Community Advocates Unhappy About Embarcadero Navigation Center Planning Process

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In April, the Port of San Francisco unanimously approved Mayor London Breed’s proposal to build a temporary 200-bed Shelter Access for Everyone (SAFE) Navigation Center at Seawall Lot 330, despite a request from the Central Waterfront Advisory Group to postpone the vote. The Embarcadero facility is a step towards fulfilling Breed’s promise to add 1,000 temporary beds by 2020. Since the plan was announced last October, the City has created 212 spaces. 

The Embarcadero facility will be constructed on a 2.3-acre parcel of prime real estate owned by the Port that’s currently used as a parking lot, immediately adjacent to a densely populated residential neighborhood.

SWL 330 is zoned for residential and hotel use. A proposal to develop the parcel for luxury lodging was abandoned by the Golden State Warriors in 2014, after it purchased the Mission Bay property where its newly constructed Chase Center will soon open. 

 The Port Commission will hold an informational hearing on a potential Request for Proposals for development of Piers 30-32 and SWL 330 at the Commission’s June 11 meeting.

Initially floated as having space for 175 to 225 guests over four-years, the Navigation Center plan was modified in response to neighborhood opposition to open this summer with 130 beds, ramp up to 165 spots after four months, with 200 beds by month seven. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) will contract with a nonprofit organization to operate the facility, starting with a two-year lease, with an option to renew for two additional years. The Port could cancel the lease if there are breaches in a Good Neighbor Policy, which focuses on discouraging noise and loitering; encouraging safety and cleanliness. The nonprofit will be charged $0.79 a square foot, or $36,860.61 a month. 

San Francisco has roughly 6,300 unsheltered people. The six navigation centers currently operating in the City range in size from 29 to 128 beds, with two located in District 6. Districts 9 and 10 are the only other districts to have hosted a navigation center.

The Department of Public Works will build the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center. The design features two large sprung tensile fabric structures to house beds, as well as space for administrative offices and support services. Toilets, showers, laundry facilities, storage lockers, indoor community room, outdoor courtyard, and a dog run will be included. 

In response to neighbors’ concerns, the San Francisco Police Department will provide beat patrols seven days a week in an area bounded by Folsom and Harrison streets, Second Street, and the Bay extending along the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building. Center staff will be accessible by phone 24/7; neighbors can also call 311, where a special queue related to the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center will be prioritized by the Healthy Streets Operations Center, which coordinates several City agencies involved in addressing homelessness and unhealthy street behaviors.

The Central Waterfront Advisory Committee, which is comprised of 11 community members who make recommendations to the Commission on use of Port property, was unable to come to a consensus at their April meeting on how to advise the Commissioners to vote. Some CWAG members support the Center, but even backers expressed consternation at how the City handled the planning process. 

Following the Port Commission’s vote, CWAG co-chair Toby Levine stated that the committee intended to monitor the project’s design and implementation, elaboration and application of the Good Neighbor Policy, and future development of SWL 330.

According to Randy Quezada, the Port’s communications director, a formalized Good Neighbor Policy wasn’t yet available, and DPW is still working out design details. He added that DPW is consulting with SFPD to determine what types of and where security cameras should be placed.

“They’re moving as quickly as they want to move and there’ll be no time to review design before they start building,” said CWAG member and Dogpatch resident Katherine Doumani, observing that the City plans to begin constructing the Navigation Center this month.

“There are people on this committee who have been following design, not just on this but on many other projects over the years. It’s what we have always done,” Levine said. “I would like to see design come to this Committee for comments before they begin construction.” 

According to CWAG members Ted Choi and Chris Wasney, if City officials had presented a master plan for future navigation centers that showed sites under consideration throughout San Francisco it’d have mitigated the reaction by many Mission Bay residents that only certain neighborhoods are expected to shelter homeless people. 

Perhaps the most pointed comment came from CWAG member and South Beach Rincon Mission Bay Neighborhood Association director Jamie Whitaker, who said he’d have liked to have seen the City “start with an existing group, such as the Neighborhood Association or this CWAG, to approach and educate people about the plans. It was disrespectful to CWAG and to the Port that it was presented as it’s happening, announcing it will be up by this summer. You’re going to lose the people who are empathetic to the plan by disrespecting them.”

“We have a responsibility to demand better rollouts in the future,” Levine told Port staff. “The face of homelessness was never made clear” in municipal presentations at community meetings; she’d have liked to have heard directly from a person who had been able to get back on their feet and find permanent housing after staying in one of the City’s existing navigation centers.

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney told The Potrero View that he’d first heard of the plans for SWL 330 four days before the Mayor announced them. “If this was a process that I was designing, I would have done it much differently,” Haney told The View. “The people who live near the Center deserve to have a special focus so they can understand how this will impact their neighborhood. I did as much outreach and listening as is humanly possible in the timeline the Mayor laid out. I was in South Beach for every meeting.”

Haney said he’d heard “a lot of positive feedback” and “a lot of concerns about the Center” from constituents who lived near SWL 330. “Ultimately, I have to do what I promised I would do; fight for public safety. I knocked on doors in Rincon Hill and told people I was for navigation centers and solutions for homelessness. I believe this will be positive for the community. My responsibility is to make sure that’s the case.”

Sobriety isn’t required to stay at the facility, though on-site drug use won’t be permitted. Opponents of the center fear it’ll attract open drug use and sales in the neighborhood, children and pets being exposed to inappropriately discarded hypodermic needles, more homeless people, and an increase in street crime. The unprecedented size of the center has also raised concerns. 

Peter Prows, an attorney with Briscoe Ivester & Bazel LLP, is representing Safe Embarcadero for All, a group of Mission Bay and South-of-Market residents. As of mid-May, Center opponents had raised $102,005 through a GoFundMe campaign, as well as additional monies, to file a legal challenge against the navigation center. A rival GoFundMe campaign supporting the facility had collected $176,015.

“Safe Embarcadero’s position is that if the City moves forward with the construction of the navigation center, it will be in violation of multiple statutes, including the California Environmental Quality Act, the statutes that govern the use of Port land, and the Brown Act,” South Beach resident Wallace Lee, who organized Safe Embarcadero for All, stated in an email. Last month Safe Embarcadero filed a CEQA appeal with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

“There was barely enough time to have a meaningful discussion of the contours of the Navigation Center, let alone the details of the Good Neighbor Policy,” added Lee, who is part of a quickly assembled neighborhood working group convened by the Mayor’s Office and the Port of San Francisco as part of the community engagement process. The 10-member working group, which began meeting weekly in March, is intended to provide a forum for dialogue, respond to questions, hear concerns and discuss details and decisions, but it has no formal oversight or advisory capacity. “Many on the working group are disillusioned by the City’s unwillingness to address community concerns,” Lee added.

Ken Craig, a Lumina resident, told The View that opposition could’ve been mitigated by better community engagement prior to the Mayor’s revelation of the plan. “The announcement was always going to be met with opposition and legitimate safety concerns from neighbors. I think the City could have done significantly more to assuage and answer many of those predictable concerns when the announcement was made, rather than appearing to react and respond to these concerns. The lack of initial definitive information and detail has exacerbated community concerns, and allowed opposition to grow,” Craig said. The Center “will change the neighborhood dynamic. This change could be positive, neutral, or negative. I personally believe it will overall be positive. The individuals who will benefit from the proposed Center are our current neighbors. They are as unique and diverse as the condo owners, renters, and employees who live and work within this neighborhood.”

“I get the fear. I relate to it, as somebody in the neighborhood,” Sunny Schwartz, a 17-year resident of Glassworks, told The View. During her career in criminal justice, Schwartz, who serves on the neighborhood working group for the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center, founded the nonprofit Five Keys, which runs the Bayshore Navigation Center. She described herself as a protective mother of a 13-year-old. “There are a lot of very unstable people in the neighborhood. That said, I am fully supportive of it. This is a state of emergency.” 

In April, Haney introduced legislation that’d require every district to open a navigation center within 30 months, locate a facility in two districts that don’t currently have one within six months, establish a site selection and reporting process, require the district supervisor’s involvement, and make the community process more transparent. Haney pointed out that HSH is one of the few City departments that doesn’t have a commission. “We need more oversight over the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing,” he said. “Right now, they just get to do what they want. I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the public.” Last month, Haney introduced a charter amendment to create a Homeless Oversight Commission.  

“You know, it’s easier said than done,” Breed told “It may look like a site could work but investing the kind of dollars that are required to get one of those sites open, it may be cheaper to get housing for someone. So, it’s a number of factors that go into it other than just saying, ‘Oh I’m going to put a navigation center over here,’ or, ‘There should be one in every district.’ It’s more complicated than that.”

“I think she’s wrong on that,” Haney told The View. “I am disappointed with her response. It’s going to be hard to address a citywide problem without the Mayor’s support.”

Days prior to the Embarcadero site announcement, the Mayor rejected plans for a navigation center at Bay and Kearny on the grounds that the place was too small. Different sources reported that it would’ve accommodated 50 or 80 guests. According to Haney, the North Beach site should be put back on the table.

“There’s a lot of fear and a lot of anger and I hear that,” Haney said of the opponents’ reaction to the SWL 330 site. “I try my best to have a positive, collaborative experience with my constituents. When I came to the community meetings at the HOAs, there were strong feelings. Most people were respectful. I hope we can heal moving forward.”