Property owners seeking to create a special tax district in a roughly 90-block area surrounding Mission Dolores Park to pay for additional cleaning and security efforts have run into stark opposition from neighborhood groups.
The proposed Mission Dolores Green Benefit District would impose an additional tax on some 4,000 property owners within its boundaries to tackle quality of life, pedestrian and public safety issues in a neighborhood where its proponents — a self-described group of “residents and local business owners who love our neighborhood and are motivated to make a difference” — say The City has failed.
But neighborhood groups and some homeowners wary of the proposal contend that “green” stands for city and taxpayer dollars that would go toward increased privatization of public space, rather than additional investments in greening or the creation of more public parks, as its name may suggest.
The green district would assess property owners with a formula based on building size and lot square footage. City properties, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations that own property within the district’s bounds would also be assessed, albeit at a discounted rate.
Mission High School, which is located directly across from Dolores Park along 18th Street, would be charged about $10,628 annually, according to Carolyn Thomas, a homeowner who is on the proposed green district’s steering committee.
“One of the reasons why I am supporting the benefit district is because I know how many volunteer hours I’ve put in trying to negotiate with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Public Utilities Commission, PG&E or Recreation and Parks,” said Thomas.
Thomas said that an established green district would add a layer of legitimacy to residents’ complaints to city agencies about piles of trash or sidewalk graffiti.
“It’s a larger aggregation of people speaking with one voice,” she said.
Thomas said that green districts “may not use funds” for any city baseline services, but “will be equipped to hold The City accountable for maintaining those services.”
The proposed green district’s steering committee launched a petition drive earlier this year to begin the formation process. Thomas said that while the committee failed to gather the necessary signatures to move the green district proposal forward this year, the petition drive will remain “open until right before [The City’s] budget process of 2020-2021.”
The San Francisco Parks Alliance, a non-profit that is contracted by The City’s Office of Economic Workforce Development, is supporting the green district’s formation at Mission Dolores.
Brooke Ray River, of SF Parks Alliance, said that the organization is “committed to supporting community-driven efforts” aligned with its mission of trasnforming and activing parks and public spaces throughout San Francsico.
“Unlike temporary grassroots efforts—one-time fundraisers to clean-up a playground, for example—a GBD provides a long-term reliable revenue stream that allows for deeper, community-driven transformation and stewardship,” she said. “Because a GBD Board is directly elected by and from the neighborhood, it allows for a remarkable level of financial accountability and transparency.”
To create the green district, at least 30 percent of all property owners within its proposed boundaries must sign a petition favoring it, which is then forwarded to the Board of Supervisors. The board can introduce legislation calling for a special ballot election for those within the district.
Of the property owners participating in the election, 50 percent or more must sanction the green district.
So far though, two neighborhood groups — the Mission Dolores Neighborhood Association (MDNA) and Duboce Triangle Association — have formally announced their opposition to the effort.
MDNA President Peter Lewis said that the green district is sidelining the investments made by neighborhood groups to maintain and revitalize the area.
“One of the things that’s really disturbing about this group is that they are trying to put together a new neighborhood that ignores all of our survey work,” said Lewis, who added that MDNA has secured over $150,000 from the Mayor’s Office for land use and preservation, as well as quality of life improvements.
“We have a close relationship with the police department and Public Works. They are hired professionals [that are] trying to do their jobs,” said Lewis. “There’s a small group of people who claim they know better than The City.”
Privatization of public services
The emergence of green districts some five years ago inspired a website urging property owners to vote them down.
Critics have pointed out that there are no deadlines on the petition drives, allowing a green district to be revived at any time. They also described the formation process as inequitable, as property owners’ votes are weighted according to the size of their properties, and renters are ineligible to participate.
“The bigger your property, the bigger your vote,” said John Hooper, a property owner in the Haight neighborhood who described the green district taxation model as “feudal.”
“If you are the king that lives on the hill, then you get a bigger vote than the peasants in the valley,” said Hooper, who is a member of the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association, which successfully opposed the formation of a green district around Buena Vista Park last year.
Efforts to establish other green districts in the Inner Sunset and Golden Gate Heights have also tanked due to strong neighborhood opposition.
“Most neighbors really reacted by saying, ‘Wait a second — The City has a budget of over $12 billion. Why should property owners have to pay more when we have a city that is outrageously badly run?”’ said Hooper.
While the green district program is a relatively new idea in San Francisco — so far, just one exists in the Dogpatch and Northwest Potrero Hill neighborhoods — designating public areas for the preservation of a neighborhood’s cultural, historic and artistic assets by way of cultural districts, as well as levying extra taxes along business corridors, is not.
A total of 16 business improvement districts, also known as community benefit districts (benefit districts), are currently operating in San Francisco. Like green districts, they operate on property-based assessments, according to Department of Public Works Spokesperson Rachel Gordon.
Two more benefit districts, the Moscone Expansion District and the Tourism Improvement District, are business-based, said Gordon. She added that Public Works is charged with ensuring that the green district’s management plan is properly implemented.
The idea of spending private dollars on additional resources to augment The City’s services has sparked pushback from community advocates and some of the park’s neighbors.
“They are trying to take the [benefit district] model and apply it to neighborhoods,” said Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a homeless advocacy group that has long opposed benefit districts on the grounds that many implement private security guards or volunteers to enforce anti-homeless policies.
The San Francisco Examiner reported previously on a study by the Policy Advocacy Clinic of UC Berkeley’s School of Law that found that benefit districts often exclude homeless people from public spaces within their boundaries “through policy advocacy and policing practices.”
Boden pointed out that 60 percent of San Franciscans are renters. “Even most of the people that live where this thing will be created have no say in it whatsoever,” he said.
“It’s targeting people who don’t have homes and youth in particular — in my opinion it will increase the level of harassment of students at Mission High School, who are already harassed [by police] for being [at the park],” said Claude Marks, director of the Freedom Archives at 522 Valenica St.
Marks shared concerns about the green district “increasing private security”and “surveillance to control public spaces” in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
“The general demographic shift that is a part of the gentrification of San Francisco has already made a lot of poor, Latinx families a lot less welcome in the park,” he said.
Mission District community organizer Eva Mas shared those concerns, and pointed out that a majority of the green district’s projected 1.1 million budget — some 86 percent — will go towards “cleaning, safety and beautification” efforts.
“There is very little we [can do to] control how they are implementing safety and for whom,” said Mas. “At the moment I don’t see any indicator that this is really for the community that spends time in that space. It seems like it’s further gentrifying an already gentrifying area, and making Dolores Park less and less for the people who used to use it.”
Thomas questioned criticism over policing of youth within the green district, and said that in the end, the effort would improve safety for young people and others using Dolores Park.
She said that the green district’s formation is supported by some $100,386 allocated to improvements at Dolores Park by former District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who set aside the funding following a 2017 shooting there.
“One of the things we are trying to do is create an environment that is safe for them, including less drug dealing right on the steps [of Mission High School],” she said. “There are several crosswalk and traffic issues we would like to address that would make it safer for young people walking to and from their homes and schools.”
While Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who now oversees the area, said that the decision to create a green district is up to “the people that live there,” he added: “If I lived in that area, I would probably go for it.”
“This is the area between the Mission and the Castro — there are safety issues. A lot of blocks are hiring private security guards or patrol specials. There are home invasions, car break ins…a lot of drug sales and drug use,” he said, adding that “kids at Mission High are being impacted negatively by conditions in the area.”
This story has been updated to include comment from SF Parks Alliance.