Even after death, few in Chinatown or San Francisco are as politically powerful as Rose Pak.
Yet even her reputation and political strength, not to mention fervent testimony and a rally by supporters, was not enough to get The City’s transit agency to name Central Subway’s future Chinatown station for her.
In fact the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors declined to even vote on the proposal on Tuesday.
SFMTA board director Art Torres asked his colleagues to vote to postpone the naming vote to a later date, when they would have a new appointed member to provide a tie-breaking vote. That measure was defeated as directors voted in a tie, 3-3.
However, with three board members apparently in favor of naming the station after Pak, and three against it, no director placed a motion before the board to take a vote. And while a new, potentially tie-breaking seventh board member, Steve Heminger, was approved by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday afternoon, that approval came too late for the SFMTA board meeting.
Seeing the stalemate between his colleagues, SFMTA board chair Malcolm Heinicke said “we’ve effectively tabled the item.”
While it is legally and procedurally possible for the vote to come back to the board, there’s no guarantee that will happen.
“It’s fair to say this (Central Subway) project would not exist if it wasn’t for Rose. It just wouldn’t,” Gwyneth Borden, vice chair of the SFMTA board, argued Tuesday.
Pak famously flew to Washington to personally lobby for $500 million in grant funding that city officials said guaranteed the construction of the Central Subway. The project is slated to be completed in December this year, according to the SFMTA, although an independent review has warned that date is likely to slip to mid-2020.
Directors Borden, Art Torres, and Malcolm Heinicke voiced support for honoring her with a station name. Directors Cristina Rubke, Cheryl Brinkman and Amanda Eaken voiced opposition to the measure, citing division within the Chinese community after some spoke publicly against the move.
“I’m looking around and we have so many places names’ being removed,” she said, citing Justin Herman Plaza as just one example of a local landmarked being renamed by future generations with different ideas about what society should look like. Naming the station for Pak, Brinkman said, is “too divisive.”
The political stalemate surprised some insiders, given the enormous political pressure mounted by Pak’s backers.
A rally in support of Pak drew roughly 500 supporters from San Francisco’s Chinese community in red shirts emblazoned with “Chinatown Rose Pak Station.” They marched at City Hall with the support of some of San Francisco’s most influential Chinese leaders from various nonprofits and advocacy groups.
Other leaders stumped for the name change as well, including Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safai, as well as former Supervisor Jane Kim. The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution Tuesday to urge SFMTA to name the station after Pak. Even former mayor Willie Brown urged the Board to honor Pak.
But for the bulk of the meeting, speaker after speaker attacked Pak’s reputation, calling her a tool of the communist Chinese government and even a “spy” for China, among other things.
Pak’s supporters pointed out that many — though not all — of the people speaking ill of Pak hailed from the South Bay, and opposed Pak because they belonged to the Falun Gong spiritual practice, which has been met with persecution by China’s government. Pak famously banned the religious group from the Chinese New Year parade in 2006.
The debate proved to be too much acrimony for some members of the board.
“We celebrate diversity in San Francisco, we celebrate a diversity of perspectives,” Eaken said, essentially arguing that SFMTA should not take a side in the Chinese community’s divide.
The proposal could still come back before the SFMTA board, Borden told the Examiner, but it likely would not be the next meeting.
This post has been updated to reflect the unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors to pass the nonbinding resolution.