San Francisco merchants say they are cracking under the weight of constant construction.
From the Mission District’s “red carpet” bus-only lanes to streetscape improvements on Masonic Avenue, city projects have merchants worried they won’t survive the process. In recent years, merchants from throughout The City organized to decry those construction impacts.
Now, Mayor Ed Lee has developed a plan to answer project-impact woes citywide called the “Construction Mitigation Program,” the Mayor’s Office revealed to the San Francisco Examiner on Wednesday.
“We are embarking on an unprecedented set of critical infrastructure upgrades,” Lee said in a statement. “I have directed all city agencies to develop a new standard for projects moving forward — big and small — that will minimize the effects of construction work.”
The announcement comes after increasing outcry from the Chinatown community in particular, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
Chinatown, specifically, has been the recipient of aid due to year-long Central Subway delays, including promised free parking and free graffiti cleanup, which has prompted merchants in other neighborhoods to question how often the city helps less politically savvy neighborhoods.
“I think historically, I’ll be honest, we always get the short end of the stick,” said Albert Chow, owner of Great Wall Hardware in the Sunset District. Chow has seen neighboring businesses shutter allegedly due to L-Taraval traffic changes.
“We don’t always get that kind of support,” he said of the help Chinatown has received.
Under the mayor’s new program, however, San Francisco’s various agencies that regularly tear up city streets — from the Public Utilities Commission to the SFMTA and Public Works — will have specific plans to aid any merchant, in any neighborhood, who might otherwise see their business hurt by nearby construction.
The program is multi-tiered and slots projects into low-impact, moderate-impact and major-impact, with specific ways to aid merchants in each situation. Low-impact projects may be as small as as a street repaving, whereas major-impact projects may include construction for the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit system or the Central Subway.
Some of the program will be paid out of project contracts, according to the SFMTA, though some funding will come directly from The City.
Though all levels of aid include increased public information and business outreach, major-impact aid includes up to $10,000 in city support for directly impacted businesses, depending on the level of impact from nearby construction.
Under that plan, the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development would offer free one-on-one business consulting services, and a staffer would be on hand to assess concrete needs like new fixtures, furnishings, painting, disability access improvements and technology upgrades, among other support.
When told of the plan, Gabriel Medina, business coordinator at the Mission Economic Development Agency, said he was tentatively appreciative but had concerns.
“Having a program like this in place is great, but they need to make it measured on impacts that are transparent,” he said. Medina said the SFMTA brought a finished plan on “red carpet” bus-only lanes to the Mission, a process he’d like to see change.
Still, he said, the mayor’s program is “a step in the right direction.”
The plan also includes specific plans to aid businesses when projects are faced with scheduled delays, which could quickly aid Chinatown, and particularly Stockton Street.
Just last month, the owner of Hong Kong Fashion, a long-time clothier on Stockton Street, told the San Francisco Examiner it would close. Joe Lee pinned her store’s woes on sidewalk disruption caused by construction of the Central Subway.
Her business is among many on the corridor impacted by construction, Chinatown merchants told the Examiner, though they acknowledged the subway will one day benefit them all — if they survive that long.
The mayor’s new system to aid businesses formalizes a practice that Lee, as well as past mayors and other politicians, have engaged in on a case-by-case basis for years.
On Tuesday, Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a $225,000 appropriation of the city budget to directly aid struggling Chinatown merchants with cash.
“We’ve heard the well-intentioned suggestions from the Mayor’s Office, and we’ve also heard the overwhelming feedback from the merchants most directly impacted by the long-delayed Chinatown Central Subway construction,” Peskin said at the board Tuesday. “I think we’ve heard enough from the merchants to know they need relief now. So let’s give it to them.”
But merchants said that ad-hoc style of aid can lead to neighborhoods more experienced in advocating for themselves to see more benefits.
“We need to make sure [the process] is objective,” Medina said, “and not just about political will.”
In Chinatown, arguably the home to some of the largest construction impacts in The City, a large gala to honor the mayor was hosted Tuesday night by former police commissioner and Chinatown Neighborhood Association Chair Pius Lee.
Hundreds of Chinatown neighbors and advocates, as well as the influential organization the Chinese Six Companies, sat at tables at the Far East Cafe’s banquet hall eating chicken and bok choy as Pius Lee spoke.
Pius Lee had a surprise for the mayor when he sprung a number of community asks on him in front of the audience for all to hear. He had repeatedly written these requests — meant to help merchants harmed by Central Subway construction — to the mayor for months.
“Mayor Ed Lee is always ready to offer solutions to these problems,” he said. “Therefore, on behalf of the merchants doing business in Stockton Street, we respectfully ask you consider the following.”
He and the Six Companies asked for Stockton Street’s sidewalks to be extended five feet, in the name of pedestrian safety, for steam cleaning of Stockton Street “twice a week” after 6 p.m., for Public Works to pay for graffiti removal along Stockton Street, and for the beautification of the Stockton Street tunnel, among other asks.
After lion-dancers leapt and hopped to the sound of drums, the mayor stood at the podium to directly address the requests from Chinatown before the banquet-goers.
“I can’t do everything on the list Pius has tonight,” he said, but he announced, “I am committing for the next two years on Stockton Street, we will clean all the graffiti for free.”
The mayor said, “We’re going to work on extending sidewalks, work on advertising.”
“There are just a few of the immediate announcements,” he said. “In the coming weeks, we’ll have more to say, because we want to make sure [you know] we’re paying attention to Chinatown.”