Hillary Ronen and Jeff Kositsky are three months late on their promise to close the Navigation Center at 1515 South Van Ness — but they swear they have a good reason.
Instead of Feb. 28, the center will not close until June, at the latest. That allows its closing to be orchestrated with the May 15 opening of the new center on 13th and South Van Ness, which will also receive residents from 1515 South Van Ness.
A handful of community members pressed the officials on the three-month delay Monday night at a meeting concerning the wind-down of the 120-bed center and the construction of a new, 125-bed center on 13th Street.
“Ronen and Kositsky promised (the Navigation Center) would close on Feb. 28. You’re now here proposing to extend another three months. That’s unacceptable,” said Shotwell Street resident Craig Weber, one of a small cadre of the center’s most vocal opponents.
In response, Ronen explained — very sharply — that she and her chief of staff, Carolyn Goossen, had painstakingly searched for a site that met community members’ requirements: that it be in an industrial area and large enough to accommodate onsite outdoor space.
They finally found a site, she said, and for three or four months they negotiated with the landowner to buy it. Then, Ronen said, “She pulled the rug out from under us.”
Ronen explained that, at the last minute, the landowner used them as leverage to get a higher bid on the site from another buyer.
“That is why we are behind,” she said, raising her voice. “I’m sorry, but I’m really mad and I’ll always be really mad about it, because we would have met the Feb. 28 deadline if she hadn’t strung us along for profit.”
Kositsky agreed that they had been used as a “straw man” in the deal.
“We had to start over,” Ronen continued. She said that she, Kositsky, and late Mayor Ed Lee had relentlessly pressured Caltrans to lease them the property at 13th and South Van Ness.
She said Kositsky traveled to Sacramento “nonstop” to explain to the state agency the severity San Francisco’s homeless crisis.
“If anyone knows how difficult it is to deal with Caltrans,” she said, “Mayor Lee, before he passed, was on the phone on a regular basis, saying, ‘You better let us do this on this land or we’re going to come and protest.’”
Then, she took a shot at her follow board members. “Ask any of my 10 colleagues if any of them has done an ounce of this work for their own district … they just haven’t,” she said.
The statement was met with applause.
Among the 50 or so community members in attendance, a clear majority did not mind the center staying open for a few months longer. In fact, some residents who live next to the 1515 South Van Ness center hoped it would stay open longer.
The optimism was a far cry from the vitriol community members expressed last April before the 1515 South Van Ness Center opened in June.
The Navigation Center “has made a huge positive impact,” said a woman named Annabelle, who lives a block away from the center. “If it was up to me, it would stay there forever, and we would have Navigation Centers on every corner.”
Still, some community members wondered what would happen to the existing residents of the center on 1515 South Van Ness — and pleaded for it to stay open until the Division Circle or Bayshore Navigation Centers open.
“My plea would be that 1515 not be closed until the two other Navigation Centers be open,” said Tom Temprano, a City College of San Francisco Trustee who lives near the center.
“It would inhuman for those folks to be put back on street,” he added. “Please get those open quickly and before you close down the Navigation Centers.”
Ronen and Kositsky explained that a majority of the 1515 South Van Ness residents will be transferred to the Division Circle center, and others would find placements at other centers, if necessary.
Ronen said that it would take around two weeks to transfer the residents after the new center opens mid-May. “That’s where we get the June deadline,” she said.
“What I can promise: we are doing everything in our power to open Division Circle as quickly as we can,” she added. “We are not waiting for 125 Bayshore — that will be additional space. Division Circle will have enough space for everyone in 1515 South Van Ness.”
The center at 125 Bayshore, near the Hairball bike paths, will reportedly open this spring as well, adding another 125 beds for the city’s homeless population.
Along with the Division Circle location and an 80-bed center expected to open on Fifth and Bryant streets, the Bayshore center will be among the city’s seven Navigation Centers once 1515 South Van Ness closes.
One community member, an opponent of the center at 1515 South Van Ness, suggested that Ronen, Kositsky and other city officials were lying when they said a new Navigation Center would open by May 15.
To this, Julia Laue, principal architect at the Department of Public Works, said: “Just keep an eye on the site, and you’ll see construction starting in a couple weeks.”