Chinatown hopes return of St. Mary’s Square project will retain traditional feel

In ultradense Chinatown, open space is a commodity — as is sunlight.

Community advocates won the battle to preserve both at St. Mary's Square more than a decade ago during the dot-com boom, when the developer of a proposed high-rise office building at 350 Bush St. that would have cast a shadow over the square agreed to build an extension of the park as a compromise.

Before the 19-story building — the last opportunity for an office skyscraper north of Market Street — could be occupied, the developer would have to complete the St. Mary's Square extension at its other property about a block away northwest at 500 Pine St. atop a five-story office building also in the pipeline.

Conceptual plans for the rooftop park — the result of extensive input from the Chinatown Community Development Center, Chinatown Coalition for Better Housing, Committee for Better Parks and Recreation in Chinatown and Tenderloin Housing Clinic — were approved by the Planning Commission and Recreation and Park Commission in 2001. The park extension was to be built and maintained by the developer, Shorenstein Co., and handed over to The City at no cost.

When the real estate market was at a high point in 2007, Shorenstein sold both parcels to Lincoln ASB Bush, which acquired the agreed-upon open-space compromise as well.

Then the recession hit.

The new developer put the construction on hold.

Now in the thick of a new economic boom with skyrocketing demand for housing and office space, Chinatown community advocates are worried the rooftop park will be built out to cater to the Financial District lunch crowd and gentrify the park, pushing out longtime monolingual residents who frequent the space for tai chi and other cultural and exercise activities.

“There's a fear that you're not welcome if you're not wealthy,” said Cindy Wu, community planning manager for the Chinatown Community Development Center. “It closes off St. Mary's Square even more.”

St. Mary's Square, a small, urban open-space playground boxed in between Pine, Kearny, California and Quincy streets bordering Chinatown and the Financial District, sees less use from Chinatown residents than the iconic Portsmouth Square, in large part due to its smaller size, fewer entry points and location farther from the heart of Chinatown.

At the same time, though, it offers a peaceful alternative to the only other open spaces in Chinatown — crowded Portsmouth Square, nearby Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground and Woh Hei Yuen Playground to the north.

According to a report released in May, Asian and Pacific Islander Health and Wellbeing: A San Francisco Neighborhood Analysis, only 5.8 percent of Chinatown is open-space land, compared to the citywide average of 22.8 percent.

The final rooftop park extension plans, approved by the Recreation and Park Department general manager in 2008, includes a fence that will close the space off to the public between sunset and sunrise. Concerns remain.

“They are office buildings, so we understand the need for security,” Wu said. “But knowing these restrictions, how can we preserve the Chinatown fabric?”

But Daniel Frattin, attorney for Gemdale USA, a Chinese company that formed a joint venture with Lincoln ASB Bush, has no interest in excluding Chinatown residents from the park extension. There has been “no significant change” in the park-extension design from its original form, Frattin said, and it will be accessible from the Chinatown side rather than the downtown end and Kearny Street.

“It's going to be open to the public,” Frattin said of the extension. In addition to expanding St. Mary's Square, the developer is also making a voluntary housing payment of $1.12 million to fund below-market-rate housing in Chinatown.

The site at 350 Bush St. has a history of its own. Still standing there is a former mining stock exchange building of a classical revival design, and north of it at 469 Pine St., before being torn down, the Temple Hotel was the site of Ellis Act evictions in the late 1990s. While modern, the new 19-story tower will incorporate elements of the mining stock exchange building.

Nearby, 500 Pine St., a former Chinese temple-turned-vacant site, is slated for a gleaming glass office. The 6,127-square-foot rooftop park design mirrors that style, which Carol Kuong, a member of the Committee for Better Parks and Recreation in Chinatown, hopes will be modified at least slightly.

“The design that we last saw is a big landscaping area and we are hoping that it can incorporate more Chinese character and a sense of belonging to Chinatown,” she said. “So it feels like part of the community when they go there.”

Since meeting with the committee in June, the developer has been considering the public-art component as well as modifications to soften up the fence and incorporate elements that would make the extension more welcoming to children, Frattin said.

Both projects are scheduled to break ground this month, with 500 Pine St. expected to take 18 months and 350 Bush St. two years to complete. Who will maintain the new park is still being finalized.

“We are thrilled to be partnering to add much-needed green space to this densely populated neighborhood,” Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg said.

Community activists see the St. Mary's Square extension as the potential beginning of a “Golden Era of Open Space” in Chinatown, with a Central Subway station rooftop plaza and the Portsmouth Square Master Plan on the horizon.

“We have so many ideas for Chinatown, creating open space,” said Allan Low, a Rec and Park commissioner. “It is a rare opportunity.”

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