Not for Sale by Owner

Visitacion Valley might have its dream transit village in a few years, if only Ingersoll-Rand will get out of the way

In San Francisco's poorer neighborhoods, when most folks hear the word “developer,” their ears perk up, and impromptu armies of residents form to fight against gentrification and to protect their community integrity. These same citizens often clash with corporations, pushing them to shut down and clean up pollution-spewing factories, and then fight amongst themselves over plans for the areas once the plants close.

Not so with the former Schlage Lock site, which is among the largest parcels of unused land in San Francisco.

Visitacion Valley's residents agree on a plan to develop this 20-acre plot, despite extreme toxic contamination in its soil and groundwater. The cleaned-up area would be a transit village, sandwiched between the new Muni light-rail station and the fast-developing Leland Avenue corridor. Outlined in a snappy, 45-page ringed booklet complete with colorful maps, the proposed development includes housing, retail space, and a much-needed supermarket.

The community approves. The San Francisco Planning Department approves. Pulte Homes, a Michigan-based developer, approves. It's like they're all one big, happy redevelopment family — except the Ingersoll-Rand Co., which owns two-thirds of the site, won't sell.

Seven years after Schlage Lock closed for good, the prospective jewel of a revived Visitacion Valley is an unrealized dream. On the east side of a renovated, palm tree-lined Bayshore Boulevard rest acres of dirt and grassy fields dotted with piles of tires, rusty big-rig cabs, shopping cart-and-blanket remnants of homeless encampments, and massive, abandoned buildings. The situation has become so dire that local residents and city planners last year pressured the Board of Supervisors to take the first step down the path toward wresting the site from Ingersoll via eminent domain.

“This is a long-term project, but it should've been [started] years ago,” says Jennifer Dhillon, executive director of the Visitacion Valley Community Development Corp. “When the site closed, if this was in any other part of San Francisco, somebody would've rushed in and fixed this problem. The fact that it has been allowed to lie fallow for such a long time is very frustrating.”

Of course, circumstances aren't quite so simple as a unified community pitted against an obstinate corporation. Universal Paragon Corp., the real estate conglomerate that owns the other one-third of the site, is all for mixed-use development there. And when Home Depot proposed building a superstore on the site in 1999, it was the community, not Ingersoll, that persuaded the Board of Supervisors to strike down the plan.

Last week was the fifth anniversary of that decision, which rezoned the area to prevent any big-box retailer from building a store. Shortly thereafter, the Planning Department — with help from local residents, community-based organizations, and city agencies — spent months creating an official Strategic Concept Plan for the site. It offered Visitacion Valley what its residents wanted most: hundreds of affordable housing units and a retail space full of potential jobs. Finally, instead of a blighted wasteland separating western Visitacion Valley from Little Hollywood in the east, the development would bridge the two neighborhoods, complete with plenty of open space and community facilities. The elaborate plan was unveiled in July 2002, but went nowhere. Companies, community members, and government entities continued to squabble over who was responsible for the toxins on the site, how much contamination needed to be cleaned up to keep the area safe, and who should pay for that work.

For decades, Schlage was an economic anchor of Visitacion Valley, employing thousands with steady jobs manufacturing keys, locks, and door hardware. Ingersoll, which declined to comment for this story, acquired the company in 1974, sold some of the site to a commercial printing company, then bought it back in the mid-1990s, a few years before closing the Visitacion Valley facility down for good in 1999.

Over the years, the manufacturing and cleaning processes at Schlage released metals and solvents that contained volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Many of the VOCs in the Schlage site soil and groundwater, including tetrachloroethylene and vinyl chloride, are known carcinogens, according to the California Department of Toxic Substances and Control (DTSC).

The southeast Universal Paragon portion of the site was once a Southern Pacific Transportation Co. rail yard. It's contaminated with many of the same chemicals, and Universal Paragon and Ingersoll have battled for more than a decade over whether those chemicals leaked from Schlage Lock or were the result of railroad operations. The most recent lawsuit, scheduled for trial in federal court next January, will determine who should pay for the millions already spent on the DTSC-directed cleanup of the Universal property, and who might be responsible in the case of possible health-related lawsuits after the site is redeveloped.

The prospect of legal action is the main reason Ingersoll has held onto the land, despite several multimillion-dollar offers to buy it. Ingersoll has maintained that no matter how much money goes into soil remediation and other cleanup, it's possible that some residents who would live on the site would suffer from cancer decades from now, and it would be impossible to determine for certain whether toxins, or just the normal course of life, caused the disease.

“People sue for a lot of reasons. Even if nothing toxic is there, that doesn't mean someone couldn't file a lawsuit. Sometimes the issue is more of a perceived health issue,” says Karen Toth, the DTSC project supervisor for the site. “The level that [DTSC] may consider safe may not prevent a lawsuit.”

Pulte Homes and Ingersoll have been negotiating for two years. Unless the developer promises to indemnify the seller from litigation, Ingersoll won't close the deal. While most companies would downplay health risks from toxic waste on their sites, Ingersoll is in the odd situation of amplifying them, despite the fact that DTSC experts believe the site could be safely cleaned and redeveloped for mixed use.

Last year, with the Strategic Concept Plan collecting dust in city planners' offices, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell — whose district includes Visitacion Valley — decided it was time for action. Encouraged by her constituents and tired of waiting for Ingersoll to sell, she brought the issue before the board. Maxwell coordinated the approval of $200,000 toward examination of the Schlage site as a possible redevelopment survey area. The Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, which has ongoing philanthropic efforts in the city's low-income neighborhoods, kicked in another $200,000, and the board is expected to add $200,000 more in fiscal 2006. It's a lengthy process, beginning with an environmental impact review that won't be complete until early next year. It's also the first step toward a detailed plan from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, and potentially toward the city taking control of the site via the controversial process of eminent domain.

City officials won't say whether the eventual goal is to spur Ingersoll into action, or to force the company off the land. The costs of the current investigation alone are high, but they pale in comparison to the massive tax revenues that could flow from a viable, developed area. Nevertheless, the city taking over the site and anointing an outside developer would do little to clear up the sticky wicket of costly toxic cleanup and future health-related litigation. Maxwell and her colleagues hope that someday soon Ingersoll will back off its hard line on indemnification and let the development process move forward.

“I haven't given up on them,” says Maxwell. “I don't think we will until the last minute.”

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