Chinatown advocates concerned about construction of five-story office building

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Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner
Chinatown community advocates are alarmed that construction has begun on a five-story office building with a rooftop that will serve as an extension of St. Mary’s Square
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Chinatown community advocates are alarmed that construction has begun on a five-story office building with a rooftop that will serve as an extension of St. Mary’s Square. <p>

They claim the current design plan amounts to a private takeover of a public park and fails to honor a compromise from more than a decade ago.

In 2001, the Planning Commission and Recreation and Park Commission approved plans for a 19-story building at 350 Bush St. with the condition the developer would also construct an extension of St. Mary’s Square, which the high-rise would cast a shadow upon. The extension would sit atop the developer’s five-story building proposed at 500 Pine St. and look inviting to Chinatown residents who have historically used the park, the agreement spelled out.

But leaders with the Committee for Better Parks and Recreation in Chinatown and the Chinatown Community Development Center say the current developer, Gemdale USA, has yet to soften the appearance of a gate between the park and its extension, expand the proposed open hours for the square extension, and incorporate elements recognizing the Kong Chow Temple previously at the site.

Those design elements, among other conditions, should have been settled before the developer obtained a site permit to begin construction, according to Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of the development center. By breaking ground on 500 Pine St. late last year, the developer is “railroading the community,” he said.

“We don’t feel the spirit of the agreement is being honored,” Yeung said. “I hate to say it, but it’s the classic example of a community trusting a developer and I don’t know how else to put it, but we feel like that trust is being broken.”

A status report on the project will be presented to the Rec and Park Commission’s capital committee meeting today.

Allan Low, vice president of the Recreation and Park Commission, said the developer’s move in October to obtain a site permit from the Department of Building Inspection without first resolving the design and other conditions is “clearly a violation.”

But Daniel Frattin, attorney for Gemdale USA, said the Recreation and Park Department’s approval of a final conceptual design plan in 2008 was sufficient to give developers the go-ahead with construction.

“Frankly, I see this as having been resolved a long time ago and as a gesture of good faith, we are working to accommodate what we hear from the neighborhood,” Frattin said, adding that the Committee for Better Parks and Recreation in Chinatown did not reply to the developer’s latest efforts a couple weeks ago to come to agreeable design elements.

Gemdale USA plans to have a final design for the extension by mid-summer.

The St. Mary’s Square debate represents the longtime efforts of Chinatown activists in fending off gentrification. Specifically, they fear a closed-off park extension would cater to the Financial District lunch crowd and edge off seniors and residents in dense Chinatown who have little access to open space.

“If this doesn’t go anywhere, we will protest it and show the developer how we deal with this in person,” Yeung said. “At the end of the day, that’s really the only tool the community has.”

Low, who said he is neutral on the issue, said he hopes the two sides can resolve their qualms once and for all.

“You see this happen in real estate transactions from time to time, but I can’t think of a [Rec and Park] situation where a site permit has been pulled well into construction and nobody’s doing anything about it,” Low said, “granted this is a unique project.”

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