San Francisco kicking out longtime Bayview greenhouse businesses

Three Bayview plant nursery businesses dating back to the 1980s have until May to vacate a publicly owned greenhouse after city officials say the facility has fallen into disrepair.

The forced move has made uncertain the future of Decorative Plant Service, San Francisco Foliage, Sunborne Nursery and the fate of more than 100 workers. All of the businesses, which hired half of their workforces from the Bayview, must leave the 1150 Phelps St. greenhouse facility by May 31.

Also unknown is what The City plans to do with the greenhouse site.

Business founders and employees told the San Francisco Examiner they were shocked when the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s decided to give them the boot.

“Our reaction was one of surprise,” said Sunborne Nursery founder Dan Goldman, who opened the wholesale plant and container supply business there in 1989.

San Francisco Foliage owner Siri Datta Khalsa said the three businesses were told during a meeting in April, convened by SFPUC general manager Harlan Kelly, that they would have to leave.

“It threw me for a loop,” Khalsa said. “It was unexpected.”

The businesses have operated on a month-to-month lease for the past three years. The SFPUC had intended to solicit bids to select companies to enter into a longer term lease for use of the greenhouse. The existing businesses planned to compete.

But in preparation, the SFPUC had engineering consultant AECOM conduct analysis of the greenhouse conditions. The analysis had findings that ultimately condemned the site.

The facility is in “poor to fair condition” and out of compliance with numerous safety and building codes, the report said. Repair costs were estimated at $12.9 million. A rebuild of the facility was estimated at $41 million.

SFPUC motivations questioned

The 113,400-square-foot greenhouse site was built in 1984 to mitigate adverse environmental and social impacts that came with expanding the neighboring Southeast Treatment Plant. Today, 80 percent of San Francisco’s sewage and wastewater is treated at the facility, which has long prompted complaints of foul smells from nearby residents. The greenhouse businesses are required to hire 50 percent of their workforce from the 94124 ZIP code, which is the Bayview neighborhood. The three businesses, which must also provide job training, employed a combined 42 residents from the neighborhood in 2014.

The SFPUC may demolish the only public greenhouse in The City and use the site for a construction staging area for the multibillion dollar overhaul of the Southeast Treatment Plant.

The overhaul, which would modernize the facility and eliminate the plant’s odors, is expected to begin in July 2017 and continue for seven years. The true motivation behind the agency forcing the businesses out may be the need for the construction staging area, some suggest.

“There is a possibility of a conflict of interest there,” Khalsa said.

But SFPUC officials deny there is a correlation.

“That’s not the primary motivation,” said SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue. “It’s first and foremost [because] the buildings are in disrepair, and something has to be done about them.”

Khalsa said that after he reviewed the AECOM report, his “initial feelings were that prior to making the decision to demolish or even evacuate the facility that maybe a second opinion should have been gotten.”

Jue said there are efforts underway to assist current workers. “We don’t want to have anyone unemployed because of this.”

He noted that the SFPUC, which has offered up to $100,000 in moving costs to each business, is on the verge of signing settlement agreements with both Decorative Service and Sunborne Nursery.

“There is one tenant holding out,” Jue said. “I think that says a lot.”

Preparing for the future

The future of the site remains unclear. There is interest for continued greenhouse nursery businesses but also for other uses like urban agriculture and aquaponics.

Use of the parcel as a construction stage area could tie it up for years. Jue said conversations with the community about the future of the site will continue for the next six months before any decision will be made.

If Khalsa had his way, he would remain at the facility, where he has been for the past 26 years.

“A continuation of the status quo would be welcomed with some modifications,” Khalsa said. “I ideally would like all stakeholders in the greenhouse to work together more closely to enhance outcomes.”

Meanwhile, Sunborne’s Goldman has resigned himself to the fate of departure. The company in October purchased a parcel of land in the city of Richmond, where it will relocate after building a greenhouse facility. The business will operate a shuttle bus to transport current employees from the Bayview to the new site. Some workers say they will relocate to Richmond, Goldman said.

“[I have] mixed feelings about it,” Goldman said of the move. “We’ve been here for a long time. We worked very closely with the community. We’ve become part of this community. That part of it is difficult to leave it. At the same time, our company needs to have a secure future so we made that decision to relocate.”

Khalsa, who got his start in the business selling plants on the streets of Los Angeles, said he has seen firsthand how the 25,000 plants in the greenhouse of his business can impact the lives of youth who come there, such as through the Five Keys Charter School, an inmate jail education program.

“Young people come in here speaking very abruptly or not at all,” Khalsa said. But after a while he said, “They will make a point of stopping me and say, ‘I really love it here.’”

He added: “You know there is a whole field of horticultural therapy, right?”

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