While it appeared Thursday the Recreation and Parks Commission voted 4-3 to remove the name of Justin Herman from The Embarcadero plaza at the foot of Market Street, hours later city officials determined the vote was actually invalid.
Recreation and Park commissioners Allan Low, Eric McDonnell, Tom Harrison and Larry Mazzola, Jr. were recorded as voting in support of the name removal.
But McDonnell, who called the name removal “the right step in the right direction,” had actually left the meeting early for an “appointment” and missed the actual vote. Since he had indicated his support, he was counted among the “yes” votes upon the guidance of Recreation and Parks Commission President Mark Buell and the commission’s acting clerk.
When word of what happened spread after the meeting had already concluded, and after multiple media outlets reported the name removal was approved, the City Attorney’s Office and Rec and Park officials determined that the vote was legally 3 to 3, with McDonnell’s vote not counting since he was absent from the vote, meaning no action was officially taken.
That means the commission will take another vote on the proposal at its next meeting Nov. 16.
Commissioners Buell, Kat Anderson and Gloria Bonilla opposed the name change at Thursday’s meeting.
In a moment of suspense, Mazzola waited for several minutes before casting what would have been the deciding vote.
“I have complete mixed feelings on this whole thing,” Mazzola said, “but I think what is going to sway me over to one side is the fact that the Board of Supervisors did unanimously approve this so I am going to vote yes.”
The board unanimously approved last month a resolution, which was introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, urging the commission to remove the name.
Herman was executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and oversaw “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” projects in the Western Addition during his tenure from 1959 to 1971, according to the resolution.
“In 1970, Herman said, ‘This land is too valuable to permit poor people to park on it,’ to give credibility to this ‘urban renewal’ project that sought to buy up buildings and evict people who were poor, old, black and brown,” the resolution reads.
But several who knew Herman said he was being unfairly demonized and blamed for that era and his accomplishments benefiting The City were being overlooked.
Buell read from a prepared statement before voting against the motion and noted he was hired by Herman as his personal assistant in 1969.
“I share the sentiment that the urban renewal approach to the Western Addition in the 1960s and ‘70s seems very misguided,” Buell said.
But Buell said that “Justin Herman didn’t single-handedly think up and implement these programs. He served under three mayors. They all supported the agency’s work in the Western Addition.” Buell said so did “over 20 members of the Board of Supervisors.”
Buell also said that Herman had considerable accomplishments, including to support hiring locally, and was a leader in requiring large developers to contribute to public art. He also oversaw the building of thousands of units of affordable housing.
“Was he perfect? By no means. But he cared passionately about his work,” Buell said.
Peskin said in a Sept. 29 letter to the commission that the resolution “is not intended to demonize” Herman.
“While his name has become synonymous with the harm of redevelopment, I clearly understand and have publically articulated that he also did much good,” Peksin wrote.
But he argued in the letter that “given the history of redevelopment, it does seem fitting and important, that at this time in 2017, we no longer ‘celebrate’ the agency’s mixed record in urban development.”
He concluded, “It is time to turn the page.”
Multiple residents spoke in favor of renaming the plaza after photographer David Johnson, who is well-known for his black-and-white photos documenting the 1940s and 1950s in the Western Addition.
The effects of urban renewal are long-lasting in San Francisco. Those displaced by redevelopment were entitled to certificates of preference giving them a priority in the lotteries for affordable housing.
That program has been riddled with flaws but in recent years city officials say they’ve made improvements, including contacting certificate of preference holders in advance of housing opportunities.
The City is aware of 891 certificate holders, but it’s estimated that more are entitled to the benefit since there were 6,000 households displaced and an unknown number of people living in the households.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information.