SF residents demand action, involvement at stagnant Fillmore Heritage Center

A decade ago, the Fillmore Heritage Center was built on a promise of resurrecting black culture, ownership and economic opportunity in The City’s Western Addition neighborhood. But the center has been vacant for years, and that promise, by some accounts, deserted.

On Thursday, more than a dozen Western Addition residents and activists gathered in front of the 50,000-square-foot venue near the intersection of Fillmore and Eddy streets to call for more participation, accountability and oversight in The City’s ongoing search for interested buyers.

That search, they alleged, has not only failed to include the local community, but also appears to have stalled. In February, The City issued a request for proposals for the property and tasked a selection committee consisting of community and city representatives with identifying viable applicants.

But some eight months after the RFP’s submission deadline passed, the center remains shut.

“The City has not informed the community that there has been a recommendation. For months, our community has been in the dark,” said Majeid Crawford, spokesperson for the New Community Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

The nonprofit’s leadership announced Thursday that it will create an oversight board to monitor the sale of the center and ensure that a set of community benefit plans put forward almost two years ago are honored.

“We need community-conscious business owners, people from nonprofit organizations that service our community, and residents that wish to see the Fillmore grow without leaving its longest and neediest residents behind,” said NCLF Executive Director Hugh Gregory, adding that the nonprofit will be accepting applications until Dec. 2.

Supervisor London Breed, whose District 5 includes the Fillmore and Western Addition, said the selection process has stalled because “all the bids were rejected” by the mayor’s selection committee.
“When the bids came in, the committee wasn’t happy and didn’t think it reflected what the community had requested,” Breed said.

A man sports a Yoshi’s sweatshirt on Thursday outside the Fillmore Heritage Center in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Construction of the Fillmore Heritage Center came at the cost of some $80 million, which included a $5 million federal loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The space currently for sale includes the former Yoshi’s jazz club and restaurant, a closed art gallery and a parking garage.

Attached to the commercial space are 80 condos, which were privately financed and sold to individual homeowners, according to project documents.

The Fillmore Heritage Center was built in 2007 as one of the last projects of the Western Addition redevelopment program with the goal of revitalizing the stretch of Fillmore Street once known as “the Harlem of the West,” according to project documents.

Unable to keep up with rental payments, Yoshi’s “bellied up” and declared bankruptcy in 2012, said former NCLF president Daniel Landry. Another jazz club, the Addition, briefly opened in the space but closed in early 2015.

Signage from The Addition, the now-shuttered jazz club, is seen inside the Fillmore Heritage Center. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Local pastor Erris Edgerly called the unoccupied center a “multi-million dollar blight.”

The space was then leased out by The City before the search for a new owner began.

“They started seeking new owner of commercial space … we wanted to ensure that next entity that comes in agrees to [the community’s] plan,” Landry said.

In 2015, Landry and other community stakeholders proposed a 10-point community benefits package that stipulated that any developer taking over the space would maintain its use as a music and art hub and ensure access and employment to local residents, among other requests.

Once a vibrant hub for black culture, music and business, the Fillmore commercial district and surrounding Western Addition neighborhood was targeted for redevelopment under The City’s urban renewal program in the late 1950s and early ’60s, resulting in the displacement of thousands of its residents.

“When I left for the military and came back, the whole Fillmore was gone,” recalled Leonard Priestly, a longtime resident of the neighborhood.

Fillmore resident and community activist Maddy Scott said the center’s future development is an opportunity for the The City to economically empower the local community.

“The Fillmore was a promising community when I grew up in it. We didn’t have to go anywhere for anything for anybody,” Scott said. “You want to call this Fillmore Heritage Center, and we don’t own anything in it?”

Rather than selling the property to outside developers, Scott demanded the center be donated to the local community.

“I’m demanding that we get this building for nothing,” she said. “They owe this to us, and much more.”
But the building comes with obligations, according to Breed.

Without tenants, the outstanding HUD loan owed by The City is currently being paid back using “affordable housing money, which takes away our ability to rehabilitate and build new affordable housing, which is not OK,” said Breed, a Western Addition native herself.

“It’s not feasible to give it away,” she added. “There is money owed to HUD. There are things that need to be paid as a result of this property.

“This is my community. If could give it to them and call it a day, I would love to do that,” Breed said. “But that would be very irresponsible for me to do.”

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