Former Haight Street McDonald’s lot stirs homeless debate

‘It seems like a real waste of real estate’

Rarely has an unused parking lot raised such rancor.

Once the site of a notoriously seedy McDonald’s — known more for its violence and drug deals than its hamburgers and fries — 730 Stanyan has sat chain linked and vacant since The City purchased the lot for $15.5 million in 2018 and razed the building.

The site is slated to become an eight-story apartment complex with the bulk of the 150 units reserved for affordable housing. Chinatown Development Center and Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, two local nonprofits, are partnering on the development that’s slated to begin construction in summer 2023, according to the latest estimates.

Since then, a slew of proposals for how to use the space until then have come and gone: a multi-purpose recreational complex including youth soccer fields and food trucks; a temporary safe sleeping site enacted during the pandemic; a drop-in site for young people experiencing homelessness.

These interim proposals have sparked vitriol between neighborhoods and harsh debate among local officials who have been unable to agree on a path forward, even if only for the years before ground breaks on the housing development.

So there it still stands, an empty parking lot across from Golden Gate Park and at the doorstep of one of San Francisco’s most storied corridors, Haight-Ashbury.

“It seems like a real waste of real estate,” said Joe Creitz, a member of the Cole Valley Haight Allies.

The debate over each individual project proposal ties back to one issue that’s simple, in theory. Should The City provide homelessness services directly to people where they live, even in a largely residential neighborhood like the Haight, or silo those services in other areas. It’s an issue that’s roiled San Francisco residents and officials alike for years.

“I don’t think anyone, in the absolute, opposes homelessness services,” said a representative of Safe Healthy Haight, a neighborhood group that was formed during the pandemic in large part to mobilize against safe sleeping site. “What they oppose is the ancillary effects that then bleed out into the community that The City hasn’t been able to control.”

Designated squares set up for a safe camping site for the homeless at the former McDonald’s by Golden Gate Park in May 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Designated squares set up for a safe camping site for the homeless at the former McDonald’s by Golden Gate Park in May 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Haight-Ashbury

Any conversation about homelessness in the Haight has to start with the Summer of Love.

As thousands of wanderers, counter-cultural rebels and vagabonds flocked to the neighborhood, it became known as a landing pad for anyone and everyone. Some of that legacy lives on.

“People seeking their tribe come from all over to the Haight-Ashbury seeking connection with like-minded folks,” said Christin Evans, a merchant in the neighborhood and homelessness advocate.

Some arrive and never leave, making the streets of Haight their home. Others are transient, sticking around for a few days or weeks before packing up again. Many flee dangerous situations at home.

People living on the streets in the Haight are more likely to be teenagers and young adults compared to other parts of The City. There are also large numbers of LGBTQ individuals, too.

“This neighborhood has always been a magnet for a certain kind of transient population,” Crietz said.

Skeptics less enamored with the Summer of Love’s relevance to the present day say the neighborhood’s homeless population has changed notably since that time and The City’s approach must change accordingly.

“What used to be weed and shrooms turned into meth and fentanyl and then turned into more violence,” said the Safe Healthy Haight spokesperson, who spoke to The Examiner on the condition of anonymity. There were three shootings on Haight Street in recent weeks, and “When it comes to gun violence, I think that’s where we’re drawing the line.”

Inaction

These fault lines between people who have a vision of the Haight that includes homelessness services and one that excludes them are replicated throughout The City.

The same can be said for the predictable outcome in the face of such conflict— inaction.

Rather than strike a compromise or make a decisive call on how the land should be used, The City has let the property sit vacant for much of the last four years.

It’s not that alternatives haven’t been suggested.

City Hall rejected a community-based proposal for a multi-purpose recreational space with miniature soccer fields for low-income youth, food trucks, a community garden and neighborhood programming in 2019.

So 730 Stanyan sat empty until May 2020 when it was converted into a safe sleeping site, a place where people without houses could socially distance in their tents and access basic necessities such as showers, bathrooms and personal safety within the confines of the fenced-off parking lot.

“My pragmatic lens is that as a business owner and a resident, I’d like to see actual solutions to ending their homelessness rather than just additional policing to remove them from my block,” Evans said.

The safe sleeping site at 730 Stanyan St. in the Haight on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The safe sleeping site at 730 Stanyan St. in the Haight on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Lack of funding

Solutions to effectively moving off the streets and into housing have been hard to come by everywhere — but especially at the McDonald’s-turned-pavement eyesore.

City Hall has scrapped ideas for interim use for 730 Stanyan from both sides of the debate.

Officials rejected the soccer fields-plus-food trucks idea which it had solicited through an extensive request for proposal process. They cited lack of funding, despite the plan’s architect’s assurances that it was self-sustainable.

Just last month, plans to replace the temporary safe sleeping site, which closed June 30, with a drop-in site for young people experiencing homelessness were struck down at the last minute by the agency tasked with providing homelessness services.

Again, inadequate funding was to blame, according to officials. That explanation has been met with some skepticism, especially considering the freeing-up of funds from Proposition C, a ballot measure passed by voters in 2018 to tax corporations and use the dollars to combat homelessness.

“Some might see $1 billion as a call to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,” Mayor London Breed said to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 9. “I see it as a call to double down on accountability and ensure we don’t spend money on programs that don’t deliver and we don’t spend more than we budget to spend.”

But what does it mean to deliver?

Safe sleeping site

The temporary safe sleeping site could be one place to start finding answers.

Cretiz served a home-cooked dinner to residents of the site every other week and recalls how “profoundly powerful” it was for people to have a safe place to sleep and store belongings.

“There used to be this pervasive sense that the solution to homelessness was to make it so unpleasant that they wouldn’t want to do it,” he said. “It turns out that if you give them food, water and a place to sleep, they’ll start looking for a place to call home.”

Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district includes the property, called it the most successful of the three sleeping sites in San Francisco. The city agency tasked with homelessness services called it a success in providing “COVID compliant spaces” and connecting people with support.

However, actually moving people out of homelessness proved more difficult.

Of the 73 people who stayed at the Stanyon site, just 24 ended up in housing afterwards. Another 29 went to an emergency shelter.

So, does that mean it delivered? And for whom? Certainly not for those opposed to the project. They said they noticed a significant uptick in trash, drug use and threats of violence, though, to date, that’s been difficult to quantify outside of anecdotal social media reports and photos.

“We have eyes. We lived it. We’ve been living it,” said the representative for Safe Healthy Haight.

What they can all agree on is that The City’s current approach isn’t working, and they’re looking to city government to clarify on that elusive question of what it means to deliver across San Francisco.

“I look at the way The City has dealt with homelessness over the years, and it seems to be this continuous process of moving people around,” Creitz said. “That’s dealing with the problem of optics, not as a problem of economics and housing.”

For now, as is often the case in San Francisco, the immediate path forward is to wait — until a hearing scheduled for Nov. 18 on why the drop-in center plans was scrapped; until priorities for the $1.1 billion in homelessness spending are more clear; and until an old McDonald’s lot turns into housing.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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