Embarcadero Neighbors Lose Navigation Center Appeal

Dozens of Embarcadero residents descended on City Hall with a team of lawyers, prepared to fight a homeless shelter proposed for the waterfront. They lost.

Beds ready to be filled at the Division Circle Navigation Center. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

The hotly-contested Embarcadero Navigation Center landed in the hands of San Francisco’s politicians Tuesday, as an appeal from neighbors was heard in the Board of Supervisors’ weekly meeting. Dozens of property owners lined up to give public comment, decrying the city’s decision to put a homeless shelter near their multi-million dollar homes along the waterfront. 

But — as was largely expected — the supervisors unanimously denied the appeal.  

“We need Navigation Centers. They are not the entire solution, but they are an essential tool to help us control the crisis on our streets,” said District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney. “Over 400 people have died on our streets in the last two years, so this is a life or death situation. It is urgent. There are hundreds of people who are unsheltered who are living on the waterfront who will be served by this Navigation Center.

“I hope that moving forward we can come together and make this work for the community,” he added. “This may not have been a perfect process … But this Navigation Center will move forward.” 

“Our city is in the midst of a homelessness crisis, and we can’t keep delaying projects like this one that will help fix the problem,” said Mayor London Breed. “When we have people suffering on our streets, we need to be able to provide them with the care and services they need. This SAFE Navigation Center will help us do that and I am committed to making this site work for the people who need help and the surrounding neighborhood.”

Breed proposed the Embarcadero parking lot as a site for a 200-bed Navigation Center back in early March, as part of her goal to open 500 new shelter beds by the end of the summer. But as word spread among neighbors, anti-homeless vitriol began to emerge. A GoFundMe created by a group calling itself “Safe Embarcadero Center for All” popped up to hire a lawyer to oppose the shelter, raising thousands in just a few days.

And that’s when things started getting interesting. A rival GoFundMe — “SAFER Embarcadero For All” — was created in support of the Navigation Center, with all money raised gifted to the Coalition on Homelessness. Big names like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and even GoFundMe itself donated to the campaign. 

In all, the anti-Navigation Center campaign raised $102,000 for representation. Its competitor raised $176,000. 

The money battles were fun to watch, but in the end it’s up to the city to make a decision about the center. In April the San Francisco Port Commission (which owns the 146-spot lot) unanimously approved the proposed plan for the site. Subsequently the Safe Embarcadero for All neighbors followed through with their threat to appeal the decision, which is why it ended up in the Board of Supervisors’ hands Tuesday. 

Peter Prows, one of the attorneys from the law firm Briscoe Ivester & Bazel hired to handle the appeal, claimed there are “undeniable negative impacts” to the center, including “public alcohol and drug consumption,” “personal assaults,” and “attracting additional homeless encampments.”

“Most anywhere else the city could put this navigation center without any issue,” Prows added. “You could decide today put this Navigation Center outside City Hall.”

John Cornwell, a 25-year resident of 38 Bryant St., was one of a couple dozen neighbors who spoke at the meeting. He called the process “completely undemocratic” — despite the fact that more than 20 community meetings had been held between city representatives and people from the neighborhood. But based on Tuesday’s testimony, it’s clear those meetings may not have done much to improve relationships. 

“This project is much larger than anything San Francisco has attempted,” Cornwell said. “All you have to do is go by the Navigation Center on Bryant and it’s a mess. This is not something that the neighborhood wants. Hundreds of people have participated in this process to fight this. There has been a complete orchestrated effort by the bureaucracy of San Francisco to make sure the neighborhood could not stop this project.”

In an attempt to block it, the neighbors and their lawyers tried to argue that it shouldn’t be exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a theory that was disproven point by point by several city departments. 

Claims that the site would bring in more vehicular traffic were squashed, when it was pointed out that the nearby parking spots would largely disappear. Two dedicated police officers would be on footbeat patrol in the area seven days a week. 

The CEQA appeal alone killed their argument. But nitpicky details aside, at the end of the day the Navigation Center could help a vulnerable population in dire need of assistance — and aside from a couple people who took the mic, that element was missing in much of the conversation Tuesday. 

Kelley Cutler from the Coalition of Homelessness said she was tired of these meetings — that after the last one at the Port, she wanted to go home and take a shower after hearing people talk about the unhoused people she works with. “I think that so often the humanity of people has been lost in these discussions. And that’s what we need to get back to,” she said. 

“How many of you have been homeless?” Tenderloin resident Del Seymour asked the crowd of appellants. “You have to be out there to understand how important this is. This Navigation Center is very important to 200 people out there.”

Barring any further efforts from the team of lawyers hired to block this center, construction will start later this summer and the Embarcadero Navigation Center may open its doors in December. 

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