Like many who have built their lives in San Francisco, Julie Christensen came as a starry-eyed young adult from elsewhere to work for a large firm. She eventually started a small design business and became an advocate for projects that would improve the quality of life in her neighborhood.
But her life took an unexpected turn this year when she found herself suddenly with a new career — bursting into the public realm as The City’s District 3 supervisor by way of Mayor Ed Lee’s appointment in January.
For Christensen, 61, moving from her firm’s Potrero Hill office suite, located in an industrial space shared with a spice factory, to her new marble-walled office at City Hall has been a shock, she said.
“It’s like, ‘Wow, pinch me,” she said during a recent interview, nearing two months into her new post. But she added that she felt compelled to take on the role, finding no candidate she could confidently support. “I would have been more than happy to have this cup pass from my lips,” Christensen said. “But at this moment in time, I believe that I can serve the district well.”
Christensen filled the board seat left vacant by David Chiu, who was the Board of Supervisors president before being sworn in to the state Assembly on Dec. 1. Lee’s 11th-hour decision to appoint Christensen caught many San Franciscans off guard — including people outside of her North Beach neighborhood who had never heard of her and especially her activist neighbors in Chinatown who had banked on Cindy Wu of the influential Chinatown Community Development Center to be named Chiu’s successor.
Mayor Lee said he choose Christensen because of her ability to make an impact. He praised Christensen for her role last week in working out a solution to save two dozen families from eviction at a Chinatown single room occupancy hotel at 2 Emery Lane.
“I appointed Supervisor Christensen because she gets things done and already she is showing the district what she can do,” he said. “[On Friday], we worked to prevent evictions in Chinatown and the supervisor is already addressing Ellis Act Reform and other measures to stabilize and protect other at-risk tenants in her district. She is a champion for neighborhoods and shares my commitment to build more housing, protect tenants and strengthen small businesses.
Board President London Breed said she was “really impressed” by how Christensen handled her first weeks in the seat and can see the wisdom in the mayor’s appointment.
“I think he wanted someone he knew he could count on and do what’s in the best interest of the district as a whole, and Julie is that person, based on my short experience working with her,” Breed said.
Asked whether Christensen’s presence makes the board more moderate than it was when Chiu occupied the seat, Breed said: “Yeah, probably so.”
Christensen, who lives west of Telegraph Hill with her husband and rescued dog, a Australian shepherd and hound mix, spent some of her first days in office trying to appease doubters who felt she was awarded the position undeservingly and reassuring constituents — particularly in Chinatown — that she would be sensitive to the diversity of their needs. Becoming supervisor, Christensen said, was not her idea, but one that was planted in her head by community members she talked to while poking around the district trying to figure out who was running for Chiu’s seat. Forming a working relationship with the new supervisor, she said, was key for succeeding as an activist.
“In a year of looking, I couldn’t find people that were both qualified and willing to do it,” she said. “There wasn’t anybody I could see that could unite the whole district, so when the mayor came up and said, ‘Would you meet me for coffee and talk about this?’ I took the opportunity seriously, and I had to think very hard because this is an extremely disruptive thing to do.”
Christensen closed her business, Surface Work, and accepted the appointment. Though her background in politics was limited to advocating for Americans With Disabilities access at Coit Tower, a new North Beach Branch Library and renovations at Joe DiMaggio Playground, she says her background in the private sector has prepared her for the public role. As a supervisor, she will make around $110,000 annually.
The Washington, D.C., native moved to The City in 1979 at the age of 26 to work as a commercial interior designer for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the largest architectural design firms in the world. Within a couple years, Christensen had worked on iconic buildings including Davies Symphony Hall and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. But desiring to create at a more intimate scale, she founded her own business, originally in North Beach, called Surface Strategy, which became Surface Work.
In the 1980s, Christensen’s firm mostly tackled lighting, carpentry and office furniture for clients. Then in the 1990s, she met David Kelley, who built the company that created the first mouse for Apple, and Bill Moggridge, inventor of the first laptop, and found a niche in designing appearances and finishes for technology products. Christensen worked on the Xbox, products for Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and medical and household items, most notably the candy-apple red look for the appliance giant KitchenAid’s 90th anniversary.
“In three decades, I built up a pretty impressive list of clients a lot of larger firms would be proud to have and I think I did that because I always remained responsive to the realities that my clients faced, but I was also able to come up with innovative solutions that other people hadn’t thought of,” she said. “And those are the things I’m trying to bring to my job as supervisor.”
One of the first issues she may have to resolve is mending relationships with Chinatown activists who felt slighted when the mayor did not appoint Wu, whom they had been priming for the supervisorial seat. Perhaps Christensen’s greatest critic is Rose Pak, the influential general consultant for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce who has refused to speak to the new supervisor at public events in Chinatown. Pak said she took offense when Christensen said as she took office on Jan. 8: “I don’t think anyone in City Hall wants to see seniors evicted from their homes or see especially our lower-class and even our middle-class neighbors have to move out of The City.”
“The supervisor doesn’t know jack shit about Chinatown,” Pak told The San Francisco Examiner. “She addresses us as lower class. What sensitivity would she have?”
But Christensen said that the “lower-class” reference was a “first-day flub” and that she had meant to convey she is aware that many people in her district are living below the poverty line. She added she has always loved Chinatown and frequented the neighborhood’s restaurants. Since becoming supervisor, she said has been invited to — and attended — half a dozen family association Chinese New Year’s banquets per week. “I call District 3 the charm bracelet of neighborhoods,” she said. “And it’s easy for Chinatown to stand out as an important neighborhood, even in a district that’s full of important neighborhoods.”
Mel Lee, who holds the high-level position of an elder at the Lee On Dong Association, the headquarters for Lee family associations nationwide, said most of the members in his organization agreed Christensen was an “excellent choice” for the position.
“I really don’t know her well enough, but I do know she is the same thing as Mayor Ed Lee — a centrist,” he said.
Christensen says her top priorities as a supervisor are finding spots for infill housing developments to accommodate the large senior population, extending the Central Subway past Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf, widening streets to boost pedestrian safety and improving the waterfront.
She says she hopes to work with powerful activists in her district like Pak — who she calls “a role model for anyone who is trying to accomplish this when the odds are against us” — rather than against them.