A man walks past the Mission Language and Vocational School on 19th Street between Alabama and Florida streets on Tuesday.

Mission school gets control of building after legal battle

Community groups unite to purchase historic property with help of city funds

After a lengthy legal battle, Mission District community organizations have been granted full ownership of the neighborhood’s Mission Language and Vocational School.

The purchase comes after a settlement was reached this summer in a lawsuit that had sought to force MLVS to sell nearly a third of the building in which it is housed.

The sale had been promised as part of a 2013 deal that at the time was intended to save MLVS from financial ruin by leasing out a portion of the school to Huckleberry Friends, a company that promotes science and engineering education for youth. The agreement gave Huckleberry Friends the option to purchase the leased space.

But the company’s attempt to make good on that provision was met with pushback from community activists, who opposed the sale of any part of the building at 2929 19th St. and sought to preserve the entire building for community use.

A lawsuit filed in 2016 by Huckleberry Friends that alleged that the school was in violation of its lease agreement was settled this summer in what advocates described as a victory for the community. The settlement directs a consortium of community groups formed to “save MLVS” to purchase Huckleberry’s interest in the property.

According to MLVS board member Tracy Brown-Gallardo, the 701 Alabama Consortium LLC, a real estate holding entity made up of the Jamestown Community Center, the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), and Mission Neighborhood Centers, Inc. (MNC) and MVLS’s leadership, paid $700,000 as part of the settlement.

The City provided another $1 million to support the acquisition through its Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, according to Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development Spokesperson Gloria Chan. The funding enabled the consortium to obtain a loan from the Bank of San Francisco to negotiate the purchase, priced at $4.75 million. The building is appraised at about $15 million, said Brown-Gallardo.

Huckleberry vacated the building sometime in mid-September, said Brown-Gallardo.

The settlement restores the storied building’s ownership to not-for-profit ownership and keeps it in control of the community, according to a statement from the Mayor’s Office shared with the San Francisco Examiner.

“Being a part-owner of this building strengthens our organization and secures access to needed services for future generations of Latino youth and families. Reclaiming this space for our Latino education and arts programming supports our community’s identity and sense of place,” said Jamestown Executive Director Myrna Melgar.

MEDA Director of Community Real Estate Karoleen Feng said that it is “imperative that community-development work be seen through an equity lens. Mission-based family-serving businesses and organizations want to have long-term, stable spaces to call home. Such cultural placekeeping maintains commercial tenants as an inherent part of the fabric of the Mission District’s unique Latinx identity and culture.”

The nearly-five decade old institution over the years has offered language and job training to thousands of immigrants and English learners. It was founded by Laborer’s Local union 261 member Abel Gonzalez as the Centro Social Obrero, and is referred to as the City Hall of the Mission for its history of providing space for political, community and labor groups.

It’s run by long-time executive director Rosario Anaya, who was the first Latina to be appointed to the San Francisco School Board. Anaya, who signed off on the deal with Huckleberry Friends, died in 2015.

Apart from MLVS’ services, the building houses nonprofit organizations that serve transitional age youth, immigrants and families, including the Jamestown Community Center, Five Keys Charter School, the Roadmap to Peace Initiative and the Bay Area Community Resource Access Center.

Brown-Gallardo said that the lease agreement with Huckleberry Friends was a “bad deal” made in desperation to keep the school financially afloat.

Mission Local previously reported that the neighborhood organizations convinced MLVS board members to back out of a previous settlement negotiated in 2017 and to negotiate in court instead. That year, the legal battle even triggered an attempt at mediation by Assemblymember David Chiu.

Court records show that Huckleberry Friends sued over lease violations that included MLVS’ leadership refusing to cooperate on plans to split the lots occupied by the school and by Huckleberry.

“I think it was a rather unfortunate the way it turned out, that [Griffith] was not given the benefit of the agreement that he originally signed with the school,” said Scott Freedman, an attorney representing Saul Griffith, the registered agent on file for Huckleberry Friends who was also the co-founder and CEO of Otherlabs, a company that works on computational manufacturing.

“Because of the opposition that he was facing… he ultimately made a decision to step away from the building and let the school do with it what it wanted to,” Freedman added. “They signed that agreement. Unfortunately, Miss Anaya passed away and the folks that took over didn’t like the decision she made. We feel it improperly pressured [Griffith] to give up on that.”

But members of the consortium say that by saving an important Mission District resource that continues to uplift the Latinx and immigrant community, they are keeping Anaya’s vision alive.

“I talked to her before she passed away and she told me to always advocate for the school,” said Brown-Gallardo. “Many years ago, this was our vision, to see it continue. I think she would be honored and humbled that the community so fought hard for it.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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