Change is coming to Lower 24th Street in 2014, and, this time, it’s not gentrification.

Rather, the stretch of 24th Street between Mission Street and Potrero Avenue is about to dig in and formalize its Latino roots. A community-led effort to turn Lower 24th Street into a protected cultural corridor will rev up this month.

“The cultural corridor is to preserve the culture along 24th Street around the Latino community — in order to preserve it for the future, especially now with gentrification, and also to recognize the community,” says Erick Arguello of Calle 24, the Mission-based merchants and residents association leading the campaign. The proposed Latino cultural corridor would also be called Calle 24, Spanish for “24th Street.”

Lower 24th Street has been on the route for Carnaval, Day of the Dead and Cesar Chavez holiday processions for decades, and is home to the highest concentration of Latino-owned businesses and murals in the city. “So, it’s about packaging all of these and marketing it that way,” Arguello says.

Similar movements to retain neighborhood cultural identity during a boom of change and displacement are proliferating across San Francisco. This fall Japantown released its community-led Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy, which documents its social heritage and the economic and regulatory tools necessary to maintain it. The LGBTQ community has been working with the Planning Department to memorialize and provide neighborhood resources for the LGBTQ community in SoMa, and the Filipino community has proposed a similar Filipino Social-Heritage Special Use District, also in SoMa.

In the same vein, the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development recently awarded an $88,000 grant to San Francisco Heritage, a historical preservation nonprofit, to carry out a citywide Latino historical research project. Launching this month and expected to take two years, the project will identify cultural and physical resources — like buildings, murals or parks — important to the city’s Latino history to help the city better preserve them. The Mayor’s Office has also recently funded the nonprofit to map LGBT and African American history across the city.

“Pretty much everybody’s concern is that the culture of San Francisco is being changed and the diversity and the contributions of a lot of immigrants are being lost,” Arguello says.

So, what exactly would a “Latino Cultural Corridor” mean?

“We’re still working out the details,” Arguello says. The process of becoming a cultural district is a muddled one, with many layers that Arguello hopes will each add a little more regulatory bite.

“We don’t have an exact formula, so there’s not a Step 1, Step 2, Step 3,” Arguello says. “There are different models, so we’ll be taking a look at them down the line.”

What is in the Works

Already, Calle 24 is working with Supervisor David Campos’ office to develop a resolution to gain recognition of Lower 24th Street as a cultural district, a symbolic proclamation with no legal implications, says the supervisor’s legislative aide Nate Allbee. The resolution will outline the historical and cultural importance of Lower 24th Street and then be voted upon by the Board of Supervisors.

Although the cultural district designation lacks regulatory teeth, it would aid the process of gaining other protections, like city zoning as a Special Use District similar to Japantown, Chinatown and North Beach.

A Special Use District designation — awarded by the Planning Department — would allow residents and merchants to define important cultural and historical components of the street in the city planning code. Planners could then use that criteria while weighing building uses and future development.

What’s for sure is that over the next six months Calle 24 will survey the street’s stakeholders to create a strategy to pinpoint the cultural, historical and physical aspects of  24th Street’s heritage — and then determine which legal designations would best preserve them. Those efforts could be restricting building or street appearance, supporting mom-and-pop businesses, or creating mural protection zones, Arguello says.

“In the end it will probably be a Special Use District because it has more teeth,” Arguello says.

However Arguello and Calle 24 will also consider other avenues of garnering protections, such as becoming a Business Improvement District. That designation allows business and property owners to levy taxes and regulations on themselves for community improvements.

Culture is Hard to Define

Louie Gutierrez, manager of Panaderia La Reyna on 24th Street, welcomes the idea of increased restrictions based on Lower 24th Street’s cultural heritage. Gutierrez is concerned that Lower 24th Street is transforming into an “elite corridor” as expensive condos and $15 sandwiches creep onto the block.

“It will help keep it safe for small business owners,” says Gutierrez, whose mother has owned the bakery since 1977. “For one thing, it will stop [big-]box stores like Walgreens and Safeway from coming in.”

Yet Kate Rosenberger, owner of Alley Cat Books on 24th Street, says “culture” is not easy to define. Rosenberger has owned businesses in the Mission and Bernal Heights for 28 years, opening her fourth bookstore — Alley Cat Books — on 24th Street two years ago. While Rosenberger is elated to hear that Arguello is concocting a solution to maintain the street’s identity, she is curious to hear what Calle 24 counts as “culture.”

“I think some very specific goals need to be stated in order for them to be met. It can’t be this nebulous idea of what we’re losing,” she says, adding that she’s saddened by how quickly the area is losing its diversity. “Every day, I have people come to me with tears in their eyes saying that they can’t afford to live here anymore.”

Alley Cat Books isn’t a Latino-owned store, but it caters to Latino customers with a large Spanish-language inventory. Still, Arguello says Rosenberger and other non-Latino merchants will wield equal voting power in Calle 24’s efforts. He asserted that the designation as a cultural corridor will benefit all businesses in the long run — no matter the owner’s heritage.

“There will be a lot of enhancements to the area, there will be a lot of marketing to the area, more funding will come into the area, which will bring in a lot of business,” Arguello says.

Once the six-month survey is complete, Calle 24 will present its strategy to the Planning Department and Board of Supervisors. If approved, the proposal would reap not just protections,  but leverage to apply for grants.

Currently, Calle 24 is waiting to hear whether it will secure one grant for $20,000 from the mayor’s office for outreach over the next six months. Still, if the grant falls through, Arguello says Calle 24 will show its usual pluck: launching its own fundraising campaign.

Sure, protesting a tech bus gets a lot of attention. But there’s actually wonkier ways that 24th Street can protect its character:

A “cultural district” designation from the Board of Supervisors: A symbolic proclamation with no legal teeth, a cultural district would still help broadcast the corridor’s Latino history, like landing “Calle 24” on a map of San Francisco or having signs posted along the street.

A “Special Use District” designation from the Planning Department: A special use district would allow residents and merchants to define important cultural and historical components of the street in the city’s planning code. Planners could then use that criteria while weighing future building uses and development.

A Business Improvement District, formed by the business owners themselves: A BID designation allows merchants and property owners to levy taxes and regulations on themselves for community improvements.