You might have heard the Mission be called “ground zero” of gentrification in the city, but one local resident decided to explore a different microcosm of affordable housing loss: Parkmerced. His short documentary on the impending demolition of the housing there, “Who Killed Parkmerced?” will be shown at DocFest on Sunday and Tuesday.
Nick Pasquariello, a Mission District resident and a writer by trade, decided to produce a documentary about Parkmerced, a large development near Lake Merced and San Francisco State University, six years ago.
At the time, the Board of Supervisors had approved a development agreement with Parkmerced Investors LLC, which authorized the demolition of the existing housing and the development of taller, denser, more modernized units. Under the agreement, 1,538 of the existing 3,221 units would be torn down and replaced with 8,900, for a net increase of 5,600 units. Existing tenants would be offered a chance to move into a new unit when complete, at their old rent.
But Pasquariello was pessimistic and skeptical that the developer would follow through as advertised. So far, the developer has filed for permits but not started work.
So he set off to talk to a few existing tenants. The result is a 14-minute documentary, produced, shot, and edited by Pasquariello. It’s evident the film is put together on a shoestring budget, but it does provoke the reader to reconsider a project that might seem too far away to be relevant. He argues it sets a precedent of the city sacrificing rent-controlled units.
“I live in a rent controlled apartment, been there for decades. And all of Parkmerced is rent controlled,” he said. “And never in the history of rent control…has the city government approved demolition of rent controlled apartments. So it was a…a major threat to anyone living in a rent controlled apartment.”
For Pasquariello, it’s not just any housing that’s being torn down, it’s beautiful housing. In one scene, his camera lingers on a hummingbird hovering by a bright flowering shrub. In another, a resident shows off his lemon tree. The greenscaping and architecture of the existing Parkmerced, he argues, should be preserved.
“It’s all about open space, it’s all about greenery, it’s all about what another tenant talks about, a livable place. How many San Franciscans have a backyard where there’s a bird in a bush, let alone a lime tree?” Pasquariello wondered. Though the plan for the new development calls for equal if not more open space, Pasquariello isn’t convinced it will be quite the same.
P.J. Johnston, a spokesperson for Parkmerced, said the new development would provide decidedly more open space than the current development and that it would be updated with the introduction of solar power, greenways, and other sustainability technology, including being less centered around cars.
The short film comes with a clear perspective. Pasquariello doesn’t think the city has an obligation to absorb all the newcomers who want to move in. He said said he didn’t reach out directly to the developer for comment. The music is a Bob-Dylan-esque song about gentrification sung by a musician Pasquariello met at a laborer’s convention.
He cited the 1986 ballot Proposition M, which called for preservation of neighborhood character and affordable housing.
“I believe as part of that debate there actually was serious consideration to capping the number of people who live here, capping the total population. Imagine that today, saying we can only have so many people. I find that the debate is completely skewed the wrong way,” he said. “The density thing is complete bogus in my opinion, and don’t tell me I have any obligation to accommodate new people.”
But there is a touch of empathy in the film if you know where it’s coming from. Pasquariello’s distrust doesn’t come from mere NIMBYism – particularly because Parkmerced is very far from his backyard – it comes from a fear that the developer’s promises of a better future won’t pan out for the current residents.
“One of the great fears that the tenants had, and still have, is that this can be traded and bought off by larger and larger corporations,” he said. “It’s private property as tradable as anything on the stock market.”
This story has been updated with a comment from the developer’s spokesperson and a link to the development agreement.