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article imageSan Francisco creates Community Benefit District for Civic Center Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jan 24, 2011 in Politics
The attempts to create a Community Benefit District for the Civic Center of San Francisco have been very complicated taking seven years.
The SF Board of Supervisors listened to public comment at a hearing on Jan. 4, 2011. It would be the final hearing on the subject as the Board of Supervisors makes careful deliberations before implementing such an endeavor.
The Supervisors approved the proposal.
It seems that most of the comments made that Tuesday afternoon were in favor of the endeavor. Yet there has been opposition to the idea of a Civic Center Community Benefit District, which according to some critics would be in effect a “business district” complete with reinforcements and taxes.
The SF Examiner has been reporting on this issue. The Examiner said that forming of a Civic Center Community Benefit District would require the City to spend close to $250,000 per year in assessments on properties it owns within the area.
This does not factor in the amount the City receives in lease contracts in the Civic Center area.
Some like James Chaffee of the campaign to Keep Civic Center Public sense that forming the CCCBD will interfere with civil liberties and create more bureaucracy.
Also, he and other opponents fear that this could lead to more privatization of public space. Chaffee believes this could hinder due course of democracy in one of the nation’s most liberal cities.
Interestingly, much of the testimony and commentary on either side of the issue was almost entirely eclipsed that day.
The Board of Supervisors meeting chambers were packed with people for the appointing of an interim mayor.
Scores of media people were present with cameras eager to capture live coverage. Speculations were intense as the Supervisors made their decision to place Edwin Lee in office to serve out the remaining term of Mayor Gavin Newsom as he exits to fulfill new duties as Lt. Governor in Sacramento.
Presentations and public hearings before the SF Board of Supervisors can take hours and the proceedings on Jan. 4 that afternoon, starting at 3 p.m., were very long.
The appointing of an interim Mayor was center stage. By the time the subject of the CCCBD reached the Supervisors ears, no doubt they were tired.
The item on the agenda was a 3:00 o’clock special order, that afternoon. The supervisors took public comment at 6:30 and voted just after 10:00 PM.
Yet the special item on the agenda of a CCCBD went forward regardless of the delays. Each person in the audience was given just two minutes to speak. Microphone/speakers were cut off if speakers went over time.
Sets of documents were presented to the Supervisors as well as to those in attendance. Most of these had been prepared in October of 2010.
They were formal documents such as resolutions, notice of public hearing and the Engineer’s Report presented by NBS Consultants & Engineers of Temecula, CA, along with a management plan by MJM Management Group.
Each set consisting of 20 pages or more maps out the boundaries of the Civic Center Community Benefit District and guidelines for budget, etc. The Management Plan report with input from a steering committee was over 55 pages long.
This is just the kind of bureaucracy Chaffee and others wish the City of San Francisco would avoid. He sees MJM Group and other entities getting involved as a way to privatization.
“That is a tempting proposition,” said Chaffee to this reporter via email. But the question is, Chaffee asks, how far down that path do you want to travel?
“I am a government activist so I know as well as anyone the criticisms of government,” he noted.
“But there is a basic principle in a democracy that there are certain things that have to be owned by the community and that belong in the public sector for sound philosophical reasons,” said Chaffee.
Nancy Cross, who was in the audience for the hearing, fears that if a private entity takes hold of such a community benefit district “who will really run the show?
Cross noted that private entities are not subject to the City’s “Sunshine Ordinance law” ensuring that the public is informed of all fiscal matters concerning tax dollars.
Some opinions were very strong on the speculation of potential privatization. But no evidence of such can be cited. Officials with the Mayor's Office reassured that no such privatization would happen.
Lisa Pagan is a project manager for the effort to form the CCCBD and sees it as beneficial. She would not respond to requests for comment. Yet at the hearing she spoke highly of the effort.
Karin Eklund, speaking on behalf of MJM Management Group at the hearing, said that to form and implement a CCCBD would greatly improve the downtown and City Hall area.
Eklund said that 45 percent of the property owners and merchants were in favor of the proposal as it had a large voter turnout.
Representatives of the SF Opera, Symphony, Ballet and the SF Mart gave their approval as the Civic Center and City Hall complex is home to the arts and to commerce.
Conveniently situated near public transportation like BART and MUNI patrons of the arts often face a barrage of homeless and loiterers going to and from performances and events at the symphony, ballet, opera and Herbst Theater on Van Ness Ave.
Van Ness Ave intersects with Market Street the main corridor and major artery for the City.
Supporters of a CCCBD believe that public nuisances like defecation, loitering, litter and blight would be reduced if not eliminated by forming such a district. This would help to make the area safe for the public, especially at night.
And, by forming a CCCBD business opportunities for commerce would increase bringing more needed revenue to the City which is suffering from budget deficits.
Yet with the introduction of the “sit & lay” ordinance that met with disapproval this past year, even those who would support it questioned if the City would have enough resources to enforce such legislation. The repercussions were taken into account.
What about the repercussions in this instance? How will the homeless be treated once a CCCBD goes into effect? How will civil rights be respected? These important questions have yet to be discussed fully.
This is what Chaffee and others are worried about. Zones, tax assessments have been defined in detail in formal reports. What role would "uniformed Ambassadors" play? How much enforcement power would they be given?
There is no indication that they would provide police enforcement and supporters say they have no such police-like power.
But how will a CCCBD impact the current conditions of the homeless and loitering that occupy one of the busiest sections of one of the nation’s most popular cities?
Then of course there is the question of who will pay for all this? Eklund in her brief testimony said that info about the proposal to form a CCCBD was sent out to all owners/residents. 203 parcels and over 35 blocks are defined as the Civic Center district.
Eklund said “no arms were twisted,” as proponents met with property owners and stakeholders like David Harrison and others.
Ironically, while in favor of the forming of a CCCBD, the Opera Plaza Homeowners Association asked to be exempt from the taxation to support the CCCBD.
One speaker from the audience, who did not give his name, said that to pay additional taxes of $45,000.00 or more per year would be a financial hardship. Some supporters noted that the figure actually averages out to be about eight to $10.00 a month per person in the homeowner's association.
Yet what about others in the area? Wouldn't raising taxes or rents even if by 5 percent (as one figure was mentioned), be a hardship for others too? Details on this were vague at the hearing.
Still Ekland believes that the forming of a CCCBD would be “income producing” and give a cohesiveness to the area.
Jennifer Matz, Director of the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development agrees. She told Digital Journal News that in the past decade, 13 community benefit districts have been created in San Francisco. She assured that fears of privatization are unfounded.
Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, etc. are now community benefit districts. The fashionable Noe Valley adjacent to the City’s famous Castro District formed the Noe Valley CBD in 2005.
Debra Niemann, serves as director and spoke before the hearing on Jan. 4.
“Community Benefit Districts are a good idea," she said. "The egos involved may be different but the goals are the same,” said Niemann. She believes a CCCBD will foster social interaction, public safety as well as business.
Ernestine Weiss, long time city resident agreed as she also gave testimony. She said that Lisa Pagan and Karin Eklund were doing a wonderful job to help give attention to the Civic Center area. Weiss believes Civic Center has been neglected too long, and that the project should be put on a “fast track” to completion.
“This issue of the CCCBD alone is scary,” said one observer, who is familiar with City Hall politics.
The SF Library Commission also supports the forming of a CCCBD and is a founding member the CCCBD Steering Committee.
Chaffee and others question how much power the various stakeholders will have over the City in its use and control of the Civic Center area.
The observer source spoke to this reporter asking not to be identified at this time.
The observer noted that the Recreation and Parks Dept. owns Civic Center Plaza and so "the CCCBD has implications for what Rec & Park can and will do with the area.” “The civil rights issue is huge.”
Again, these opposing points of view are only speculations.
Yet, Matz in an interview with this reporter by phone said, "Rec. & Park manages the Civic Center Plaza, the role will not change."
"Issuing of permits, obtaining permission from the City, etc. that will not change," she said.
"Everyone will have to go through the same process, there is no ‘card blanc’ with the forming of a CCCBD there will be even more accountability and transparency,” Matz said.
For more information about the effort to form the Civic Center Community Benefit District see The City of San Francisco web site at: sfgov2.org
And to view the opposing views visit: keepciviccenterpublic.com
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