16th & Mission
Sustainabilities: Justice-oriented | Market-oriented | Vernacular
One of the main landmarks of the Mission District of San Francisco, the historic center of the Chican@ and Latin@ community of San Francisco, is the 16th Street BART station Plaza. This plaza has multiple uses, and embodies multiple forms of sustainability. It is a commuting point, a “transit hub,” and an example of sustainable transportation, with both BART and MUNI lines stopping there. These lines primarily serve low income and working class people, who are the majority of residents in the local community, as well as the main riders of public transit nationally. Related to this, it is also a site of vernacular and justice oriented sustainability: a place where neighborhood residents gather; activists rally and protest; mostly Latin@ immigrants sell foods (paleteros, eloteros, tamaleros, etc.) and other items (flowers, toys, etc.) to make a living; and a place for the homeless to sit, sleep, and eat. Also important to note is that, there are several social services and affordable housing opportunities for poor and working class people and their families—the majority population of the Mission District—in the area surrounding 16th and Mission St.1 This “open air living room,” as community organizers call it, has served as a useful open space for community members for many years.
Yet the BART plaza is at the center of another dynamic affecting the Mission, and San Francisco generally: gentrification. Gentrification in the Mission has led to a dramatic change in demographics, and resulted in the rise of evictions and an increased rate of displacement, most significantly among African American and Latin@ residents.2,3 It has led to a clash of cultures between the incoming middle/upper class residents and the majority working class residents of the Mission. And increasingly, it has been associated with the development of eco-friendly, urban amenities, like luxury green housing alongside transit hubs—a process referred to as eco- or environmental gentrification.
Today, 16th and Mission has emerged as an epicenter of these kinds of pressures and tensions due to a luxury development at 1979 Mission Street, at the corner the plaza, proposed by Maximus Real Estate Partners LLC. This would be a three-tower, 351-unit condo development, with unit prices ranging from $3,500 to $5,000 a month. The city considers the development an example of “transit oriented development” [TOD] because of its proximity to the BART Plaza. New zoning laws implemented with the San Francisco’s “Eastern Neighborhoods Plan” of 2009 were created to enable this kind of development in areas that were formerly home to a significant amount of blue color jobs in manufacturing, distribution and repair. The areas include the Mission District, Eastern South of Market (SOMA), Potrero Hill and the Central Waterfront.
Once proposed, local residents, businesses, and community organizations immediately feared that 1979 Mission would further threaten the character of the neighborhood, the livelihood of small businesses, and the right to the neighborhood not only of the low-income transit riders but also the residents who benefit from the affordable housing, businesses, and social services that are in the surrounding neighborhood. Many of these residents organized a group called the Plaza 16 Coalition. This group has its roots in the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC), which formed during the gentrification wave of the first Dot-com boom in the late 1990s, and which had created its own “People’s Plan for Jobs Housing and Community” in 2005, in response to the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan. Here MAC sought “a community driven planning process done in an inclusive manner-- through community organizing, leadership training, focus groups and popular education --that ensures the participation of those members of our community who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and not usually heard.” Seeing that this inclusive planning process wasn’t happening at 16th and Mission today, the Plaza 16 Coalition formed. They emphasized four goals in regards to housing: (1) Develop new permanently affordable housing for extremely low to moderate-income individuals, families and seniors in the Mission District, while protecting the existing uses that provide working-class jobs, (2) Secure funding for development and conservation of affordable housing through Public Benefits Incentive Zoning; (3) ensure housing development promotes health; and (4) work to lower the cost of all new housing.
Yet, around the time that Plaza 16 Coalition formed, another group emerged called Clean Up The Plaza, which framed the 16th Street BART Plaza as crime-ridden, overrun with homeless people, and in need of a massive “clean up.” This rhetoric was not new, and indeed had long circulated in the local media. But now it was used to fuel the campaign’s online petition urging the city to provide resources to eradicate the “deplorable” conditions in and around the plaza, and to create “better access to safe, clean, and walkable transportation corridors.”
The “Clean Up The Plaza” campaign, it turns out, was linked to the 1979 Mission Street Project. Some community members became suspicious of this after Maximus submitted the Preliminary Project Assessment for 1979 Mission just one month later, in October 2014. Julia Carrie Wong wrote in an article for the online publication 48Hills, “It seemed like a remarkable coincidence: Just before a developer starts pushing high-end housing in a low-income area, a new organization with significant resources starts pushing to get homeless people out of the area” (2014). The connection was confirmed by reporters from the San Francisco Bay Guardian, who discovered that “developer-connected political consultant Jack Davis is playing a key role in [the ‘Clean Up the Plaza’] campaign.”
In response to community pushback by the Plaza 16 Coalition, and making indirect allusions to the Clean Up the Plaza Campaign, Maximus released a public statement of their intentions for the development. The statement made two major claims. First, they highlighted the TOD status of the project: “Located at one of San Francisco’s most culturally and transit rich intersections at Mission and 16th Streets, 1979 Mission is served by BART and Muni, making it a true transit oriented development” (1979mission.com). In addition they argued the project would “enhance the use of the Plaza as public open space [through]… improvements to the BART Plaza.” Maximus seemed to want to ‘sustain’ the Mission’s culture, writing:
“Part of what we want to build is a new Mission District community hub. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of the Mission’s famous taquerias open a new location near the BART station? Can you envision salsa classes being taught at 16th and Mission, or Mission artists displaying their work on the plaza? These are the types of things we envision for 1979 Mission. Our plan is to keep the area infused with the same flavor that makes the Mission unique.”
The Plaza 16 Coalition, however, found Maximus’ claims to be contradictory. In the first place, they questioned how transit-oriented this project would be. Their plan calls for the installation of 166 parking spaces and 4 car share parking spaces, along with a basement parking garage, even though the city does not require any parking at this site. In addition to adding significant cost to already expensive apartments, these parking incentives will likely bring additional car traffic to the area. Meanwhile, many residents argue that, if not their cars, the most likely “transit” these wealthy new residents are likely to use will be the private buses that clog neighborhood streets as they shuttle tech employees from homes in the conveniently located Mission to their jobs in Silicon Valley. Similar to TOD tied to market rate housing and private transit across the country, Plaza 16 argues, this approach will likely exclude and inconvenience low income residents, who are the bulk of riders for BART and MUNI, while generating greater congestion.
In addition, once built, many community members fear this development will further threaten, through displacement and gentrification, the sustainability of neighborhood culture and political life, the livelihood of the low-income street vendors as well as the quality of life for residents who benefit from the affordable housing, businesses, and social services that are in the neighborhood. Rather than create a “new community hub,” Plaza 16 argues, support the old one. In response to Maximus’ statement, Plaza 16 Coalition organizer Erick Arguello argued that “[t]he creation of more business for merchants in a working class neighborhood is a myth, when the development is created for higher income residents. […] It tells me what little knowledge they have about the community. We already have artists display art on the plaza, and salsa dancing, and many taquerias in the area.” Instead, “[t]he best long term benefit they could give…is to let the community decide what’s best for them”
The project at 1979 Mission shows what national studies reveal. Increasingly, housing located near transit is more expensive, so when land use policy favoring transit-oriented development doesn’t also contain a strong equitable development framework and protections against displacement, it will likely intensify race and class disparities.4 And since the wealthier people moving in drive more cars than the low-income people moving out, such TOD is also likely to worsen green house gas emissions. There are counter examples, in which TOD is tied to equity and has quite different results, including increasing the amount of affordable housing next to transit hubs—as in the case of the Fruitvale Transit Station in Oakland, just a few stops away on the BART. But while that TOD was the result of years of grassroots political organizing, this TOD is the product of a developer with dubious ties to the community enabled by a top-down city planning process. As Maria Zamudio, an organizer with Causa Justa::Just Cause, said at a rally/festival that was held over the summer of 2014 to protest the project, “The existing residents of this neighborhood, the existing residents of this plaza, need to be at the tables when planning conversations are happening. They need to decide what kind of housing they want, what they want it to look like, where they want it to go, what kind of affordability levels they’re going to be at.”
Published June 1, 2015
1. Susanne Jonas, “City of Refuge, City of Survival Struggles: Contradictions of San Francisco for Low-Wage Latino Immigrants.” Latin American Studies Association 43:2 (2012), 7–10.
2. Nancy Mirabal, “Geography of Displacement: Latina/os Oral History, and the Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District.” The Public Historian 31:2 (2009), 7–31.
3. Anne M. Nyborg, “Gentrified Barrio: Gentrification and the Latino Community in San Francisco’s Mission District.” M.A. dissertation, Department of Latin American Studies, University of California, San Diego, 2008.
4. Stephanie Pollack, Barry Bluestone, and Chase Billingham, “Maintaining Diversity In America’s Transit-Rich Neighborhoods: Tools for Equitable Neighborhood Change”. Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Northeastern University, 2010.