SoMa ‘5M’ project will push out families

On Thursday evening, hundreds of people from neighborhoods across San Francisco told the Planning Commission that the “5M” Project will drive out families and Filipinos from the South of Market neighborhood. Commissioners still voted to approve the controversial project. Frustrated by The City’s disrespect of years of community planning, they began a public filibuster, crying out, “Who are you building for?”

The four-acre development site at Fifth and Mission streets, pushed by landowner Hearst Corporation and developer Forest City, proposes more than 600 units of market-rate housing and more than 650,000 square feet of additional office space, with only 8.5 percent (58 units) of affordable housing units on site. Some affordable units are promised in the Tenderloin, and a SoMa site will be transferred to The City that may or may not be developed with affordable housing.

The proposed office towers are on the SoMa Youth and Family Special Use District, which has existed since 2008. Instead of respecting youth and families, The City has worked with the developer to remove the zone so they can build office towers nearly 400 feet in height. On the rest of the site, they are rezoning to build a 45-story luxury condo skyscraper next to six- to 10-story apartments and small businesses. The 5M project completely disrespects the scale, zoning and character of the existing neighborhood. Thousands of residents in the immediate area are Filipinos, a community that was pushed out of Chinatown, then out of Yerba Buena into this part of SoMa.

Clearly, no neighborhood in San Francisco can trust the Planning Department and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development to respect community planning or existing zoning when a project can be spot-zoned to this scale and office towers can nullify a Youth and Family Zone. SoMa is a thriving community of families and immigrants from Latin America and the Philippines. This is the highest concentration of Filipinos in The City. Instead of proposing a project that supports this existing community and the land use controls designed to protect families, youth and seniors in the area, their needs and priorities are completely ignored by The City and the developer.

“We demand an anti-displacement and stabilization plan” was a repeated refrain from the residents, artists and staff of community-serving organizations at the hearing. But what the Planning Department presented was a misleading map of SoMa, thrown together last minute and criticized by several speakers for not being honest in its assessment of the vulnerability of existing residents and small businesses.

As any San Franciscan can understand, displacement from SoMa will occur when the Hearst Corporation and Forest City cashes in on the extraordinary new value gifted to them through this massive upzoning, and other landowners in the area are sure to follow their lead.

Ellis Act evictions, tenant buyouts, intimidation of rent-controlled tenants and illegal SRO conversions are common, especially when new “monster” building projects like 5M get approved. These tenants are far from stable in San Francisco’s overheated real estate market.

Filipinos were first displaced from Manilatown, adjacent to Chinatown, starting in the 1960s, culminating in the evictions from the International (“I”) Hotel in 1977. In 1967, the Redevelopment Agency moved 4,000 people, many of them Filipinos, out of the Yerba Buena area. The displacement from Chinatown and Yerba Buena created a new Filipino community in the area of SoMa that was designated as the Youth and Family Special Use District during the Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning of the 2000s.

When it comes to the 5M approval process and public participation, “it is at the end of the process where so much has already been decided and our suggestions are only taken in advisement and not consideration. It feels as if we are just another diversity box to be checked,” said Lorna Velasco, artistic director of Bindlestiff Studio, a more than quarter-century old theater space in SoMa.

“We should be invited to a place at the table where we can be heard from the very beginning of the process, not near the end where we are an afterthought,” she said at the hearing.

The 11-hour Special Planning/ Rec and Park Commission Hearing on 5M was a citywide display of concern from neighborhoods including SoMa, the Mission, Excelsior, Tenderloin, Potrero Hill, Cathedral Hill, Rincon Hill and Chinatown.

As Marlayne Morgan of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods and the SF Neighborhood Network said, the 5M project disrespects “the hundreds of volunteers in D6 and across San Francisco donating their time to community planning. It dismisses their contributions by exempting 5M from the planning process through ordinances, a special use district and development agreement before any meaningful community engagement.”

Not all planning commissioners were in support of the project. The community appreciates the support of Commissioner Dennis Richards, who put forward the ultimately unsuccessful motion to continue the project to December, and Commissioners Kathrin Moore and Cindy Wu for voting against approval.

“It’s disappointing, yet to be expected that the four mayoral appointees, President Fong, and Commissioners Johnson, Antonini and Hillis, all voted in favor of the project and against a continuance,” said Theresa Imperial of Veterans Equity Center after the hearing. “We know that Mayor Ed Lee has been pushing hard for the project and we’re disheartened that after being a tenant lawyer in the I-Hotel struggle, Mayor Lee is now turning his back on Filipinos.”

Dyan Ruiz is a member of the South of Market Community Action Network, a lead organization of the community coalition, SoMa Action Committee.

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