received to create the Lower 24th Street Economic Development Report — an assessment of the commercial corridor that identified ways in which community members would like the neighborhood to be improved.
During the outreach process in 2010, the report showed that community members wanted physical improvements to the neighborhood, such as increasing the number of outdoor spaces for events, better street lighting and adding more greenery.
At a meeting last week at the Brava Theater Center, a group of nearly 30 residents and business owners almost unanimously criticized the follow-up initiative for including physical improvements to the neighborhood in its plan, but not addressing the issue of how local businesses are increasingly being affected by displacement.
“I think back in 2010 we focused more on superficial stuff, and unfortunately over the years we’ve learned that beautification equals gentrification,” said Anabelle Bolanos, a community member. “We do need lights and we do want beautiful trees, but the priorities of the neighborhood have changed.”
Diana Ponce De Leon, a liaison for the Office of Economic Workforce and Development, reassured community members during the meeting that the program was designed to address all of the businesses’ concerns, including displacement issues, by strengthening businesses through its various services and preserving the historic nature of the corridor.
“We want to be an assistant to the community on where they want go,” Ponce De Leon said. “We want to support their efforts in terms of them sustaining themselves in the long term and building a strong corridor economically.”
However, former business owners like Eberman say the city should have stepped in long ago to prevent businesses from being displaced.
In 1999, Eberman was the owner of a cabinetry business in the Mission District. When he was in danger of losing his company after his landlord raised his rent by 300 percent, he reached out to the City for help. But, he says, the plea fell on deaf ears and he lost his business.
“To me it’s way too little, way too late. The damage to 24th Street’s character has already taken place,” Eberman said. “As the people who created the energy and the vibrancy of this neighborhood leave one by one, all that remains is a hollow superficial shell of what it used to be.”
According to Erick Arguello, president of the Calle 24 Neighborhood and Merchants Association—formerly known as the Lower 24th Street Neighborhood and Merchants Association—the initiative is part of a contingency plan the City developed as gentrification spread to other districts in San Francisco like Japantown, South of Market and Chinatown.
“A lot of the gentrification started on the Eastern part of the city, but now it’s spreading to the West side. So, now there’s a bigger uproar citywide,” Arguello said.
Before the meeting concluded, community members offered suggestions to officials on how to improve the program. Among them were classes for business owners on how to negotiate lease agreements, and the possibility of a legislative effort that would help protect vulnerable businesses from predatory real estate agents whom many blame for their displacement.
Ponce De Leon said the various concerns and suggestions of the community would be taken into consideration as the pilot program continues to develop.
“The whole point of us being out there was to listen to those concerns and be able to adjust to them, and I think that’s in the same spirit of the program,” she said.
Although no dates have been announced yet, officials said additional community meetings to discuss the initiative would be held in the next few weeks. To find out about upcoming meetings, click here to subscribe to the Invest in Neighborhood newsletter.