‘It is literally our living room’: Fight over controversial Chinatown bridge heats up

‘Let us reclaim the sunlight, fresh air and better open space and facilities for our community’

The aging, brutalist slab of concrete that spans Kearny Street, connecting the Hilton Hotel to Portsmouth Square, stands directly in the way of The City’s plans to transform Chinatown’s “living room.”

Now, the bridge is poised for demolition over the stringent objections of its owner — and to the joy of those who have long campaigned for its removal to make way for a litany of long-planned park upgrades.

The demolition of the nearly 50-year-old pedestrian bridge is a central component of The City’s proposal to revamp Portsmouth Square, a key open space for residents of densely populated Chinatown that sits atop a parking garage.

“Many of our senior members live in Chinatown (single-room occupancy hotels) and use Portsmouth Square on a daily basis. It is literally our living room,” testified Wing Hoo Leung, president of the Community Tenants Association, through an interpreter during a hearing on the removal last week. “However, we seldom get a chance to enjoy the private pedestrian bridge because the bridge is always locked.”

The Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed last week to revoke the 1970 permit that allowed construction of the pedestrian bridge and order the Hilton’s owners to tear it down at their own expense.

The permit is “revocable at the will of the Board of Supervisors,” but the option was never exercised until now. The estimated cost of tearing down the 28-foot bridge is $2.1 million, according to a city estimate. It would take about eight to 12 weeks to complete.

The hotel’s representatives argued the demand is infeasible given the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the hospitality industry. They said the only reason the bridge was erected in the first place was because The City demanded it as a condition of the hotel’s construction.

“It’s just not going to happen. We’re not going to be able to pay for this. It’s impossible,” David Gonzalez, president of hotel owner Portsmouth Square Inc., told the Board of Supervisors.

That argument fell flat with city leaders. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district includes Chinatown, suggested it was Portsmouth Square’s responsibility to conduct due diligence and be aware of its responsibilities before it inherited the hotel from its previous owner.

Neighborhood organizations and residents backing the demolition see a better and — quite literally — brighter future for Portsmouth Square Park without the bridge, which casts a shadow and uses up valuable real estate in the park.

More than two-thirds of respondents to 2017 survey conducted by The City said they do not ever use the bridge.

With the bridge’s removal, the park would see new playground space and a community clubhouse four times the size of the current one.

A community room in the lower portion of Portsmouth Square was completed in 2001. It sits wedged beneath the bridge. On a recent Saturday, it was closed and unused — much like the pedestrian bridge, which was gated shut.

Those in favor of demolition also alleged it was intended as a public space, but operated as a private one and was often closed.

“In fact, the bridge has been utilized as a lucrative private event space for the Chinatown Hilton, with its suspended outdoor location overlooking the downtown and Chinatown neighborhoods,” wrote Janet Lee Tse, who submitted the 2018 petition for the bridge’s removal that led to the Board of Supervisors vote this week.

Gonzalez dismissed the claim the bridge is regularly closed to the public and noted the hotel houses the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco, free of charge.

“Our hotel has always supported the community,” Gonzalez said.

But Leung pleaded for change.

“Let us reclaim the sunlight, fresh air and better open space and facilities for our community,” Leung said.

The City wants Portsmouth Square Inc., the owners of the bridge, to cover the estimated $2.1 million it will cost to demolish the bridge. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

The City wants Portsmouth Square Inc., the owners of the bridge, to cover the estimated $2.1 million it will cost to demolish the bridge. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

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