[Hpn] theater district could threaten local homeless people
Wed, 29 Nov 2000 16:24:26 -0700
San Francisco Bay Guardian
November 29, 2000
Mid-Market theater district could threaten local homeless people
By Cassi Feldman
The exodus of San Francisco artists has finally captured the imagination of
the city's elite. Patrons are panicking, politicians are racing to draft
save-the-day legislation, and arts advocates are working on a whole range of
The latest is a push by the Arts on MIMA (mid Market) Committee to create a
sparkly theater district along Market Street, between Fifth and Eighth
Streets. But while some city officials seem ready to back the plan, critics
say it could prove devastating for the neighborhood's homeless residents.
"When they say it's going to be good for everyone, they mean it's going to
be good for businesspeople, tourists, the mayor, everyone who's interested
in not seeing homeless people on the street," said Adam Arms, staff attorney
for the Coalition on Homelessness, which opposed a similar plan enacted in
Union Square last year.
Bill Schwartz, former executive producer of the Eureka Theatre, disagrees.
Schwartz coined the term MIMA in a Sept. 11 op-ed in the San Francisco
Chronicle. He refers to Market Street as "skid row" but adds wistfully that
"it is our main street, our Champs Élysées." Just as New York transformed
its theater district, he argues, so too could mid Market experience an
artistic renaissance with new rehearsal spaces, studios, offices, and
To accomplish that, Schwartz said, he'd like to see the creation of a
business improvement district (BID), in which business or property owners
pay voluntary taxes to fund enhanced street cleaning and security.
Schwartz also wants to draw on funding from the San Francisco Redevelopment
Agency, which has been studying Market Street since the 1980s and, according
to executive director Jim Morales, will probably declare at least part of
the survey area "blighted." Once blight is established, the agency can issue
a bond to finance development and then gradually collect the money back
through tax revenue.
To help push the agency along, Schwartz assembled a panel of planning
experts to describe their visions for MIMA at a Nov. 13 public hearing.
Though they differed on specifics, they all emphasized the importance of
creating a BID.
What they didn't emphasize was what will happen to the area's existing
businesses, social-service agencies, and dense population of homeless
people. Instead the focus remained largely on aesthetics and was geared
straight toward the average audience member: a white, middle-age
"What do you want to see, hear, and smell when you leave your business
place?" asked Marco LiMandri of New City America, a San Diego-based group
that specializes in BIDs. Rather than rely on the city, he said, property
owners should pitch in for privately run services. After all, he argued, "we
live in a society where you spend $3 on a cup of coffee."
Brett Gladstone, a land-use attorney and a member of San Francisco Planning
and Urban Research Association (SPUR), underscored the need for a parking
garage, despite the fact that nearly every city transit line crosses Market
The audience was supportive and even effusive at times but also broached the
evening's only difficult questions. The first came from Jill Weinberg
Pfeiffer, codirector of Oasis, a South of Market nonprofit that works with
local girls. "Will sensitivity be taken to build housing and shelters for
homeless people?" she asked. "Will there be access to the arts for all
Later Pfeiffer criticized the panel's response, a fairly terse promise that
mid-Market residents of all income levels would be involved in the planning
and that the cleanup would involve an affordable (and market-rate) housing
component. "I think it's pretty clear that there probably isn't a plan right
now to take care of homeless people," she told us.
Ambassadors of ill will
Unfortunately, there may be more of a plan than Pfeiffer realizes. Although
the proposal seems to dismiss Market Street's homeless residents as a pesky
inconvenience, it will likely have a major impact on their lives.
According to the Coalition on Homelessness, there are 12,000 to 14,000
homeless people on any given night in San Francisco, and only 1,600 shelter
beds. As the city as a whole becomes more gentrified, there are fewer
neighborhoods where homeless people are allowed to exist.
To see this in action, one needn't look further than Union Square, where the
city's only BID has been up and running since July 1999. Linda Mjellem,
executive director of Union Square Association, which helped start the BID,
said that local property owners within a 10-block radius are taxed according
to the length of their storefront ($60 per foot annually). Since the BID was
initially backed by a majority of property holders and approved by the Board
of Supervisors, all owners in the district are now required to pay, like it
or not, and can pass that cost on to their tenants. The city has an
obligation to kick in $200,000 a year.
The collected revenue is used to fund approximately 40 sanitation workers
and red-jacketed security ambassadors. Mjellem says the word "ambassador" is
meant to "imply good will," but one of their primary responsibilities seems
to be hassling homeless people.
Sup. Tom Ammiano opposed the Union Square BID. Not only does it represent an
unfair allocation of city resources, he says, but an unaccountable police
force could also be dangerous. "In New York City, they had [private
security], and the city government had no way to control them. There's
always potential for civil rights abuses."
Dorothy McLaughlin can vouch for that. She was employed by the Powell Street
Turnaround, a predecessor to the Union Square BID, in 1997. She saw the job
advertised in Opportunity NOCs, a nonprofit employment newsletter, and
assumed it involved assisting tourists. She quit after only a month when she
realized that it also entailed "moving" homeless people. "I think everyone
seemed to feel a little ashamed about having to do it," she said. "Why bug
homeless people? That's just nasty."
The local homeless people we spoke to agreed. Michael lives in a cardboard
box right near Union Square and has had several run-ins with ambassadors.
"They used to always fuck with me," he said. "I'm just sitting right here,
panhandling, but they won't let me."
Another man, a homeless veteran, told us, "Their idea of cleaning up is
getting people who can't pay off their private property and stay the hell
The law is very vague in regard to loitering and panhandling. Though it
outlaws only blocking a sidewalk or doorway, leaning against a building can
technically qualify as trespassing. The local police we spoke to were
unanimously supportive of the BID ambassadors. "It's like having eyes all
over the place," said Officer John Conway of the Tenderloin Task Force.
We tagged along with ambassador Kimberly Guy, who said she tries to help the
homeless people she encounters. Other than a pleasant demeanor, however, she
didn't seem to have much to offer them. Guy wasn't carrying food and, though
it was only 10 a.m., she had already run out of bathroom tokens. She told us
that if a homeless person approaches strangers on the street, she would
define that as "aggressive panhandling," which is illegal. If a homeless
person stands outside a business, she said, they are on private property.
She'd politely ask them to move to the curb.
The vision meets reality
On Market Street homeless people wouldn't be the only ones getting kicked to
the curb. Adult businesses and community-serving nonprofits could face a
Among the list of potential projects approved by the Redevelopment Agency is
a plan to "convert adult entertainment uses to mainstream uses." If the
owner doesn't want to switch, that's just too bad. According to the agency's
Rohnnel Sotelo, an urban planner who focuses on mid Market, while the city
would try to work with the owner first, it can also use powers of eminent
domain to force the renovation.
Sotelo said the agency also strongly supports the creation of a BID to "make
sure that the community has some level of advocacy so they can have their
own staff and services."
But who exactly is the "community"? Carolyn Diamond, who holds a seat on the
Redevelopment Agency's Mid-Market Project Area Committee (PAC), insists that
the cleanup would serve all income levels, but her logic is hard to follow.
Though she believes that the "public sector can not maintain the area in the
pristine way that we would want it maintained," she seems more than willing
to let the public sector deal with homeless people, suggesting that the BID
play more of an "advisory role."
Schwartz has grandiose plans for redoing Market Street Cinema, but he
envisions only "a couple of case worker-type people" as the BID's
contribution to its impoverished residents.
The Redevelopment Agency PAC is supposed to incorporate different voices.
While 18 elected seats are reserved for property owners or commercial
tenants, 7 seats are set aside for residential tenants, and 8 are reserved
for community-based organizations. Strangely, Diamond could identify only
two tenants currently on the PAC and only one low-income tenant.
When we called social-service agencies in the immediate neighborhood, most
said they had never been approached by the PAC or even heard about the
arts-district idea. Rebecca Vilkomerson of the Homeless Prenatal Program
expressed fear that local social services could end up in competition with
arts groups. Her nonprofit and many others are already facing eviction from
their home at 995 Market St. because the owner has decided to upgrade the
Although the Board of Supervisors recently allocated $4.5 million in
emergency funds for nonprofits, only $500,000 of that is set aside
specifically for service nonprofits, as opposed to the $1.5 million reserved
for arts nonprofits. This bias toward the arts seems particularly puzzling
in light of the November SPUR newsletter, in which John Kreidler writes that
city grants for the arts doubled between 1990 and 2000 and that the city
currently spends $20 per San Franciscan on nonprofit arts subsidies, more
than any other city in the country. Meanwhile, no one actually knows how
much the city spends on homeless programs, although city officials and
service organizations have requested this figure for years.
While the arts community has been more politically visible of late, and its
need is easier to document, many feel that isn't the only reason it has
"We're not as sexy as they are," said Kym Valdez, program director for
Swords to Ploughshares, a veterans service organization that has been on
Market Street for eight years. "We serve homeless, disenfranchised, and
disabled people. People feel threatened by our clients, but there's just
nowhere else for them to go."
E-mail Cassi Feldman at Cassi@sfbg.com
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