December 2012

Potrero Hill Town Hall Meeting Draws a Crowd

Yael Chanoff

It started with a text message from the mayor. In 2009, 20th Street resident Joyce Book secured a meeting with then Mayor Gavin Newsom. Book showed Newsom McKinley Square and the adjacent Vermont Street enclave, a blighted patch of open space co-owned by the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW), Recreation and Parks Department, and California Department of Transportation. She expressed her frustration at trying to get anyone in the City to respond to community concerns about the area. “He goes, ‘well, let’s just do this,’” Book recalled. “He took a moment and texted all the heads of each of the agencies and said, come meet with Ms. Book.”

A few weeks later, the first annual Potrero Hill Community Town Hall was held. Representatives from virtually every City department showed up to respond to residents’ questions and concerns, and to explain what exactly they do so that neighbors know where to direct those questions and concerns throughout the year. The event has become a tradition. Last month, more than 60 people gathered in Downtown High School’s auditorium for the fourth annual Town Hall meeting. The meeting was supposed to focus mostly on public safety, but with the opportunity to talk to real life City officials, Hill residents came armed with all sorts of questions.

District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen kicked-off the meeting by providing an update on “recent successes;” actions by the Board of Supervisors that affect the district. Cohen mentioned an ordinance adopted in September to prohibit oversized vehicles from parking in certain neighborhoods, including District 10, and touted an unanimous Board decision to triple fines for property owners with more than 10 properties to their name that have violated blight codes.

For some residents, the meeting was a chance to meet Robert O’Sullivan, who was appointed San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) Bayview station captain two months ago, after Paul Chignell retired. O’Sullivan noted that car burglaries and street robberies were some of the SFPD’s top priorities in the neighborhood. He tried to account for what some saw as inadequate police presence and too-long response times. “We work in a very busy police district,” O’Sullivan said. “Some nights it’s just going from one 911 call to the next.”

California Highway Patrol officer Laura Clare also emphasized the overwhelming job law enforcement officers face in the district. According to Clare, she does “work where people are pitching tents and making homes in the areas near your homes.” Clare said that she doesn’t have enough officers under her command. “The problem is huge, and four officers is just not an ample amount. We are hiring,” she informed the crowd, generating some laughs. 

Many residents came eager to grill Planning Department officials about plans for a new Kaiser medical complex at the Cor-o-van site, but no representative from the department came to the meeting. Book’s announcement that the department wasn’t present was met with groans and raised eyebrows. Later, an attendee asked “can you tell us why Planning couldn’t be here?” Book explained that a scheduling conflict arose after the meeting, originally planned to take place in October, was postponed due to the World Series. 

Jeff Joslin, director of current planning, said that there was more to the Planning Department’s absence. He agreed that a scheduling mishap occured. He also confirmed, however, that the Kaiser project, expected to be a hot topic at the meeting, prompted Planning’s decision not to send a representative. “The request was clearly intended to afford Planning staff an opportunity to respond to concerns about a project that’s not yet been formally submitted. It would have be premature for such public comment, given the complexities of reviewing such a project,” Joslin said.

Instead, Cohen fielded questions about Kaiser. She encouraged efforts like Save the Hill, which opposes the development as currently proposed. “You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing,” Cohen said. “You’re getting the word out. You’re organizing.” According to Cohen the project is at its beginning stages, with final approval several years away. “I haven’t even been briefed about it by the Planning Department yet,” Cohen said.

A number of attendees raised concerns about the sidewalk dots that have appeared on several blocks of Potrero Hill in recent months. Several Hill residents reported problems trying to comply with the sidewalk repair requirements triggered by the dots, a process that can be complex and involves obtaining a City permit. In response, Robert Quan, representing DPW’s sidewalk repair program, told Hill residents, “You need to get over yourselves,” an attempt at humor that fell flat. Quan explained that sidewalks are regularly evaluated for repairs, and “now it’s Potrero Hill’s time.” 

A representative of the Potrero Annex-Terrace housing complex raised concerns about trespassing and burglary in the neighborhood. She also mentioned that after 5 p.m. on Friday housing project residents have no way of getting into their homes if they forget their keys, as the Housing Authority closes for the weekend.

Book hopes that the meeting encourages people to be patient and optimistic when working with City agencies. “These are our partners. They’re like subcontractors on our house,” she said. “If you don’t work hard to understand your surroundings and what you need from them, and partner with them, you’re not going to get anything back.”

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