2/23 Update: The proposed meeting between Mission Greenway and Monkeybrains, which had been tentatively scheduled for this week, has been nixed. Mission Greenway reportedly wanted a public meeting while Monkeybrains wanted a private meeting; no agreement was found.
As well as buying the warehouse, the company has staked its claim to the adjoined parcel. At the start of February, it paid over $20,000 in back taxes on the land. Before this payment, the parcel had been largely delinquent for several years.
“We do want right-of-use, which we believe is intrinsically there,” said Alex Menendez, co-owner of Monkeybrains. “The space allows for loading and unloading. The warehouse has a very strong historical use argument.”
But the company’s intended use for the parcel, which primarily involves parking space for vehicles and access to two of the building’s three loading docks, brings it into conflict with Mission Greenway, the group of guerilla gardeners that set up planters there last October. Mission Greenway has been organizing for years to convert the space into a publicly accessible green space.
“We see this as predatory,” said Elizabeth Creely, former contributor to Mission Local and a current member of Mission Greenway. “They are plonking down money to secure land they do not own. It is supremely arrogant.” Creely sees Monkeybrains’ proposed use of the property as incompatible with a greenway, which would ultimately be pedestrianized.
Ownership of parcel 36 has been a fraught question for a long time. Originally the path of a rail line, the Assessor-Recorder said that Southern Pacific was the land’s owner until at least 2017, even though the company folded in the 1990s. Until Mission Greenway’s arrival last year, the parcel had been used as private parking for decades. Now, some members of the group perceive Monkeybrains’ tax payment on the parcel as the first salvo of a “hostile takeover.”
A representative for the San Francisco Treasurer and Tax Collector told Mission Local that there is no rule against paying taxes on a parcel you do not own, but was unsure if there was any legal benefit.
According to a local land-use lawyer who asked to remain anonymous, paying tax on a delinquent parcel confers no ownership status, but could help with an “adverse possession” claim over the land. This is an uncommonly used element of property law which allows a non-owner to claim a parcel if they have openly used it for five years and have paid taxes on it for the same period.
Any claim of ownership would need to come at least five years in the future, explained the lawyer, as Monkeybrains would need to use the parcel for that long for a claim to be valid. But paying off taxes now means that other groups cannot do so later, he added.
“I am not a land-use attorney, and we haven’t retained a land-use attorney,” said Monkeybrains’ Menendez. He said that he did not see paying the tax as a step toward ownership, but as a way of bringing “stability” to the plot.
“I’m interested in being able to use the parcel the way that I believe it has historically been used, and how current zoning allows it to be used,” said Menendez. “If taxes are paid, there’s no longer an issue of, ‘This is not being attended to right now.’ There’s an organization that obviously is invested enough that it is willing to pay taxes.”
Monkeybrains has been in business in San Francisco since 1998 and employs more than 60 people, with tentative aspirations to expand now that more space is available. Menendez said that the company will end its current lease at 12th and Folsom streets and shift all its San Francisco operations to the Heinzer warehouse, where it hopes to remain for “several decades.” Menendez added that the property cost between $3.7 and $4 million, with the exact final figure still unclear due to the tabulation of various fees.
The warehouse came up for sale last August, following the death of co-owner Ernie Heinzer. For two decades prior, the space had served as cheap space for artists’ studios.
Members of Mission Greenway said that they have been trying to contact Monkeybrains to discuss its plans for the warehouse and parcel 36 for weeks. Menendez and Rudy Rucker, the company’s other co-owner, said that they had received “aggressive emails” from Mission Greenway members but did not engage in any formal conversations.
“They refuse to respond,” said Lara Hanna, a member of Mission Greenway who emailed the company. “They refuse to talk to the neighborhood about what they are trying to do.”
The first time members of the gardening group met with Rucker and Menendez in person was on Friday afternoon, when the pair, along with a few employees, visited the warehouse as owners for the first time.
The meeting did not get off to a fortuitous start. Two police officers arrived on the parcel around the same time as the co-owners. Menendez believes they were called by the warehouse’s realtor, Louis Cornejo, and neighbors who were unhappy with the addition of new planters.
“We didn’t call the police,” said Menendez. According to Hanna, the officers left when no one was able to prove ownership of the contested parcel.
Today, Monkeybrains began working on the space in earnest, bringing in gardeners to chop weeds, and using heavy machinery to remove debris and shore up access to the warehouse’s loading dock. Members of Mission Greenway were on the site and spoke with Rucker and Menendez, asking them not to disrupt any planters.
Monkeybrains also attached a new lock to the 22nd Street entrance, near the loading docks.
Both groups claim that they want to nurture the parcel after years of neglect, and both claim that their use of the lot will benefit the community. Neither claims to own the parcel.
Menendez said that Monkeybrains will clear up parts of the site that have long been derelict. He added that as a sign of goodwill to neighbors, the company intends to extend an offer of free or discounted internet to the blocks around its new property.
Creely from Mission Greenway said that the gardeners’ efforts have grassroots support. While there is ongoing tension between the group and some neighboring businesses, more than 1,200 people have signed a petition in favor of the greenway. In January, a community event attracted a stream of supporters, and another gathering is planned for March.
“You are seeing here two instances of squatting,” said Creely. “Our squatting is done in an attempt to open up the land to public access. Their squatting is done to shut that down.”
“They are destroying a years-long community effort,” she added. “It is unconscionable.”
Trevor Chandler is a neighbor to the parcel and a mayoral appointee to the Eastern Neighborhoods Citizens Advisory Committee. He has been keeping up with issues surrounding the parcel for the last couple of months and, after spotting commotion on the parcel today, attempted to broker a peace.
Chandler asked Rucker not to move or damage any planters on the southwest side of the parcel, and not to damage the planters at the 22nd Street entrance. He also asked Rucker to join a community meeting to try and figure out a solution that Monkeybrains and Mission Greenway could both get on board with.
According to Chandler, Rucker agreed to both suggestions. Chandler and Mission Greenway member Jorge Romero are now organizing a public meeting.
“The main thing stopping a win-win scenario is a lack of communication,” said Chandler. “This shouldn’t have to be a big ordeal.” He added that one of the major drivers of tension was a lack of clarity from the city regarding ownership of the parcel.
Earlier in the day, Menendez said that confrontations over the past week had made him more reluctant to try and find a compromise with members of Mission Greenway. But he did not rule out the possibility.
“Am I saying no to talking in the future?” said Menendez. “Absolutely not.”
The public meeting arranged between Rucker and Chandler is tentatively scheduled for Thursday at 5:30 p.m., with a location still to be confirmed.
Additional reporting by Chuqin Jiang. Disclosure: Mission Local and Monkeybrains have a barter arrangement exchanging advertising for service.