What's Really Wrong With the Lower Fillmore?

Could it be the activists who claim they're trying to rebuild it?

Many in the community attribute the lack of economic progress to a racist attitude that is supposedly prevalent at the Redevelopment Agency.

"It's these liberal progressive personalities in the agency; they think that they are doing us a favor. This attitude of 'We know what is best for you' is counterproductive and racist," says Shiferaw.

"I can agree with that, because I've experienced that attitude myself," says commissioner Breed. "The agency is there to do a job, and I think many people there do not expect the community aspect to be so time-consuming and controversial. People who went to school for development and turn into community liaisons don't always know how to handle it."

The Fillmore Center.
Gabriela Hasbun
The Fillmore Center.
Charles Spencer, Agonafer Shiferaw, Steve 
Boyack (all standing), and Gus Harput 
(seated) make up the so-called "Gang of 
Gabriela Hasbun
Charles Spencer, Agonafer Shiferaw, Steve Boyack (all standing), and Gus Harput (seated) make up the so-called "Gang of Four."

But neither racism nor mere mismanagement seems to fully explain the near abandonment of the "economic revitalization" component of the redevelopment effort. For example, even though 40 years of redevelopment have produced little such revitalization, the agency's primary focus in the last three years of the project will remain on the physical development of the remaining empty parcels of property in the area.

On this score, there actually seems to be some good news.

After more than 11 years of development talks, Michael Johnson of Fillmore Development Associates confirmed last week that a deal to develop the long-empty corner of Fillmore and Eddy streets closed early this month. The so-called Heritage Project will house a 28,000-square-foot nightclub and restaurant to be run by the owners of the famous Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland. The 12-story building will also feature a 352-seat music hall, a French/West Indian fusion restaurant, a jazz heritage center, 80 condominiums, and a 125-space underground parking garage.

"We secured all $68 million in public and private funding," Johnson says. The project is scheduled to break ground sometime this week and, he says, will take about 18 months to complete.

Because this is the Lower Fillmore, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of a major new development on a disused vacant lot.

Spencer says that big projects are not the answer to the neighborhood's problems and redevelopment needs. He thinks the agency should make an effort to keep the neighborhood cleaner, revamp its loan program for small businesses, and focus on homeownership for black families.

The Rev. Townsend agrees. "The agency doesn't even recognize that they are responsible for economic development in this area," he says. "Before the Redevelopment Agency came in, the black businesses were thriving and growing. The agency aborted our chances for success and now they have the responsibility to restore some of that. Redevelopment is more than just putting up buildings."

The Redevelopment Agency's primary effort at preparing the Lower Fillmore for the day when it is no longer a redevelopment zone has been the creation of a community benefit district. The agency hired New City America, a San Diego-based firm, to determine whether such a district would be successful in the Lower Fillmore.

Marco LiMandri, president of New City America, has created 38 benefit districts throughout California. He says that creating such a district in the Lower Fillmore will be more difficult than in other areas. "We have to realize the whole history of the Fillmore," LiMandri says. "What we are trying to do is move forward and move the Fillmore into the future."

If property owners decide that they want to fund the benefit district, it will be done through assessments based on property values. New City America will work with property owners to write a management district plan that will detail all of the services the owners want to provide.

"We don't tell them how to do it or who should do it," LiMandri says. "That's up to them." LiMandri says he hopes to have the process set up by April 2006.

In other areas around San Francisco where benefit districts have emerged, it has been commercial property owners who pay special assessments -- and who control what the money is spent on. But in the Lower Fillmore, residents -- many of whom own no property and who will pay no assessments -- are already vying for some kind of control.

"The [benefit district] doesn't concern the whole community, just the business owners. That isn't right. Hopefully all the stakeholders in this community will have representation on that board," says Rogers.

The benefit district aside, as the Redevelopment Agency plots its exit, the Lower Fillmore is fighting the agency to the bitter end.

Members of the merchants association have continued their grumbling about the promotions office and drawn the attention of a civil grand jury that apparently plans to investigate a range of complaints about the Redevelopment Agency.

And some residents are agitating publicly for the resignation of agency Executive Director Rosen. "I don't know any single black leader in this community who hasn't advised the mayor that we need major administrative change at the agency, and we've been ignored," Shiferaw says. (The Mayor's Office did not return calls or e-mails about the Western Addition redevelopment project.)

Meanwhile, the community advisory committee and its various subcommittees have already scheduled meeting after meeting to deal with the benefit district and all the other issues surrounding the Redevelopment Agency's 2009 departure.

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