Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Parkmerced Controversy

The Parkmerced housing development in the southwest corner of San Francisco was built in the 1940s by Metropolitan Life Insurance as an investment in middle-class rental housing, with a visionary mix of high-rise towers and two-story garden apartments landscaped by lawns set up as a circular "city within a city." (Click here for a fascinating history of the place at the Cultural Landscape Foundation website.)

According to Wikipedia: "Metlife owned and carefully maintained the property until the early 1970s, when it sold it to [Queen of Mean] Leona Helmsley and the property began to deteriorate...There were a succession of owners and management companies beginning in the late 1990s."

The current ownership group has decided they want to keep the decaying old high-rise towers but demolish most of the two-story garden apartments, replacing them with more high-rise towers, and hugely increasing the density, all the while proclaiming that it's a "Green Project."

Helping to fast-track the project after years of meetings with tenants and neighborhood organizations, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu made a number of backroom agreements with the developers intended to make the deal supposedly more tenant and transit friendly, and then scheduled a Land Use and Economic Development Committee meeting at 9AM where he handed out the 14 pages of amendments as a fait accompli.

There were a host of commenters on the proposal from both sides, but after a while it became obvious that just about everybody testifying for the proposal was a white male, often from one of the trade unions. As somebody remarked, "the trade unions around here would be in favor of paving over Golden Gate Park for condos if there were union scale jobs involved." Those testifying against the proposal were mostly senior women and an assorted collection of West Side neighborhood activists who made a very convincing case that the deal as proposed would be a personal disaster for them and a collective disaster for San Francisco.

Supervisor Weiner (above) from the Castro soon realized he was in a landmine zone, and that there was not going to be any "consensus" so he had to choose one side over the other. Weiner, whose deadpan demeanor sometimes comes across as a caricature of a mortician, is a real estate developer enthusiast, so the decision was probably not a difficult one.

The major problem is that these particular developers are about as unsteady, bankrupt, and demonstrably corrupt as Wall Street real estate investors get. In a great article in the Bay Guardian from March 29th of this year by the reporter Rebecca Bowe, she details the two major players and their CEOs:
Fortress made headlines in 2009 after it stopped providing funds to Millennium Development Corp. for the Olympic Village project in Vancouver, British Columbia leaving the city on the hook for hundreds of millions to finish the job in time for the winter games. Meanwhile, Fortress CEO Daniel Mudd recently got formal notification from the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) that he could potentially face civil action relating to his former job as CEO of Fannie Mae, the government-backed mortgage giant, for allegedly providing misleading information about subprime loans.

Stellar, a New York City company run by real-estate tycoon Larry Gluck, was profiled in a 2009 Mother Jones article about Riverton Homes, a 1,230-unit Manhattan rental housing project built in a similar style to Parkmerced, which Stellar purchased in 2005. Although Stellar assured residents that their affordable rental payments would remain unaffected, hidden from view was its business plan estimating that half the tenants would be paying almost triple the rental rates by 2011. Since rents couldn't ultimately be raised high enough to cover the debt payments, the complex went into foreclosure — but Stellar was shielded against loss because, on paper, Riverton was owned by a separate LLC.

In another Rebecca Bowe article from last week, she writes about the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury's recent report ripping apart the proposal as ""The Parkmerced Vision: Government-by-Developer." There was nothing much Supervisor Mar (above) could do because even with all these warning signals, it soon became obvious that the fix was in, with Board of Supervisors President David Chiu below doing much of the fixing.

The Land Use Committee ended and ninety minutes later the full board met at their weekly 2PM Tuesday Board meeting where the Parkmerced plan was being rushed to a full vote. Chiu, in what has become a pattern since his election, has become the swing vote on just about every bad developer-influenced decision that comes before the Board and the measure supporting the proposal passed 6-5.

In a front-page article in this morning's "Chronicle," Will Kane writes:
Early in the meeting, Cathy Lentz (above), a resident of Parkmerced, had to be dragged out of the board chambers by sheriff's deputies after she began yelling at supervisors.

As three deputies held her outside of the meeting room, her eyes filled with tears.

"I've lived there 50 years," she wailed. "What are they doing?"

The conservative Supervisor Sean Elsbernd above, who has made it abundantly clear over the years that he doesn't much care about poor people outside of his neighborhood, may be in trouble over this one because Parkmerced is in his district, and he's not tearing down the homes of black people in the Western Addition. Many of the rent-controlled tenants in their garden bungalows, from the evidence at these hearings, are elderly white women who are not going to take this lying down. There are already plans to stop this deal with a ballot initiative, and possibly a recall petition for Supervisor Elsbernd, who is going to be having some difficult times at the nearby Irish Cultural Center when one of these soon-to-be-evicted grandmas goes after him.


Nancy Ewart said...

I hope that the current tenants of Park Merced kick back and hard. I know a number of them as they come to our senior center. Without their low rents apartments, they would have no place to go. I'd love to see a group of the elderly poor set up tents on the lawns of these greedy b)_(*_*(&. Let somebody else feel the pain for a change!

janinsanfran said...

Thanks for covering this so thoroughly. My mother in law lived in Parkmerced during the Leona Helmsley era. We once helped her get a picket line up at the rental office when the tenants were being gouged for repairs.

It's an interesting group of people who have fetched up there.

This round might well go to the ballot. Chiu is certainly turning out to be a nasty piece of work.

Civic Center said...

Dear Nancy and Jan: I wasn't paying much attention to the issue before, but I ended up going to City Hall on Tuesday morning and then watching the hearing all day at home on SFGTV. The more I looked into the back story, the creepier the story became. And yes, David Chiu is a very nasty piece of work and with rookie Supervisors Weiner and Cohen not having met a development they didn't like, it looks to get very ugly around here for a while.

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