Mission resident turns a lens on Parkmerced in documentary short

Still from the documentary "Who Killed Parkmerced?" by Nick Pasquariello

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.

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7 Comments

  1. Ivan Ho

    >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.

    The problem with the ‘close the borders / build a wall’ theory of limiting immigration into San Francisco is that there is no way to enforce it.

    If you think you are safe in a rent controlled apartment, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary (http://www.antievictionmap.com/). State law has made it very clear that owner move-in evictions are legal. What we have already seen and will continue to see is richer immigrants coming to the city, purchasing building and displacing poorer tenants. Those displaced residents are then unable to afford the current market rate prices and leaving. That simply isn’t going to change. without drastic action at the state level.

    There is simply no legal mechanism in this country to deprive people of the right to live in a city of their choosing, provided they can afford it. If someone wants to come here, that person will be competing with you for the home you live in now. The obvious solution is to build more homes for those people to live in. But if you don’t, they won’t suffer, only current residents will.

    Aside for that, I find the people who came to San Francisco decades ago (sometimes only years) that wish they can simply pull up the welcome rug and say the city is closed, really don’t seem reflect the spirit of San Francisco, a city that has welcomed all types of immigrants from gays in this country to the refugees of revolutions in Central America. This city has been a welcome new home to many for hundreds of years, and I hope it continues to be, rather than turn to xenophobia and nativism that we are so sadly seeing reflected in much of this country.

  2. Aaron Goodman

    Parkmerced was the backbone of rental housing in SF, it served students seniors and families. The problem stemmed from being adjacent to SFSU which lead to quick $ and flipping and preferring students to families.

    The environmental aspects also bear a serious concern with the developers touting green environmental decisions while ignoring infill and more sustainable adaptive reuse and direct transit solutions. The Green Party spoke clearly at the planning commission hearing on the carbon impacts and Parkmerced did not meet par. Their was also 6 national and local groups who stated clearly that Parkmerced as a garden rental apartment community was “unique” and was featured in the cultural landscapes marvels of modernism landscapes at risk in 2008. Dutch architects planners and landscape architects who visited yearly as part of arch in the city asked why is your government destroying what we see as ideal affordable housing….

  3. Aaron Goodman

    The wall is in the unaffordability and predatory equity investment strategy of the developers. Taking a prior 2-bedroom at 1610 per month and flipping it for 3500+ per month is the “wall” factor as the rich and wealthy piratize housing for quick profits vs understanding that Parkmerced was the first “social” housing built in a larger scale in SF. The initial build out was met-life’s philanthropic investment initially in essential housing post WW-2 and the shared communal spaces internal and external gardens were shared areas cherished by many generations. There has not been any significant proof of deterioration or the need to toss what would be sound materials and more costly impacts environmentally from the tearing out of a mature landscape buildings and regrading the site. Carbon impact wise this is not a solution it is “green-$-greed”

  4. Cara

    Glad this article brought attention to this film – I would like to see it.

  5. Sherry Baltodano

    Hell yeah. Its call ground zero.
    With all the killing that going on
    Time after time!!

  6. Aaron Goodman

    next showing is on Tuesday night June 6th 715pm at the ROXIE (near 16th street bart)
    (error in the program guide)

  7. Aaron Goodman

    PJ Johnston is a lobbyist and flat out liar….

    We measured a townhouse unit and the landscape drawings by SOM intentionally negated the square footages of the front back yards hard scape and soft scape and shared communal central areas. Quite a lot the tenants lose per unit…. But the developer wants to emphasize “live large” and make fun in ads of people crammed in units… That’s what’s coming to Parkmerced a loss of gradation of public to private spaces that made it unique to the city (not gridded blocks but a beaux arts plan and unique individual courtyards.

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