Other Neighborhoods Less Enthusiastic About Adopting Green Benefit District Model

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Since 2016, the Dogpatch/Northwest Potrero Hill Green Benefit District (GBD), the City’s only GBD, has focused its efforts on greening streets and improving common spaces.  During that same three-year period residents of other neighborhoods – Mission Dolores, Buena Vista, and the Inner Sunset – have engaged in heated debates about whether to establish a GBD in their communities. Opponents believe that GBDs double-tax residents and add a layer of bureaucracy for services like trash pickup. Supporters counter that GBDs accomplish difficult tasks in less time with more civic engagement than municipal agencies.  

According to Jonathan Goldberg, San Francisco Public Works’ (DPW) Green Benefit District program manager, Mission Dolores is the only neighborhood in which a group of residents is actively advocating to establish a GBD. Last year, three community meetings were held on the subject. 

In 2018, Inner Sunset residents shelved a proposal to create a GBD after proponents drafted a Management Plan and Engineer’s Report, funded by a $60,000 grant from DPW. Goldberg said that since the documents weren’t finalized not all funding was spent.

According to Goldberg, a survey of Greater Buena Vista residents indicated that a majority opposed GBD creation. 

“Dogpatch was largely industrial and didn’t have a lot of residential amenities,” said Julie Christensen, Dogpatch/Northwest Potrero Hill GBD executive director. “Neighbors carved public spaces out of land belonging to Caltrans, Caltrain, and on public right of ways. Then the City greenlit rapid development in Dogpatch, Mission Bay, and the waterfront. That was a natural foundation on which to build a stronger, more consistent neighborhood-funded form of activism. For us, a green benefit district has been a valuable tool to bridge between City services and neighborhood volunteerism. The GBD’s goal is to preserve and improve the ad hoc greenspaces while pushing the City to catch up on the missing infrastructure,” 

Brooke Rivera directs Place Lab, a division of SF Parks Alliance, a nonprofit that supports civic engagement and philanthropy in public parks. Place Lab advises to residents who want to create a Green Benefit District. According to Rivera, the City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development and DPW support benefit district formation, “but only in areas with strong neighborhood desire and leadership to explore the district formation process.”

According to Rivera, the Parks Alliance has worked on GBD projects in Dogpatch/Northwest Potrero Hill, Inner Sunset, Buena Vista, and Mission Dolores. “The neighborhood…residents and business owners who care about their area and decide to take action together to improve it…led the initiative and the City has then agreed to support the neighborhood’s efforts, not the other way around. Parks Alliance has a contract through OEWD to use funds from a combination of sources, District 8, District 5, OEWD, and DPW, to support staff time to support the community leaders in their outreach efforts,” said Rivera, who described the formation process as “lengthy, technical, and with many state and City-mandated steps.”  These include development of a Management Plan and Engineer’s Report approved by the City Attorney, as well as a neighborhood-wide property owner petition and ballot. 

Gloria Chan, OEWD director of communications, said her office has a $170,000 contract with Parks Alliance. 

Rivera said that last year Parks Alliance was asked for advice by Mission Dolores residents on how to form a GBD, for which it’s been paid $13,717 by OEWD.  According to Rivera, there’s no minimum number of residents and business owners needed to begin the process of establishing a GBD. 

“It is critical that the group be representative of the larger neighborhood demographics, needs and desires. Otherwise the effort would never gain the support it needs to succeed,” said Rivera. 

Carolyn Thomas, founding member of a committee to support a Mission Dolores GBD, said she’s tired of trash, human waste and safety concerns. For almost four years, Thomas has served as the San Francisco Safety Awareness for Everyone captain for Ford Street, advising her neighbors on security precautions they can take, including helping them to get to know and watch out for one another. 

Thomas said she started noticing a decline in the neighborhood’s quality of life in 2008.  “At that point, I started talking to different block associations. We formed the Neighborhood Action Group. This group is comprised of residents on Pond, Prosper, Noe, Sanchez, 17th, 18th, and Hancock Streets. People were complaining about getting the run-around from City agencies – lighting, graffiti, and cleanup – when acting individually. In 2015, one of my neighbors heard about the formation of the Dogpatch/Northwest Potrero Hill GBD. She and I reached out to Jonathan Goldberg. He was very helpful, as was Susan Eslick, the current treasurer of the Dogpatch/Northwest Potrero Hill GBD. Dogpatch/Northwest Potrero Hill GBD provides a great model that we can learn from. We also knew a bit about what a benefit district could do because we live close to the Castro Community Business District.” 

Thomas said the City’s restoration of Dolores Park, completed in 2017, led to more concerns for the neighborhood. “The park was a tremendous success, but at the end of the day, there were massive amounts of bottles and trash piling up around the neighborhood. In addition, the J train tracks next to the park became a space for people to erect tents and congregate.”

According to Thomas, Mission Dolores residents would benefit from additional trash and needle pickup, and street greening around Dolores Park. “We need the area to be cleaner and safer. Right now, what is keeping the area from getting worse is little pockets of people, groups like the Dolores Park Ambassadors. These volunteer groups are full of very energetic, passionate people who organize the cleanup, improvements, and special events in the public spaces in the park and surrounding areas. If any one of them is absent, that has an effect. It would be good to collaborate and leverage the influence of all these groups.” 

Thomas said the neighborhood shouldn’t have to rely solely on volunteers for the area to be clean, safe and get the necessary support from responsible City agencies. “A budget for the GBD would be set. We could use money for additional services, be an advocate for this unique historical neighborhood, and create activities that build relationships. A GBD would also allow the neighborhood to request and receive grant money and other donations for special projects. I’d really like to see people out and about and enjoying the public spaces…get to know their neighbors a little bit more.” 

According to Ned Moran, another Mission Dolores GBD supporter, municipal services around Dolores Park have been “lacking for years. I have lived on Guerrero Street for about 10 years. A number of years back, almost all the blocks between 14th and 27th streets underwent a greening project to takeout concrete on median barriers and put in plants. It took the City four years to get that completed on my street. This only took place after residents put on a campaign to get that completed. It was incredibly difficult to get any leverage or understand how the City powers worked.” 

Moran said residents wander onto Guerrero Street and pick-up litter “on our own all the time. The City doesn’t show up to do regular maintenance after we worked so hard to get the area planted. The reason I have been involved in trying to establish a GBD is that it feels very empowering to be in a position to come together with my neighbors. We are looking to make a good change.”

Peter Lewis, Mission Dolores Neighborhood Association (MDNA) president, said he opposes a Green Benefit District for the area, as does MDNA’s board of directors. “At our last MDNA board meeting on Wednesday (February 13), we voted to write a letter of opposition against a Mission Dolores GBD and post it on our web site. We also plan to create a special anti-GBD page,” said Lewis.

Lewis thinks the City has invested significantly to improve Mission Dolores and continues to do so. “In addition, for its size, San Francisco spends far more on street cleaning than any other city. We also have a huge Rec and Park budget, which is reflected in our outstanding and recently renovated Mission Dolores Park. Therefore, why should the property owners in Mission Dolores be double-taxed?” he asked. 

According to Lewis, Mission Dolores has a different character than Dogpatch or Northwest Potrero Hill. “Everybody in the MDNA lives in Mission Dolores or close by. I’ve owned a house here since 1989. Dogpatch is changing from an industrial area to a residential area. I understand why the GBD got voted in there. That area is in need of new parks and residential infrastructure. That’s not true here. We already have the oldest residential area in San Francisco that includes arguably the most beautiful street and one of the best parks.”  

Lewis questioning the proposed boundaries for a Mission Dolores GBD, though Goldberg said that boundaries haven’t yet been defined.  

“Mission Dolores GBD Steering Committee members have been engaged in conversations with key stakeholders within the survey area, as well as those beyond the initial survey boundaries,” said Goldberg. 

Lewis believes the preliminary boundaries for the Mission Dolores GBD ignores MDNA’s Mission Dolores Neighborhood Historic Context Statement and Survey, which the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission unanimously adopted in 2010. Lewis said the Mission Dolores GBD is attempting to get a larger tax base by ignoring the neighborhood’s core community. “They are obviously proposing a larger area so they can attempt to counteract and defuse our influence in the neighborhood,” said Lewis. 

Goldberg said MDNA’s Mission Dolores Historic Context Statement and Survey doesn’t relate to the Mission Dolores GBD. “One survey addresses the history of properties and building typologies, while another solicits input on current resident, business, and constituent needs,” said Goldberg. 

To create a GBD, at least 30 percent of all property owners within the designated boundaries must agree to proceed with an initial petition. A majority must then approve the district in a ballot election. Every survey respondent’s answer carries equal weight, no matter the size of the owner’s property. 

Mission Dolores GBD supporters conducted a non-statistical survey of 612 respondents last fall. There were 4,338 parcels in the survey area, with about 3,500 unique property owners. Of the 612 respondents, 72 percent (443 individuals) were property owners, 10 percent (63 individuals) business owners, and 20 percent (123) residential tenants. The survey allowed respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than one category, such as a property and business owner. Sixty-six percent of residential property owner respondents and 59 percent of business owner respondents indicated they were willing to pay an additional assessment for supplemental services beyond those provided by the City. Thirty-six percent of respondents indicated that they’d support GBD formation, while 46 percent wanted more information. 

Roger Hofmann, an Inner Sunset resident and Inner Sunset Action Community (ISAC) member opposed GBD creation in his neighborhood, and has concerns about the overall concept. “We were a group of 15 Inner Sunset residents who came together to oppose a very bad idea. We sent one informational mailer including a budget analysis to slightly over 2,000 Inner Sunset property owners…put up an informational web site. We did not have outside funding. We spent $3,000 out of our own pockets. The effort was 100 percent grassroots.” 

Hofmann said he and other ISAC members were concerned about the Inner Sunset GBD formation committee’s approach to surveying more than 3,000 properties.  “Blocks with low levels of support were subsequently excluded from the proposed GBD district, including the blocks bounded by 10th Avenue, Funston, Lincoln and Irving…were close to the heart of the Inner Sunset. After survey-guided boundary revisions, the proposed Inner Sunset GBD district included just over 2,000 properties.” 

Hofmann sees GBDs as an “additional level of bureaucracy” in municipal government that wastes money and isn’t transparent. “We want the City to stop funding this political program. Multiple GBDs will create little fiefdoms within the City. We don’t need to finance another layer between DPW and the average citizen. Also, financially, a GBD is very inefficient. The work a GBD does should be done by DPW and Rec and Park.”

According to John Hooper, a Buena Vista resident, 63 percent of residents surveyed by Greater Buena Vista GBD supporters opposed the idea.  “I am a former 20-year board member of the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association and a former board president…founding member and former president of Friends of the Urban Forest. When supporters for a GBD announced their first public meeting in the Haight in 2018, I and other residents felt the GBD idea was coming out of the blue.” 

Hooper said GBD supporters grossly misstated Buena Vista Park’s condition as a way to garner support. “We learned through a Public Records Act request that GBD would cost about $150,000 per year in overhead on a total assessment stream of $400,000. That’s a third of the money the assessments were supposed to raise. I think the GBD’s concept was undercut in the eyes of many neighbors by how expensive it would be.” 

Hooper said San Francisco Parks Alliance is bypassing existing neighborhood associations and attempting to establish GBDs as a way to supplant these groups.  “Last year, the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association raised $25,000 for park improvements. It is (in the process of raising) $25,000 for park improvements for 2019. A GBD is unnecessary. We have a good police presence and a good response from Rec and Park in this neighborhood.” 

Despite the ongoing debate over GBDs in San Francisco, Goldberg said other metropolitan areas see the concept as having potential. “I got a call…from Austin about DPW’s GBD program…another last year from New York City. In July 2017, I was invited to present at the Greater and Greener Conference, an annual event sponsored by the City Parks Alliance. This is a national parks advocacy group. A lot of people were interested in adapting this model to better suit their municipality or locality. When the next recession hits, communities will look for ways to find additional funding for local priorities.”