The battle for the forgotten district

Pub date February 23, 2010
WriterSarah Phelan

This November, when voters in District 10 — the largest, sunniest, and most diverse of the city’s 11 supervisorial districts — replace termed out Sup. Sophie Maxwell, they’ll be making a selection that could have pivotal implications for the entire city.

That’s because the next supervisor from southeast San Francisco inherits a district that is home to some of the city’s biggest environmental and public health challenges, as well as the most potential for development that will determine what kind of city San Francisco becomes.

District 10 is where you’ll find the most polluted and most underdeveloped lands in San Francisco, areas that could either be transformed into models of a sustainability or, in the words of Tony Kelly, the president of Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association, “be turned into a toxic Foster City.”

District 10 is where the slaughterhouses, tanneries, and glue factories set up shop and used the bay as a dumping ground. It’s where the smokestacks of coal and oil fired power plants polluted the air. It’s where the Navy filled the Bay, built a shipyard at Hunters Point and loaded parts of the first atomic bomb onto the USS Indianapolis in 1945.

District 10 is where the bottom fell out of this industrial economy in 1974, when the Navy left, taking with it people’s jobs, pay, and hopes for a home of their own and a better future, particularly for what was then a predominantly African American population.

And District 10 is ground zero for plans that will triple the population and double the number of homes — homes that likely will only be “affordable” to Google executives and retirees from Marin, forever changing the face of San Francisco’s southeast sector. Critics fear that will accelerate what has been a steady exodus of black residents, replaced by megadeveloper Lennar’s vision for a new D10.

It’s against this dark history and difficult present that a wide open field of more than a dozen candidates are vying to replace Maxwell, who came to power in 2000 and has had a mixed voting record in her decade on the board. Sometimes, Maxwell was the eighth vote that let the progressive majority on the Board override Mayor Gavin Newsom’s veto and pass trailblazing legislation. Other times, she was the swing vote that allowed the moderate minority to carry Newsom’s water.

So, in addition to D10’s many internal challenges, this seat could determine the political balance of power on the Board of Supervisors, placing all the more importance on voters in this long-marginalized part of town.



Eric Smith, a biodiesel activist who has thrown his hat in the D10 ring, says that there is a lot of frustration in the air, and looking at the problems the district is facing, it’s hardly surprising that it has what nearly every candidate agrees is a fractured political culture.

“The Bayview, the Hunters Point Shipyard’s toxic Superfund site, the homicide rate, unemployment, poor public transportation, dwindling services and community resources have made D10 one of the city’s largest melting pots of discontent,” Smith said.

Smith’s words were spoken while the Elections Department was verifying signatures earlier this month on a second failed effort to qualify a petition to recall Maxwell.

Bayview resident and D10 candidate Marie Franklin didn’t support the attempt to recall Maxwell, but she understood it as “a frustration movement.”

“People are sinking in the sand, we’ve already lost so many of them, and they felt Sophie wasn’t doing anything for them,” said Franklin, who praised Maxwell for helping get Franklin’s apartment building complex renovated — a job that was completed 18 months ago, at a cost of $65 million, creating 500 local jobs.

“There are 654 units here, and they were uninhabitable,” Franklin said. “There was black mold, rain falling inside. We had people living worse than Haiti.”

Franklin, who said she is running because she “knows the history,” came here in 1978, when she and her son were living in a car after a fire left them homeless. She said the Bayview was a totally isolated area, barely part of mainstream San Francisco.

“There were no taxis, no services,” she recalled. “Nobody would come here, it was the stigmatized area where no one was accountable to provide services.”

The Bayview — which in some ways is the heart of D-!0 — wasn’t always a black community. But African Americans have been living here for 70 years, dealing with all the racism, denial of services, poverty, and pollution. And it bothers Franklin that 85 percent of the 10,500 homes that Lennar plans to develop won’t be affordable to the elderly, disabled, unemployed and low-income people who currently live in the Bayview.

“We need to preserve the diversity of the community and make sure their issues and information will flow to City Hall,” she said. “You must give the people a handle. If you don’t reach out, they’ll slip. That’s why folks out migrated.

Whoever succeeds Maxwell will be a central player in addressing some very big and dirty issues: the future of the Navy’s radiologically impacted shipyard at Hunters Point, Lennar’s massive redevelopment plan for the Shipyard and Candlestick Point, the polluting power plants, replacement of stinky digesters at the sewage plant, and the SF Hope public lousing rebuild.

There’s also the chance to address violence and crime. James Calloway, a candidate who has long worked in Bay Area schools, told us he believes that education and jobs are part of the keys to rejuvenating the district.

“Job opportunities are not as plentiful in the district,” Calloway said. “When I was a kid, you could walk down Third Street at 2 a.m. Now I wouldn’t walk down it at 9 p.m., and I know the area.”

Calloway is hopeful that the massive redevelopment plan, if done correctly, could start the district’s comeback. “Not a lot of black folks stay here when they have extensive education,” he said. “But it’s not only them. Many were displaced by redevelopment and had no way to go back.”



The largest of the city’s 11 electoral districts, D10 is a huge triangular piece of land in the city’s southeast sector that was used as an industrial dumping zone for decades. Today, the district runs from the Giants stadium at AT&T Park to the 49ers stadium at Candlestick Point and encompasses Mission Bay, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, India Basin, Portola, Little Hollywood, and Visitacion Valley. It’s also crossed by two freeways that isolate it from the rest of the city, and is home to a large number of crumbling housing projects that are in the process of being rebuilt.

Candidate Ed Donaldson grew up in the projects until he was 10 years old, when the Redevelopment Agency kicked his family out in the 1970s. “We landed on our feet, but others weren’t so lucky,” said Donaldson, who works as a housing counseling director at the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation.

“There is a sense that the Bayview and Visitacion Valley have not been included within the San Francisco family,” Donaldson said. “There is a sense of being forgotten.”

In 2007, Donaldson co-founded the Osiris Coalition to tackle the city’s dormant Certificate of Preference program, in which the Redevelopment Agency issued a document to displaced residents and businesses in the 1960s promising that they could return.

He also tried to rescue some 700 foreclosed properties and recycle them as affordable housing stock. And now he is trying to prevent the city from bulldozing seven SF Hope projects without guaranteeing residents that they have right to remain.

In 2007, Mayor Gavin Newsom and Maxwell convened an African American Outmigration Task Force that didn’t get a public hearing about its findings until August 2008. The timing angered some, who questioned why the report’s findings and implications for urban planning weren’t released before June 2008, when the residents of San Francisco voted for the Lennar-led Proposition G, a proposal to build 10,000 market rate homes at one of San Francisco’s last remaining black communities, which Newsom and Maxwell endorsed.

The taskforce didn’t publish its recommendations until the end of 2009, allegedly because of insider squabbling. Meanwhile, gentrification was going on actively, and many blamed Newsom, and by extension Maxwell, for failing to do anything with the group’s findings as D10 residents continued to suffer from high rates of asthma, cancer, unemployment and an ongoing black exodus.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1940s, the district’s black population exploded when migrants from the south and World War II veterans came to work at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Some moved to Alice Griffith Public Housing complex, or Double Rock, which was built as military housing in 1962. Others relocated to the Bayview when the Redevelopment Agency took over the Fillmore/Western Addition in the ’60s and ’70s as part of a controversial urban renewal effort.

But when the Navy abandoned the shipyard in 1974, unemployment hit the black community hard. Today, hundreds of the city’s lowest income residents live in Alice Griffith’s crumbling units and endure sewage backups, no heat, cloudy drinking water and leaking ceilings, as they wait for the projects to be rebuilt.

“Generations have been trapped in the silo of public housing and cannot get out, because of lack of opportunity and education, so when we legislate, we need to take that into consideration,” said candidate Malia Cohen, whose grandfather came from Texas to work at the shipyard where he met her grandmother, whose family came from New Orleans.

“My grandfather’s father was a longshoreman. He worked with the infamous Leroy King [a commissioner at the city’s Redevelopment Agency] and he has fantastically vivid stories of racism,” said Cohen, who works for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, previously served on the executive staff of Mayor Gavin Newsom, and has already raised over $18,000 in the D10 race and qualified for public matching funds.

“My family came here to work hard, they lived on Navy road in the projects, and then they bought a house here. My parents were born here, and we were all public schooled,” Cohen recalled as she took me on a tour of D10 that ended up in Visitacion Valley, an increasingly Chinese-American neighborhood that reflects a district-wide trend.

Census data show that by 2000, Asians were the largest racial group in the district (30 percent), followed by blacks (29 percent), whites (26 percent), and Latinos (19 percent). By 2003, according to the California Urban Issues project, the trend continued. Asians were the largest racial group (32 percent), followed by blacks (27 percent), whites (21 percent) and Latinos (17 percent) of the population.

This means that D10 candidates will have to garner support from more than one ethnic group to win. Over a dozen candidates have already filed papers in the race, but so far there is no clear front-runner.

Also frustrating the prognosticators is that fact that D10 has had the lowest voter turnout in the city, so the winner will also depend on who goes to the polls.

D10 candidate Geoffrea Morris, who is the grand daughter of longtime Bayview activist Charlie Walker, has been knocking on doors and participating in voter registration drives.

“We need new blood,” Morris said

Getting elected will be a complicated equation. Although Bayview’s population was 50 percent African American at the time of the 2000 census, it didn’t turn out the vote. In the 2006 election, only 14,000 of the district’s 37,000 registered voters went to the ballot, and 50 percent were from whiter, richer, and more Asian neighborhoods.

“It’s very important to the future of the city that the ethnicity diversity of the board be maintained and that the African American community have representation,” former Board President and current Democratic Party chair Aaron Peskin told the Guardian.

Maxwell recently told the Guardian that she’s not ready to endorse any D10 candidates yet. “I’m waiting for people to have a better understanding of what this community is, what the common thread running through it is, and how to use rank choice voting,” she told us.

The only candidate who currently holds elected office is BART director Lynette Sweet, who had her answers down pat when we reached her by phone, and even used wording that was eerily similar to Maxwell’s words.

“D10 is a pretty diverse district, but there is only one common thread: the need for economic development,” Sweet told me. “That’s true in Potrero Hill, Portola, Dog Patch and the Bayview. It’s the same mantra: a lot of small businesses need help, and the only way to help them is through economic development. In Potrero Hill it’s about land use. In the Bayview, it’s about the shipyard and better transportation and truancies.”



District 10 is ground zero for the Lennar’s $2.2 billion plan to develop 10,500 market rate condos at the Shipyard and Candlestick Point. The plan will allegedly create thousands of jobs and new parks, deliver on an historic community benefits agreement that labor groups claim is so “lawyered up” that the developer can’t renege on its promises.

The package is framed as the one and only way to revitalize the southeast’s formerly vibrant economic engine. Indeed, any time anyone tries to slow down the process—to take time to thoroughly read the draft EIR and see if it adequately addresses the impacts of this massive urban reengineering project — a chorus of “no delays” starts up, either from residents of the housing projects desperate to see their homes rebuilt, or the labor contractors who hope to get jobs.

“It’s as if the city is playing checkers, while Lennar is playing three-dimensional chess,” Eric Smith observed.

Lennar has stated that it will contribute $711 million to finance this massive project. The remainder will be leveraged by Mello-Roos bonds, state taxes based on the use and size of a property and intended to raise money for needed services, and tax increment financing, which creates funding for projects by borrowing against future property tax revenues.

The conceptual plan won Maxwell’s backing but environmental groups are critical of the draft EIR.

During DEIR hearing, environmentalists questioned the wisdom and the cost of filling the Bay to build a bridge over Yosemite Slough, and building condos on Candlestick Point state recreation area, the only open major open space in the district.

But the city’s Planning Department also has 20,000-30,000 units of housing in its pipeline. This means that if all these plans get approved in the next decade, they’d account for 80 percent of residential development citywide. And D10’s population could triple, further skewing the district’s already shifting demographics.

In other words, D10 as we know it could become nothing more than a historic relic in a few years, and the next supervisor will play a key role in deciding whether that happens. SFHDC’s Ed Donaldson warns that any supervisor who does not understand the complexity of the city’s largest district can expect a similar recall backlash in future.

“There is no one homogenous voice in the community,” Donaldson said. “The grass-roots organizing that brought about the recall effort was a result of a changing political structure in the area, but is not yet on par with other districts in town. We still allow our politics to be controlled from downtown.”

Fellow candidate Eric Smith warns that the issues—and politics—are complex.

“People were emotional, angry, and desperate because they feel no one listens to them,” Smith said. “That’s part of the problem here; they would rather have a supervisor go down swinging for them, rather than watch one seemingly side with Lennar, PG&E and the mayor on issues contrary to their interests. That’s the terrible irony and one of the biggest problems in District 10. Folks are so mad, they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make them feel they have a voice in the outcome, even if it’s potentially worse.”

Smith cited the sequence of events that culminated last year in the Navy dissolving the community-based shipyard Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), which for years has reviewed technical documents and commented on the Navy’s clean-up proposals. But in December, the Navy made its official decision to disband the RAB, citing dysfunctional behavior and off-topic discussions that got in the way.

“Some of the same folks who were frustrated by the process, tried to send a signal to the Navy that they weren’t being heard and for all their well-intentioned efforts got the RAB dissolved,” Smith said. “I truly feel for them, it’s absolutely heartbreaking, but at times, they can be their own worst enemy.”

One of the looming issues about the shipyard is that the land has been polluted and needs to be cleaned. The shipyard contains radioactive debris from ships towed to the shipyard, after a 90-foot wave washed over them during an atomic test gone awry. The Navy burned 610,000 gallons of radioactively contaminated ship fuel at the shipyard, and workers showered on the shipyard, raising concerns that radioactive materials got into the drains and sewers. And questions have been raised about radiological tests on animals at the yard.



It’s not just the shipyard that’s toxic. Even the buildings that were constructed to house workers 50 years ago are a serious mess.

Realtor Diane Wesley Smith, who grew up in public housing projects, took me on a walking tour of Alice Griffith last week to see conditions that tenants will likely have to endure until at least 2014, if the city sticks to its plan to relocate people into a new replacement unit in the same geographical area, if not the exact same site.

What we found was pretty messed up.

“The water sometimes comes out brown and feels like sand. It’s been like that for a year,” one resident said.

“The water is cloudy, the bath tub isn’t working and the sink keeps stopping up,” said another.

A woman named Silvia showed us how the water from the tap in her elderly mother’s kitchen flows out cloudy and then doesn’t settle properly, like foamy beer.

“The roof’s been leaking for years, the sewage backs up, but they just fixed the lights,” Silvia said. A neighbor named Linda was using her oven as a heater.

“The toilet backs up a lot, and my grandson’s been coughing a lot from asthma,” Linda said.

“Roaches is always a problem,” said a woman named Stormi, dressed in black sweats and a black T-shirt that read, “Can’t knock the hustle.”

“They’re trying,” said Stormi, a member of the Alice Griffith Residents Association, as a couple of Housing Authority trucks pulled up to do repairs.

“They promise that you will not have to leave your unit, but if they try to move us down to the waterfront, well, there’s a reason there’s no housing there, and it’s because the land will flood,” Stormi said.

“If we don’t end up at the table, we’ll end up on the menu,” Wesley Smith warned, as she stopped to chat with a group of young men, who were worried they would pushed out of the Alice Griffith rebuild through the criteria being established.

“Fred Blackwell, the executive director of the Redevelopment Agency, assures me that’s not the case, but Alice Griffith is a Housing Authority property, and empty promises have the potential to be great promises provided they are made in writing,” Wesley Smith said as we walked out of the projects and onto the road where a yellow and black sign announced “flooded” next to Candlestick Point park, where Lennar wants to build.

Malia Cohen expressed concern about Hope SF residents, as we drove through the Sunnydale housing project.

“We have to be diligent and mindful that people are not pushed out,” Cohen said, noting the sweeping views at Gleneagles golf course above Sunnydale, and the value of housing for a golf course community. “When public housing gets taken offline, we must work with Redevelopment and the Housing Authority to make sure no one is changing the rules halfway. We have to make sure the talks and walks line up. We need to be equal partners. We cannot be bulldozed by City Hall.”

Geoffrea Morris is a Calworks employee, at the Southeast Community College facility on Oakdale, which was built to mitigate the city’s expansion of the sewage plant in 1987. She cited concerns about the literacy levels of people who live in the 2200 public housing units that cluster D10. “A lot of people in Alice Griffith don’t even know the dates or when it’s going to be reconstructed,” Morris said. “Folks like to be told stuff like that, but the city gives you a stack of papers. Some will read them, but others rely on folks they think are trustworthy. They need stuff in layman’s terms written on one sheet of paper.”

Morris is a fan of the Internet who posted a community survey online, and made sure every housing project got some literature telling people to get informed. She worries about the digital divide in D10:

“A lot of folks don’t have computers and access to important information,” Morris said. “And let’s talk about the way ‘affordable’ is used to trick people.”

Michael Cohen, Newsom’s top economic adviser, recently stated in a memo that over the expected 15-20 year phased build out, Lennar’s Candlestick-Shipyard development would include, “up to 10,500 residential units, about 32 percent of which (3,345) will be offered at below market rates.”

“But 892 units of this ‘affordable category’ will be sold to folks earning $100,000,” Morris said. “So if you subtract 892 units from affordable unit category, you’re back to 25 percent affordable.”

Candidate Kristine Enea, an attorney and a former RAB member, chairs the India Basin Neighborhood Association, which administers a US EPA grant to hire experts to translate the Navy’s cleanup documents into plain English and comment on them She was frustrated by the Navy’s decision to dissolve the RAB.

“The lack of a forum does nothing to bolster the community’s trust in the cleanup or the redevelopment process,” Enea said.

Enea generally supports the Lennar project, but has concerns about whether it will adequately mitigate increased car traffic, or result in commercial development that benefits her neighborhood.

“India basin is a pocket of Hunters Point right along the shoreline,” Enea said. “Right now, we have no shops or restaurants, no ATM, no groceries, nothing beyond one liquor store and a few industrial businesses.

Potrero Boosters president Tony Kelly told us that District 10 residents can think for themselves. “D10 residents don’t need to rely on corporations to solve their problems,” he said.

“Folks in the eastern neighborhoods came up with a better revitalization plan than what the city proposed and community activists managed to close the power plant, after the city said it was impossible,” Kelly recalled.

And there’s no shortage of good ideas.

Kelly suggested that an urban agriculture center could immediately put low-skilled folks to work by erecting greenhouses on unused land. Smith said the industrial zone could be “incredible eco-park made from sustainable sources.

‘D 10 is the dumping ground for everything, including all the city’s waste,” he said. “We could be a shining example, not just for D 10, but the rest of the state.”

The D 10 candidate line up includes Calloway, Cohen, Donaldson, Smith, Enea: civil rights attorney Dewitt Lacy, Morris, Potrero View publisher Steve Moss; District 7 BART director Lynette Sweet, Wesley-Smith. Bill Barnes, who works for Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier, and Linda Richardson, who was appointed to the Human Rights Commission in 2007 by Mayor Newsom, have also expressed interest in the race.

In such a huge field, name identification will play a major role. Sweet is in office, but BART Board is not a high-profile job and won’t give her a huge advantage.

Cohen has a slight edge right now in that she’s raised $18,505, including $500 from former Newsom flak Peter Ragone, making her the first D. 10 candidate to qualify for campaign financing. The oldest of five girls, Cohen recalls how her mother got laid off from her city job as a school-based mental health worker and then rehired, as part of the city’s budget cuts.

“We felt that pinch and the frustrating games that are played out between the leadership and the rank and file,” she said.

Cohen who worked for Newsom in his first term as mayor, but has since left his administration , said she is uncomfortable at being framed as Newsom’s candidate.

“Because I’m not, but I am one of the few candidates who has seen how the mayor and the Board work—and don’t work—together,” she said.

Moss sees the city’s southeast as a “district in transition.” Over coffee at Farley’s in Potrero Hill, he told me that the southeastern neighborhoods could be “launching pads for environmentally sustainable growth.”

“The district’s been in a frozen period for 30 years, But despite the problems, people are deeply committed to and in love with their community.

“This district is the future of San Francisco and its social fabric—the diversity, income –and its problems are leftovers from the city’s industrial age.”





Total Acres: 5,650

Average household income: $85,000

Population: 73,000

Registered voters: 37,700

Average housing price: $335,000

Ethnicity (2003 figures): Asian 32%, African American, 27%, white 21%, Hispanic 17%

Development status of land: 18% residential, 38% is commercial, 38% undevelopable

All figures the latest available. Sources: SFGIS, Association of Bay Area Governments, U.S. Census, California Urban Issues Project. Ethnicity and income data is from 2003 and almost certainly has changed.