About a year ago, property owners in the Dogpatch and northwest Potrero Hill embarked on a bold experiment. They established the United States’ first Green Benefits District, a special assessment area focused on greening and improving public areas. The small sum property owners pay on their taxes for the program is already cleaning up dangerous neighborhood areas and helping advance new, green places for everyone to enjoy.
Now, community leaders in the Inner Sunset are thinking about following the lead of the eastern neighborhoods. Could the Dogpatch and northwest Potrero Hill be a model for San Franciscans who want to cut through The City’s red tape and shape their communities?
“Everybody is conscious of the fact that this is a pilot,” Julie Christensen told me. The former supervisor recently received approval from The City’s Ethics Commission to be the GBD’s new executive director. “There are high expectations, but we will live up to them.”
Christensen and Jean Bogiages, a 40-year resident of Potrero Hill and GBD board member, took me to Angel Alley and Minnesota Grove. These pockets of open space were once solely maintained by nearby residents. They were falling into disrepair and could be unsafe. Now, the spots, along with many others in the neighborhoods, stay lit, clean, pruned and graffiti-free thanks to funds raised by the district. The program maintains them as green, urban refuges.
Bogiages’ dream is to see the neglected and dangerous area surrounding Highway 101, on Potrero Hill between 17th and 18th streets, transformed into a green, public park for people in the neighborhood to enjoy. The idea of “The Loop” has been batted around for years, but Bogiages told me it’s finally “ready to go.” Conceptual design work is done and the community is supportive. They’re in the process of securing funding.
“It helps that the GBD can become the managing steward for these newly created public areas,” Christensen said.
This is why neighborhoods like the Inner Sunset should pay attention to what’s happening in the Dogpatch and Potrero Hill. Yes, the Inner Sunset’s suburban vibe is different from the old, industrial neighborhoods to the east. Yes, the green program has only been in existence a year. Yes, its accomplishments are mostly exciting for neighborhood locals. But the nominal extra tax has created a resource for locals to shape their communities.
Brooke Ray Rivera of Build Public, the nonprofit organization that helped launch the green program, described it as a “hyperlocal democracy.” It is a city-sanctioned institution with elected board members and transparent goals. It can help people like Bogiages make ideas like “The Loop” a reality. It’s budget and influence will also only grow as the neighborhoods welcome more newcomers.
It’s also a resource for The City. Bureaucracy and limited resources can slow government action. Interactions between neighborhoods and city officials can often be tense. The City could use a new way to communicate with San Franciscans, especially as it faces the pressures of a housing crisis, homelessness epidemic and climate change. Hyperlocal democracies offer a new way.
“This is a real opportunity for us to work successfully with The City,” Susan Eslick, a GBD board member, told me. She is helping community leaders in the Inner Sunset create their neighborhood program. “I think it can be an incredibly enriching experience for all parties.”
Although leaders in the Inner Sunset are still figuring out neighborhood priorities, I was told pedestrian safety and better flow around the entrance to Golden Gate Park on 9th Avenue is one idea. But there are still years of work ahead. Perhaps the Inner Sunset could celebrate the Park’s 150th anniversary in 2020 with a working green program.
As San Francisco continues to change, more neighborhoods should follow the Dogpatch and northwest Potrero Hill’s example. Green Benefits Districts are an opportunity for San Franciscans to create the communities they want to call home.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.