Fillmore Heritage Center gets a new tenant after long vacancy

The lights are back on again inside the long-vacant Fillmore Heritage Center, where a coalition of neighborhood advocates working to revive the venue as a hub for black culture and business has temporarily taken up stewardship.

The New Community Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit born out of efforts to activate the 50,000-square-foot space, obtained a temporary lease for the center last month through a partnership with local celebrity boxer Karim Mayfield and the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation.

The space is expected to open its doors to the public on Nov. 16 for six months as a place for community services and live shows after sitting dormant for more than three years. Advocates say the extended vacancy has earned the former home of the popular Yoshi’s jazz club a less-glamorous reputation as the Fillmore’s “multimillion-dollar blight.”

The center includes a restaurant space, screening room, gallery and parking garage. Public meetings will be held there Nov. 6 and Nov. 12 to gather input on what the community would like to see offered at the space and discuss programming opportunities.

The Fillmore Heritage Center Equity Board meets inside a private room at the soon-to-be-reopened venue on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The $80.5 million center was built in 2007 with city funds and a $5.5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in an effort to revitalize the stretch of Fillmore Street once known as “the Harlem of the West” for the dozens of jazz clubs formerly clustered there.

The center was one of the last projects built under The City’s redevelopment program.

Under the California Redevelopment Act of 1945, the Fillmore commercial district and the surrounding Western Addition neighborhood were heavily targeted for redevelopment in an effort to combat urban blight in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

While residents were promised a right to return, the demolition of homes under the program resulted in mass displacement, while hundreds of businesses shuttered, effectively decimating a once vibrant and historically black community, which at the time comprised some 60 percent of the area’s population.

The center, touted as an anchor space and an opportunity for economic growth, was part of a revitalization effort in the area. But since Yoshi’s declared bankruptcy in 2014, the center has struggled to secure permanent ownership.

Its developer, Michael Johnson, briefly opened a restaurant there, which shuttered in 2015.

In August, the City Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit against Johnson seeking to recover the federal loan, alleging that he struggled to make payments on the loan despite efforts to renogiate its terms.

As part of The City’s effort to find a buyer for the center, the NCLF devised a 10-point community benefits plan. The City used the plan as a blueprint to request development proposals for the site.

“Our position was we didn’t care who bought the building, all we cared about were the community benefits,” said Majeid Crawford, spokesperson for NCLF, which is now co-managing the space with SFHDC. “Whoever was willing to give them to us, we would support.”

Last October, the group rallied at City Hall after it appeared that The City’s bidding process had stalled. The City then announced that its selection committee had rejected all bids for the center, citing applicants’ failure to meet the financial requirements and the community’s expectations spelled out as part of the benefits package.

“At that point we realized we needed to ask for community partnerships,” said Crawford, adding that the nonprofit then approached The City with its own plan for reactivating the center. “The space had been dormant too long. We needed immediate activation.”

In its latest iteration, the center will operate as an access point for housing, workforce development and educational resources for the surrounding neighborhoods. The services will be operated out of a portion of the space by SFHDC with city funding.

“It’s an entertainment venue with potential to be an economic engine of the lower Fillmore corridor,” said SFHDC CEO David Sobel. “Because we are a community development organization, we can build affordable housing —but at the end of the day, if people don’t have jobs to go to, if they don’t have goods and services in their neighborhood that they can afford, then that’s just more impetus for people to leave San Francisco.”

The Fillmore Heritage Center Equity Board meets inside a private room at the soon-to-be-reopened venue on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Supervisor Vallie Brown said the services are critically needed in the neighborhood.

“SFHDC can come in and do affordable housing workshops, which was really needed in my district,” Brown said. “We don’t have a Chinatown Community Development Center or a Mission Economic Development Agency here.”

Residents of the area will be able to participate in housing counseling and financial workshops. As development plans slated to bring more affordable housing to the Divisadero Corridor inch forward, Brown said that the center’s resources will help prepare the local community, including those who have been displaced, to move into those units in the coming years.

“Especially in the Western Addition, we have a lot of community people that don’t qualify for affordable housing because they make less than 55 percent Area Median Income,” Brown said. “They can start learning and getting the skills so they can make the money to be able to even qualify for affordable housing.”

But the center would hardly be complete without music, and that’s where Mayfield comes in.

Through his company, Hard Hitta Promotions, Mayfield will be working with local promoters and taking over marketing to provide live entertainment including jazz, R&B and old-school hip-hop shows reminiscent of the center’s heyday.

Mayfield said the ultimate goal is to “lift the community up” and offer the long-promised benefits.

“What’s lacking is equity,” said Mayfield. “At the end of the day, everything is centered around equity and being able to capitalize on what’s going on around you.”

“Being born and raised here — and I’m speaking for the community in this role— we wanted to put skin in the game to get this place operating and functioning,” he added.

Karim Mayfield, head of marketing, promotions and community outreach at The Fillmore Heritage Center, which is planned to be reopened soon, on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Brown said The City will foot the center’s maintenance fees throughout NCLF’s tenancy as it continues to search for a permanent buyer.

The center has been appraised for $11.5 million, but is on the market for $6.5 million in exchange for “solid and beefy” community benefits, according to Brown.

When asked whether the community groups could be positioning themselves as potential buyers, Brown said that she is “open to anything.”

“I have an almost $6 million delta that has to be realized in community benefits,” she said. 

Sobel, of SFHDC, said that the coalition’s intent is to “make a strong showing of this initial activation to the point that we can continue laying a foundation for a community-driven, permanent plan for the site.”

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