Guardian forum on Plan Bay Area draws big, engaged crowd

More than 130 people attended last night's Bay Guardian forum in the LGBT Center.

San Franciscans who want to help shape how this city grows — rather than just leaving it up to regional planners and market forces — packed a large conference room last night for a community forum presented by the Bay Guardian: “Whose Future? What Does the Regional ‘Plan Bay Area’ Really Mean for San Francisco?”

Moderated and organized by Guardian Editor/Publisher Tim Redmond, and co-sponsored by the Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO) and Urban Institute for Development and Economic Alternatives (UrbanIDEA), the session began with a overview of what’s now being planned for the San Francisco of 2040.

Gen Fujoika of the Chinatown Community Development Center said that Plan Bay Area, which is being jointly developed by the Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission (which will hold a hearing on the plan tomorrow, Fri/14, at 9:30am in Oakland), doesn’t pay for itself yet it will include strong incentives that will shape development in the region.

“It is in some sense a plan and I think we need to critique the hell out of that plan,” he said. “As we think of Plan Bay Area as a vision statement, we need to think about whether it’s our vision.”

As illustrated by the Plan Bay Area maps that the lined the walls of the LGBT Center conference room, the plan’s “priority development areas” that are slated for dense, streamlined development are also the same areas identified as “communities of concern” with vulnerable, low-income populations, making the plan a recipe for mass displacement.

Fujoika quoted a comment that Mayor Ed Lee made on Tuesday when asked by Sup. Eric Mar about the issue: “San Francisco has some of the toughest anti-displacements laws in the country.” While that may be true, Fujoika said that the plummeting numbers of African-Americans in the city and Plan Bay Area’s displacement projections for San Francisco show those laws simply aren’t up the challenge.

“If we have the toughest anti-displacement position in the country, then we are in some trouble,” he said, calculating that the affordable housing needed to prevent extreme gentrification in the city would total $6.8 billion, and that the affordable housing fund created by voters last year is only projected to raise $1.3 billion by 2030.

Fujoika said that he and the other panelists aren’t against growth and development, “but we are for equitable growth,” which would involve more community buy-in for the plan, more money for affordable housing and infrastructure needs, and more of the growth burden being shared by other Bay Area communities.

San Francisco Planning Commission Chair Cindy Wu cited growth projections for Chinatown as a good example of the problem, noting that is already a dense, complete neighborhood that would suffer from the greatly increased traffic that would be funneled through it and other negative impacts of unfettered growth.

“It’s not just growth for growth’s sake, it’s who gets to live there and who gets those jobs,” she said. Wu called for more community organizing around this and other development plans, citing as a good example the coalition-building that forced California Pacific Medical Center to agree to a multi-hospital project with far better community benefits than the deal it originally cut with the Mayor’s Office.

It was a point echoed by Maria Zamudio with Causa Justa, who said Plan Bay Area will worsen pressures that are already displacing the Mission District residents she works with, or forcing them to live in unsafe housing. “They’re going to push our families out of the city and maybe out of the region,” she said.

To combat the power that this plan and profit-minded property owners will exert over how San Francisco grows, San Francisco Labor Council President Mike Casey, head of UNITE-HERE Local 2, said that progressive San Franciscans will need to work cooperatively with organized labor, a relationship that has suffered during these tough economic times.

“Unfortunately, I think we’ve become alienated and marginalized from each other,” Casey said, calling on activists to not let differences over individual projects or issues interfere with solidarity over the larger, longer struggle for equity and justice.

“Not everyone agrees that a strong labor movement is the cornerstone of a more progressive vision,” Casey said, arguing that displacement of working class people from the city has a cascading effect in gentrifying the city. “The demographics of a city shape very much what the politics of protest look like.”

And those politics of protest will be more crucial than ever in resisting the demands that powerful capitalists will make on San Francisco in the coming years, a point that all seven panelists seemed to agree on.

Bob Allen of Urban Habitat said the planning research groups represented on the panel need to find ways to funnel more funding into grassroots organizing, both in San Francisco and regionally. Otherwise, we’ll see the “suburbanization of poverty,” with Plan Bay Area funneling the best jobs and most expensive housing into urban areas and leaving everyone else to fend for themselves in communities that don’t have the tenant protections and other hard-won social justice programs that San Franciscans have struggled for.

“Local control can be a way of saying ‘I don’t want black or brown people to live in my suburban community,” Allen said.

Ironically, Plan Bay Area is ostensibly driven by concerns over climate change and the argument that it’s better to concentrate development along transit corridors, which is why almost all of San Francisco and much of Oakland is proposed for development that would be given waivers from some California Environmental Quality Act scrutiny.

Yet the plan doesn’t fund the transit upgrades that would be needed to serve that growth or create restrictions on automobile use that might encourage more transit use. Instead, Fujoika said low-income people who actually use transit would be the diplaced in favor of wealthier residents who might not.

“Transit has become an amenity rather than a necessity,” Wu said.

The forum, which was attended by more than 130 people, included a lively discussion that involved dozens of audience members who offered their own views, ideas, and strategies for how to move forward. Among them was Brian Basinger of the AIDS Housing Alliance, who said that he is working with a coalition to reform the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants from rent-controlled apartments.

“We could move this as early as January,” Basinger said of the reform legislation now being developed with allies in the Legislature, urging attendees to get involved.

After the audience discussion, the meeting closed with Peter Cohen of the CCHO summarizing the high points and getting people to sign up on lists that were circulated to be involved with next steps. And Rachel Brahinsky, a former Guardian staff writer who is now a professor at USF’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, urged attendees to fight for San Francisco to remain inclusive and diverse: “San Francisco is the place it is because people have kept fighting.”