I-Hotel to 5M Project: Don't Supersize SOMA!

PNNscholar1 - Posted on 25 August 2015

Tony Robles
August 4th marked the 38th anniversary of the eviction of elder tenants
from the I-Hotel.  That event changed the landscape of the city's
policies towards tenants—who make up the majority in San Francisco.
Those who remember the early morning of August 4, 1977 cannot forget the
images of 3000 supporters locking arms, surrounding the hotel, defying
the sheriffs, police, city so-called fathers, planners, developers—in
short, the mechanisms in place that would extricate seniors from their
homes with no alternative housing.  The eviction of elders from the
I-Hotel is a wound that many still feel, a hurt that many remember these
many years later.  My late uncle, poet Al Robles, tenant leader Emil
DeGuzman, the late Bill Sorro, students and artists of many backgrounds
refused to forget the elders who were evicted because their lives,
histories and unheard narratives were the undercurrent of a Filipino
community that endured much hardship in America but was resilient
enough—as elders who had survived—to fight back the developer, the real
estate interests, the politicians—all intent on wiping them from the
city's memory—to strike it from the record. 
The SF Chronicle recently featured a video piece on their sfgate website
called, “This forgotten day in San Francisco History”
(http://www.sfgate.com/video/article/Forgotten-6423996.php). The piece
was short, hosted and narrated by Michael Callahan.  The piece showed
iconic images of the I-Hotel eviction and background about the
struggle—who lived there and why people were fighting against its
demolition.  While the attention given to the I-Hotel struggle in the
media is appreciated, the Chronicle piece—as polished and technically
well-produced as it was—came across as a sort of TMZ feel good techie
tinged travelogue through time and space.  
Firstly the title “This Forgotten Day in San Francisco History” is
misapplied when applied to the I-Hotel struggle.  My question is who
forgot?  As president of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation—whose
mission is to preserve the legacy of the I-Hotel—I come into contact
with people who remember the I-Hotel evictions and the profound effect
it had on them.  For many it is a difficult subject to breach.  People
all over the country contact us, asking questions and wanting to access
our archive for personal and academic research. Young people who were
not born at the time of the evictions have been inspired by the I-Hotel
story—many by having seen Curtis Choy's timeless documentary, “Fall of
the I-Hotel—and have become activists, teachers, cultural
workers—fighting for social justice.  There are certainly many thousands
of people across the country—and worldwide-that remember the I-Hotel
struggle and the evictions and the tenants.  The community didn't let it
fade after the demolition, as the site sat as a hole in the ground with
memories of that struggle planted deep in the ground.  It was finally
rebuilt thanks to the community not forgetting—102 units of senior
housing—at the corner of Kearny and Jackson streets. Interest in the
I-Hotel is ongoing.  A.C.T is producing a play about the I-Hotel based
on a short story from the book "Monstress".  The play comes at a time
when the Filipino community in nearby SOMA is being threatened by a
proposed development by a large developer.  Cute videos and plays are
fine, but very real things are transpiring on the ground, where the real
work is done by tenants and advocates.  
Fast forward to 2015.  SF has drank from the bottle of milk of amnesia.
The calls for housing justice have fallen on deaf ears.  Our Mayor, who
prides himself on having been a part of the I-Hotel
struggle—highlighting his time as a tenant lawyer—has clearly morphed
into what he detested so many years ago when Manilatown fought for
its survival.  He has forgotten the lessons learned from the I-Hotel
struggle—bending over forwards and backwards for developers , real
estate and tech interests whose only interest is insulated communities
that represent one class of people while excluding the rest.  The only
entities, it appears, whose concerns are heard are market rate real
estate developers, tech angel investors, the real estate industry and
all combinations thereof.  Politicians like to invoke the name of the
I-Hotel at community events and in speeches—as if uttering the name
absolves them of their complicity in the city's current housing crisis.
Meanwhile, seniors and the disabled, and families live in a state of
fear of being evicted.  So-called affordable housing has been built in
the past decade but more rent controlled housing has been lost due to
evictions.  At its most extreme, people die as a result of evictions, as
in the case of long time tenants who were evicted via the Ellis
Act—Elaine Turner of North Beach and Ron Lickers.  
The Filipino community is once again facing encroachment of its
community—this time in SOMA by Cleveland based developer Forest City who
wants to carve into the heart of the neighborhood—with a 4 acre site on
5th and Mission where the Chronicle building stands (Those folks who
produced, “This Forgotten Day in San Francisco History)--bordered by
Howard and Mary Streets.  This project—known as 5m—is an attempt by the
developer to “Supersize SOMA” by constructing a 470 foot tower with 400
market rate (aka rich people housing) units, a 395 and 350 foot tower
with 600K feet of office space, a 200 foot tower with 230 market rate
and 58 affordable units.  The height and density limits that would
preclude such a project would be circumvented by “Spot Zoning” and
special carve outs that would allow them to build despite zoning
regulations and construct these buildings that are totally out of scale
with the rest of SOMA—both physically and in character.  The towers that
the developer plans to build will bring big money to the developer but
the long term impacts on SOMA residents—the Filipino community, families
and working people—will be increased land values and with it, eviction
and gentrification.  Also, allowing a project of this magnitude in SOMA
would set a precedent, allowing other developers to follow suit,
creating another financial district. In the proposed 5m project, one
site alone will have 85% of the city's annual office allocation.  Well
planned zoning restrictions were put into place to prevent such a thing.
The proposed 5M development is dividing the community—which is part of
the plan.  Promises of community benefits are made—money and space for
artists, school programs and non-profits, open private public space
(Which is it, public or private?) are being made but let's remember, the
developer cares about one thing—the developer—and they are very shrewd
and smart when they infiltrate a community they have their bulldozers
set on—in this case, the land that the Chronicle owns.  SF Chronicle, do
you remember the I-Hotel?  
And let's not forget that Mayor Lee tried to sneak an ordinance through
the back door that would fast track approval of this project, without
public discourse, but private discourse, to be facilitated in a bubble
free of scrutiny and critique.  Oh, the pay to play advantages one gets
with the qualification of being called a developer.
There are no guarantees that the community benefits will ever come to
fruition in the development agreement.  If the economy takes a downturn,
the developer will not be required to adhere to the community benefits.
The city is giving the developer a blank check, to write in what it
wants as far as zoning without regards to the integrity of the Central
SOMA plan, the youth and family zone and the Filipino Heritage District.
And when people started getting evicted and displaced, namely members of
the Filipino community—who is going to remember them, the developer?
When our community begins to disappear, who will remember them, the
folks that the developer has dispatched to sing corporate Kumbaya hymns
in the spaces that our elders, families and children gather?  Or will it
become just another forgotten day in San Francisco History?
(c) 2015 Tony Robles



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