City College flooding
Scenes like this, a 2019 flood at Batmale Hall on the CCSF main campus, underscore the college's massive deferred maintenance needs

Batmale Hall on the main campus of City College is the kind of nondescript, joyless, brutalist structure you’ll find dotting the grounds of so many California public colleges and universities. It resembles a concrete Rubik’s cube; a post-apocalyptic skate park; an oversize automotive implement left in a field; an above-ground bomb shelter; a parking garage; a set of pizza boxes dropped from the heavens.

But not when it rains. Then, it’s the water ride.

Video posted on social media last month by the college’s Guardsman newspaper reveals a full-on cascade coming down Batmale Hall’s steps. A pair of students gingerly saunter through this personal injury lawyer’s literal wet dream with the text, “I should have stayed home” splayed across the moist screen.

They should have. That’s the message imparted, whether the college wishes it or not, by subjecting the student body to such piss-poor conditions — rain or shine.

Seventy percent of the college’s structures are rated as “poor to very poor” on the facilities condition index; 60 percent are 40 to 80 years old. Slides from a recent presentation made before the college’s Board of Trustees read, “Aging infrastructure,” “Outdated labs” and “Deficient classrooms” (which sounds better if you read it in the voice of Paul from the Diamond Center). City College has a backlog of more than $450 million in deferred maintenance. Its Eddy Street campus has been shuttered as a public safety hazard for four years. Its other satellite campuses, most notably in the city’s southeast, are in shambles.

“Our buildings are falling apart,” sums up CCSF board of trustees president Alex Randolph. “Can you imagine working and studying in an 80-year-old building with no heat?”  

You should’ve stayed home.

So, it comes as little surprise that the college’s board of trustees is weighing a hulking bond, possibly as much as $800 million, to be put before the voters — perhaps as soon as November.

What’s surprising is, with all of these identified needs, more than a quarter of that money — perhaps $230 million to $250 million — may go to erect a glistening new performing arts and education center.

Within City Hall, this has indeed been received with a modicum of astonishment. And horror.

CCSF’s performing arts center was priced at $200M when it was supposed to be included in a 2005 bond approved by city voters. But CCSF failed to break ground on the theater with the bond money it received. What’s more, then-Chancellor Philip Day and Vice Chancellor Stephen Herman in 2011 pleaded guilty to a funding scam to help pass that bond. Image from LMN/TEF and Studio/216.

Mayor London Breed has an ask of her own for voters come November — a $300 million affordable housing bond. She is none too pleased about the possibility of an $800 million missive from City College crowding out her own signature ask (which she is, no small deal, running for re-election on).

But Breed is just getting warmed up.

“There are a lot of struggling City College facilities throughout San Francisco that are already open: The southeast campus, the John Adams campus — I could go on and on,” she tells me. “They need to make sure those buildings and campuses are there to provide the services we promise to the community.”

She shakes her head. “We need to get our existing facilities at full capacity. What they’re doing is irresponsible.”

Breed and Supervisor Aaron Peskin don’t disagree on everything. They both would agree that it’s good to eat three meals a day and to not lie down in the middle of traffic. They certainly don’t disagree on City College.

“Quite frankly, while everybody is a fan of the performing arts, right now they need to steward what they have before embarking on a multi-hundred-million-dollar project that’s not part of their core mission,” Peskin says. “It’s absurd. It’s obscene. It’s the wrong project for too much money at the wrong time.”

And yet that’s neither Breed nor Peskin’s call. Not directly. It’s your call, should the matter be put before you as a voter (we voters have, historically, been very generous to City College — and, polling shows, this bond is just as popular at $450 million as it would be at $800 million, so expect CCSF’s ask to be large).

And it’s the call of the City College board of trustees on how much money to ask for, when to ask for it, and what to do with it once they get it.

Putting a quarter of a billion dollars toward a performing arts center when you’ve got a nearly half-billion dollar backlog of maintenance, an impromptu water park at Batmale Hall — and performing arts students represent less than 3 percent of CCSF’s classroom population — may seem a bit surreal. But that’s just one way of looking at things. 

“It’s a project that is needed in San Francisco,” says trustee John Rizzo. “There is a dearth of small performing spaces.” Adds trustee Shanell Williams, “We could be the only facility of this type in the entire region. We could generate income from this project.”

Rizzo and Williams aren’t wrong. The college’s current theater is both deficient as a theater and as a repository for a Diego Rivera mural. And this could be a moneymaker for CCSF — but, as currently planned, only after this city and its taxpayers invest a quarter of a billion dollars up front.

There are easier ways to make money. Just as there are better ways to ease students’ transit needs than the $174 million CCSF has identified as being required to construct parking lots housing 1,907 cars — more than $91,000 per spot. For that kind of money, says Randolph,  “we could give every student a scooter or a bike.”

So, he’s against that. And, in fact, the idea of erecting a Taj Mahal of a performance venue on the public dime is not universally loved. “I’m supportive of building a performing arts center,” Randolph notes, “but not supportive of building it at any cost.”

Trustee Ivy Lee says, “We need to fix the facilities we already have.” Trustee Tom Temprano adds, “I think we should be spending our dollars as wisely as possible in a way that has as broad a benefit as possible for our students.” And trustee Brigitte Davila says, “We need to look at where our highest needs are. One of my issues has been housing: I don’t know how we can recruit faculty without providing some kind of housing.”

So, expect no small degree of wrangling in the coming months regarding the amount of City College’s ask, the timing of that ask and — most of all — where the money might go. And while college trustees are independently elected, that doesn’t mean political pressure can’t be applied by City Hall. 

From multiple offices. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  2. How about $171,000,000 for a parking garage at $90,000 per space? Shouldn’t CCSF be planning to reduce demand for driving, rather than building housing for cars that are already clogging the surrounding streets? A free FastPass for students and faculty, bikeshare and a BART to classroom shuttle would be a LOT more cost effective. Maybe then CCSF could get the needed 66% majority it would need to pass this bond.

  3. What exactly is wrong with the current Diego Rivera Theater?

    It has functioned fine every time I have been there.

    What types of performances will this new center house that can not be shown elsewhere?

    “Making money on it” is more neoliberal nonsense!

  4. Whoever wrote this article doesn’t know what they are talking about. Faculty at CCSF have been working on this building for 40 years and the voters have approved it and the funding several times. Many are still wondering where it is because the money was raised. There are always unforseen circumstances that cause things to be delayed and that is what happened here. A waste will be to not finish the PAEC because 25 Mil has already been spent on the planning and infrastructure. I won’t even start on the free City stuff.

    1. Respectfully, Steven, I think I’m decently well-informed.

      Yes, the voters approved this structure — and the money was spent on other things because CCSF didn’t live up to its promises regarding the 2005 bond. Just as it didn’t live up to its promises for its 2000 bond. And now it’s going back to the voters again. For a bond.

      The fact voters have approved this building, “several times” in your words, and money has been allocated — but spend elsewhere — isn’t necessarily a strong point for the “let’s approve it again” argument. At some point “unforeseen circumstances” are, in fact, foreseen circumstances.

      A lot has happened at CCSF since 2005, including nearly having the plug pulled by the state, a precipitous drop in enrollment, and the ongoing lack of maintenance that has led to a nearly $500 million backlog. Also, the Tenderloin campus has been barricaded for four years and the Southeast Campus is in shambles. So, respectfully again, it’s asking a lot of the voters that perhaps $250M of the up to $800M they’ll be ponying up in bonded debt would go not to all of these crucial needs but a wondrous new theater.

      Also, separate and apart from that, CCSF will be asking voters for about $150M over 10 years for free enrollment. So that’s about a billion-dollar ask. San Francisco needs a strong City College. But with all that in mind, it’s important the college spends on stuff that will enable it to perform its core, basic mission.

  5. Also the fine the State levied was for electronic records that were overseen DURING THE STATE TAKEOVER.

  6. Actually the tax we paiy for Free City raises closer to $54 million to fully fund the program. Funnily enough, though after Free City passed the school had to fight just to get a portion of the funding—while at the same time the Mayor’s office “found” $41 million that had been “overlooked” in the budget—the other money that should have funded Free City, and used it for other City expenses.

  7. Don’t forget that city college in SF is FREE because voters passed a property tax to cover $18 million
    Per year t o cover those costs. Also dont forget that right after that vote passed, the state of California fined city college
    about $17 million because they are lax and incompetent. Only in SF!