The residents of Visitacion Valley are tired of being overlooked.
Once dubbed “Forgotten Valley,” the community in southeast San Francisco is home to many working-class, Asian immigrant families. Among them is Marlene Tran, a retired S.F. public school teacher who has long used her background in education and translation skills — she speaks English, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Madarin — to advocate for her community.
Tran is one of many residents of the neighborhood fighting against the proposed installation of two medical cannabis dispensaries at 5 Leland St., led by Quentin Platt of Equinox Botanicals, and 2442 Bayshore Blvd, spearheaded Victor Nguyen of Elevated Systems.
“I feel that the process has been very secretive,” says Tran.
While Visitacion Valley largely voted against Proposition 64, Tran says is not an anti-cannabis issue, but rather one about potential traffic congestion (both proposed dispensaries would reside in the narrow entrance to the Valley) and the safety of the community’s children.
“Marijuana has a medical use. I wouldn’t deny it — I’m a teacher — but I feel that everywhere you turn, everything is all about marijuana. I think there is a time and place for everything and things should be more balanced,” she says.
Beyond the issue that the 5 Leland and 2442 Bayshore projects would conflict with Planning Code Section 790.141, which stipulates medical cannabis dispensaries cannot be built within 1,000 feet of “a community facility and/or a recreation center that primarily serves persons under 18 years of age,” Tran also says that since these projects were first announced, Elevated Systems has proceeded with a campaign marked by deceit. Among the evidence she cites is the fact that notices of meetings were posted last-minute, and only in English.
For attorney Teresa Li, who worked pro bono on an appeal (on behalf of neighbors Tran, Russel Morine, and Ying Chen) of the San Francisco Planning Commission’s decision to approve the 2442 Bayshore dispensary, the trouble doesn’t end there.
“The other side actually submitted false signatures allegedly from the community, from people that deplored the opening of this medicinal-use cannabis dispensary,” she says. “These signatures turned out to be false. I had an expert who examined them. In the hearing, their attorney actually admitted it. They said that their client’s friends and family gathered these signatures and that sometimes, they just wrote them for these people, instead of having people sign for themselves.”
Li also cites how a partial survey of the 676 signatures submitted by Elevated Systems in support of the 2442 Bayshore dispensary project revealed that at least 67 of them bore false addresses.
“I addressed this in my brief, and the other side’s response was that they just set-up a table on the sidewalk and anybody who walked by could sign it,” she says. “They didn’t verify anyone’s addresses.”
On July 19, the five member San Francisco Board of Appeals heard arguments from both sides on the 2442 Bayshore project. When it came time to vote, Vice President Frank Fung, Commissioner Rick Swig, and Commissioner Bobbie Wilson strangely dissented. Lacking the three vote majority necessary to pass the motion, the appeal was denied.
“I have never heard or seen anything like this,” Li says. “Everybody was confused about what had just happened. They just said the meeting was adjourned. Somebody had to come out and explain. We have five commissioners on the board there and their jobs were to vote, and only two of them voted. That’s how we lost.”
While Li says she must return to her practice and can no longer offer her pro bono work, Tran and the rest of the community remain committed to a cause they see as an attempt to strong-arm a low-income, largely non-English speaking community into unfairly shouldering the brunt of the impending cannabis boom.
“We’re concerned that the Planning Commission is steamrolling this decision without community input,” Tran says.
However, there may finally be some progress. District 10 Sup. Malia Cohen, who represents the neighborhood, proposed an ordinance on July 27 that would place an interim zoning moratorium on the approval of medical cannabis dispensaries for 45 days, a move done as a response to the impending legalization and subsequent rush of MCDs attempting to open.
For Tran, this is a welcome acknowledgement from the city of the issues she has worked so hard to highlight.
“I think the city should be more sensitive, given that we have a very diverse population in San Francisco and they should make sure that these project sponsors are really doing the outreach. We were once known as ‘Forgotten Valley’,” she says. “We don’t want to be forgotten again.”