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Rent hike prompts CCSF to plan on closing Fort Mason art campus

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Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, seen Monday, March 13, 2017. (Steven Ho/Special to S.F. Examiner)

All signs pointed to closure for City College of San Francisco’s Fort Mason campus on Monday afternoon until Interim Chancellor Susan Lamb offered students a shred of hope later that day.

A proposed rent hike has prompted college officials to plan on closing the four-decade-old campus, CCSF spokesperson Jeff Hamilton said Monday. The college is slated to relocate the art classes to the Mission and Ocean campuses beginning next semester.

The landlord, a nonprofit called the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, proposed a 48 percent rent hike over the next five years and also sought to reclaim a quarter of the college’s space, according to college officials.

Rich Hillis, executive director of the nonprofit, said the Fort Mason Center has made efforts to keep CCSF there but claimed the administration has not engaged in negotiations.

“We’re willing to entertain any offer by City College. We’ve kept their rent basically at a third of market,” said Hillis, who is also the head of the San Francisco Planning Commission. “They have not made a counter offer.”

Julia Shafer uses a press in her printmaking class at City College of San Francisco's Fort Mason campus on Monday, March 13, 2017. (Steven Ho/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Julia Shafer uses a press in her printmaking class at City College of San Francisco’s Fort Mason campus on Monday, March 13, 2017. (Steven Ho/Special to S.F. Examiner)

After Hamilton said the campus will close, Lamb told a classroom packed with faculty and students that there was still room to negotiate the lease and agreed to allow a campus representative to join in on the negotiations.

“I am hearing that there is some wiggle room here,” Lamb said to students, some of whom were enrolled in noncredit courses for older adults. “There is some discussion that will have to occur. We do negotiate hard on behalf of this college.”

About 400 students are enrolled in 53 courses at Fort Mason, Hamilton said. According to the CCSF website, 80 percent of the courses are art classes including painting, drawing and ceramics.

The threat of closure raised concerns for faculty members, who have criticized college administrators for shrinking the college at a time when it needs to grow student enrollment in order to remain open.

“Glad to hear that there may be room for negotiations,” Tim Killikelly, head of the faculty union, said in a text. “Now is a critical time for the college to maintain its program and to grow. The programs at Fort Mason are an important part of San Francisco’s cultural life.”

The college is facing a $35 million step-down in state funding next fiscal year, and administrators say they are only cutting under-enrolled courses while also adding courses where there is more demand.

“As of now, nothing is being canceled at all,” Hamilton said of the Fort Mason classes. “They are being relocated.”

Lamb and Vice Chancellor Ron Gerhard explained to the students that the college had three options.

Fort Mason Center proposed increasing rent 28 percent in the first year and 5 percent annually for the next four years, according to Hamilton. CCSF’s current lease expires at the end of May, and the nonprofit first proposed the rent hike in November.

That proposal would mean the college loses $7.8 million over the next decade, including the cost of bringing the building into compliance with seismic standards.

“We’d have to sink a whole bunch of money into permanent changes for a building we don’t own, which is something you never want to do,” Hamilton said.

The college could also sign a five-year lease with a higher monthly rent and lose just $650,000 without covering the cost of building improvement.

The third choice is closure.

CCSF Board of Trustees President Thea Selby did not know the administration had decided to close the campus when she spoke with the San Francisco Examiner on Monday, but said low enrollment has put the college in a hard place.

“It’s just a tough situation where they feel like they need to increase rent and we completely understand their need, but there are difficulties,” Selby said. “We’re in a situation now where enrollment is way down and we are looking very carefully at all of our leases.”

In an email obtained by the Examiner, Hillis said the rent hike will allow the nonprofit to meet increasing costs and chip away at a more than $100 million deferred maintenance backlog.

“For nearly 40 years … we have proudly offered CCSF heavily subsidized rents,” Hillis wrote. “In fact, City College’s current rent is the lowest paid by any of our resident organizations. Our subsidies have saved CCSF over $600,000 this year alone.”

City College of San Francisco's Fort Mason campus, seen Monday, March 13, 2017. (Steven Ho/Special to S.F. Examiner)

City College of San Francisco’s Fort Mason campus, seen Monday, March 13, 2017. (Steven Ho/Special to S.F. Examiner)

As for the administration, Hamilton said relocating the courses could actually grow student enrollment, noting that Ocean and Mission campuses are better connected to public transit than Fort Mason.

“We never want to discontinue or make classes harder for our students [to get to] although sometimes when you relocate, you increase enrollment,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said the college plans to relocate most of the courses next semester, and move all by the Spring 2018 semester.

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