Seniors hang out in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, the subject of a long-awaited proposed major renovation. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Long-awaited Portsmouth Square renovation left off proposed $438.5m bond measure

Community backs transformation of heavily-used park, considered a key project for Chinatown

The plans have been drawn, community support is high, and the long-awaited renovation of Portsmouth Square is considered a key San Francisco project. But without its inclusion in a proposed $438.5 million bond measure, Chinatown community advocates worry its completion is out of reach.

Mayor London Breed proposed the Health and Recovery Bond this week; it will be placed on the ballot in November pending Board of Supervisors’ approval.

But despite several community meetings, planing and community input dating back to 2014, the Portsmouth Square project was not included.

“It’s just so sad because it took us so many years to get to where we are with just the design,” said Rosa Chen, a community organizer with Chinatown Community Development Center who grew up in the neighborhood. “Portsmouth Square is really the living room for many Chinatown residents who live in single room occupancies. It’s a great open space to feel less crowded.”

Signs encourage social distancing in Portsmouth Square, which is a key social and outdoor space for many Chinatown residents. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The bond measure would allocate $200 million for parks and recreation facilities, $197 million toward treatment and supportive housing, and the remaining $41.5 million would be for street resurfacing and curb ramps.

Projects ready for construction were included in the proposal, like the $50 million renovation of the Gene Friend Recreation Center in South of Market, $29 million for India Basin improvements in Bayview Hunters-Point and $25 million to renovate the Japantown Peace Plaza.

The City previously planned for a $255 million parks and open space bond, which would have included funding for the $64 million project at Portsmouth Square, located on Kearny Street between Clay and Washington streets.

“Trade-offs were made in favor of other community resources when this broader citywide bond was constructed,” said Rec and Park spokesperson Sarah Madland. “We will continue to seek and identify funding for this incredibly important project through all available avenues such as state, local and federal grants, [and] philanthropy.”

(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Portsmouth Square currently is a two-level park with a clubhouse, playground and restroom facilities with a pedestrian bridge. Under community-approved plans, it would be smoothed out to one accessible level with a playground and fitness space and double the event space. Removal of the bridge would allow the expansion of the clubhouse into a community center in a crucial location.

“No matter what, old park or new park, people will still go over there,” said Ding Lee, president of the Chinese Six Companies that oversees the Lee Family Association. “But the feeling to us is not comfortable [now]. We need to have our own place to go to and enjoy it.”

Plans were largely agreed upon in 2018, but final signoff was delayed under the purview of former Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru due to the plan to remove the pedestrian bridge connected to the Hilton hotel. Two years later, the project’s environmental review process is anticipated to wrap up by the end of the year.

Uncertainty over funding the project comes as San Francisco faces a steep $1.7 billion deficit over the next two fiscal years brought on by lost tax revenue and increased costs from the coronavirus. The longer the project is delayed, the more likely an update to reports and meetings will be in order, warns Rec and Park Commission Vice President Allan Low.

“Let’s not do these things twice, let’s just finish it,” Low said. “It has been identified as a core project for The City and it should be included [in the bond].”

A mostly empty Portsmouth Square in Chinatown on Wednesday, May 12, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Chinatown and North Beach, said rapid community mobilization over the park may work in its favor. Dozens of letters have been sent this week in support of the project’s inclusion from community groups like CCDC, SRO Families United Collaborative, Rose Pak Democratic Club, Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Self Help for the Elderly.

After conversations with Breed and Rec and Park Director Phil Ginsberg on Friday, Peskin said he’s “cautiously optimistic” it will be included.

“The mayor introduced the recovery bond so we will have a measure on the ballot that puts people back to work, invests in our infrastructure, and supports vulnerable communities,” said Mayor’s Office spokesperson Andy Lynch. “We’re working with community leaders and the Board of Supervisors to get feedback on the specific projects to be included in the bond as this process moves forward.”

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