Michael Theriault headshot

Almost any large private construction project seeking City approval meets opposition. Often the stated reasons of opponents are straightforward, like increased traffic, or loss of hotel worker jobs. Often the stated reasons belie the actual. Someone concerned about losing views decries shadows on parks; someone fearing negative effects on home values bemoans loss of “neighborhood character.”

Much opposition now seems not even to concern a particular project, but to express deep anxiety about growing inequality. The “disruption” that the tech industry lauds has long been a feature of our capitalist, market-based system; one of capitalism’s greatest expansions is appropriately called “the Industrial Revolution.” We can easily understand a response to inequality that faults capitalism generally and attacks its more prominent manifestations – and especially those involving a public approval process, such as private construction – without bothering to discern just what role for good or ill they play.

Just such anxiety underlies Proposition I, the Mission Moratorium, which would halt market-rate residential construction even though the great majority of those who have changed the Mission’s face have occupied existing housing, and even though the moratorium will in no way change this trend or alleviate its effects.

I believe it also propels opposition of the South of Market Community Action Network, or SOMCAN, a Filipino community organization, to Forest City’s 5M project on the block bounded by Fifth, Sixth, Mission, and Howard Streets.

As the anxiety is intense, so is the emotion in support of the Moratorium or opposition to 5M. We may never reason this emotion away, yet we must give proponents of the former and opponents of the latter the respect of answering their arguments.

At a Planning Commission hearing September 17 SOMCAN claimed 5M would displace Filipino residents and invoked the memory of the International Hotel. It called for a “code compliant project” that did not trade lower height limits on parts of the block for higher limits on others. It demanded that the project comply also with the “Children, Youth, and Family Zone” and that its approval await progress toward a “Filipino Heritage District.”

It said the Commission should delay approvals until December, then interrupted the meeting with a forty-five minute chanting protest when a motion by Commissioner Dennis Richards to do so failed.

The International Hotel, or I-Hotel, was the Kearny Street home to elderly Filipinos who had toiled as day laborers. In 1968 they were served eviction notices so the hotel could be demolished to make way for commercial redevelopment. Protesters fought the eviction, but in 1977 the last residents were evicted, and in 1981 the hotel was demolished.

No I-Hotel occupies the 5M block. No one lives there. 5M will create low-income housing where none exists. The notion that it will displace low-income Filipinos in surrounding blocks is highly dubious, especially as much of the existing housing is under some form of long-term rent limits.

The “code compliant” project SOMCAN demands would not have to produce the community benefits the City has negotiated with Forest City, including low-income housing. Building height cannot be an issue by itself. Provided their shadows on parks are as minor as those 5M will cast, how can tall buildings damage a community except by constricting views from living rooms of the well-to-do? And for that, so what?

The provisions of the “Children, Youth, and Family Zone” that apply to 5M are limited to requirements for “conditional use” permits for things like liquor stores and entertainment venues. Most of 5M lies outside the Zone. Commissioner Richards moved that the Commission recommend to the Board of Supervisors – 5M’s next stop – that Zone requirements apply to all 5M, and also moved the project’s approvals. For doing what he could to fulfill this SOMCAN demand, Richards earned another chanting protest.

Maybe the most comprehensible of SOMCAN demands concerned a Filipino Heritage District. SOMCAN lamented that there was a Chinatown, a Japantown, but no longer a Manilatown.

Commercial havens for an ethnic petite bourgeoisie anchor both Chinatown and Japantown. Chinatown’s commercial district grew almost organically in a community ghettoized more than a century. Japantown’s was built in large part from the 1960s on, in a neighborhood from which Japanese Americans were expelled during World War II and to which they never returned in their earlier numbers.

Small merchants as in Chinatown and Japantown provide items central to a community’s family life. Food, culinary implements, religious and other ritual items, certain medicines are dear to any family, and the need for the means of obtaining them is heartfelt.

There is no Filipino commercial district like what has so long anchored Chinatown. If one is to be, it must be imagined, then created, as was Japantown’s. Even then, it will face challenges, as Japantown struggles to draw enough of both an ethnic and tourist clientele to thrive.

So to SOMCAN we can say: Imagine for us a Filipino Heritage District. Offer ideas on how to achieve it. You claim to represent the community? Convene it, brainstorm, then present a vision toward which we can strive together. You are the ones to do this, not the Planning Department.

Until you do and we see how opposition to 5M helps achieve your vision, that opposition – however loud you chant it – rings hollow.

Organized Labor


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