Neighbors Rage Against Controversial Excelsior Housing Proposal

A multi-developer team gearing up to build 428 rental units in the Excelsior hosted its first community meeting over the weekend. Things got heated.

Renderings of the site, drafted by Jeffrey Michael George for Christiani Johnson Architects. (Courtesy Emerald Fund)

Tucked in the Outer Mission atop the rolling hills near John McLaren Park, the Excelsior neighborhood lays low, out of the way. The one-mile stretch of Mission Street between Geneva and Silver avenues doesn’t offer third-wave coffee or boutique clothing. You’re more likely to hear Spanish, Cantonese or Tagalog chatter while walking down the street than English. It’s quiet. Most people know each other.

But a proposed project set to redevelop a decent chunk of the Excelsior’s commercial corridor may spell change for a deeply working-class neighborhood, mostly unchanged for decades.

“We’re going to line Mission Street with activation,” promised Marc Babsin, principal at local real estate developer Emerald Fund, as he faced a packed crowd of 100 neighbors and community activists over the weekend.

On Saturday, BRIDGE Housing and Emerald Fund hosted the first neighborhood meeting for a proposal to build 428 rental apartments along Mission. The units will be contained in two 6-story buildings, separated by affordability: 175 subsidized affordable units in one, 253 market-rate units the other.

“It’s really one project,” Babsin told SF Weekly prior to the meeting. “Basically you have two sites with two giant parking lots.”

If approved, BRIDGE Housing will build the 175 affordable units at the former site of the Valente Marini Perata & Co. Funeral Home at 4840 Mission St. Next door, Emerald Fund will demolish the Safeway at 4950 Mission St., and in its place will construct the 253 market-rate units, with commercial retail slated for the first floor. A new, larger Safeway will be built on the ground floor of BRIDGE’s project before the other one is destroyed.

The proposal also includes a 100,000-square-foot space for the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, rumored to have been ousted from the project last fall. Two separate, yet connected underground parking garages with 338 spaces will also be built, according to the presentation.

But after Babsin left the stage, community organizers from the local nonprofit and Latino grassroots group PODER led a call and response chant in opposition to the project, calling it “out of touch” with their community.

“We are here today to set the record straight, because it feels like the rug has been pulled from underneath us,” chanted a chorus of voices scattered throughout the room, led by PODER community organizer Jessie Fernandez.

“There has been a lack of transparency,” the crowd continued. “Because there are smoke and mirrors being used about this project.”

Other voices from the neighborhood shouted back asking for silence. “Some of us want to hear what they have to say, please” one women yelled from the back of the room.

Afterwards, Babsin said the meeting got hijacked.

“It felt like an assault,” Babsin said. “A lot of people didn’t get the opportunity to speak, a vocal part of the audience did all the talking.”

Last fall, 48 Hills broke a story about a “backroom deal” at play with the two developments, spurring controversy among the neighborhood. The story suggested that the affordable housing portion of the project was already a done deal, ready to go.

Former District 11 Sup. John Avalos told SF Weekly before the meeting that the new proposal was negotiated in secret between the developers, the National Electrical Benefit Fund – owner of the Safeway site – and current District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí.

“Once Safaí got into office, all that effort to build a public voice for housing in the Excelsior went behind closed doors,” Avalos said.

Avalos said 134 affordable units were already slated for the funeral home site after months of negotiations. The addition of market-rate housing was a concerted effort by Safaí to bring in a wealthier set of folks to the neighborhood, which  Avalos says could ramp up displacement in a neighborhood home to a mostly working-class Latino and Chinese immigrants.

“The Excelsior is one of the last neighborhoods that hasn’t undergone major gentrification,” he said. “It’s one of the last holdouts.”

Avalos didn’t attend the meeting, but Safaí did. The supervisor chatted with SF Weekly about the project, which he calls crucial for revitalizing the neighborhood.

“This is one piece of what can potentially be a larger strategy for revitalization for the neighborhood,” Safaí said.

Safaí also denied any role in the project, which he said must be an “organic community process” between the developers and the community. Most neighbors support the project, he said.

“If you ask every single person in this neighborhood: Would you want what was originally conceptualized, 100 units, no parking, and a neighborhood health clinic? Or would you like a brand new grocery store, a 175 units of affordable housing, a neighborhood clinic, and additional units to take pressure off the housing market?”

When asked after the meeting what he took away from the exchange, Babsin briefly paused. “People want more meetings,” he said. And they’re coming — though the next date has not been confirmed.

A draft EIR will be available for public comment later this year, and the project is expected to be heard by the Planning Commission sometime in 2019.

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