CBD Victory Provides Roadmap For Organizing Neighborhoods

by Randy Shaw on August 4, 2005

A decade ago, efforts were made to improve the Tenderloin neighborhood by making it a Redevelopment Area and by creating a Business Improvement District. Both strategies met strong community resistance and were defeated at the Board of Supervisors. But on Tuesday the Tenderloin voted by a 65% margin to create a Community Benefits District, with support coming from such unlikely allies as Hastings Law School and those arrested in protests against Hastings. The process by which unusual suspects were rounded up for the common good holds valuable lessons for those working to improve neighborhoods across San Francisco.

Over 25 years ago, Cadillac Hotel owner Leroy Looper laid down the key rule for neighborhood organizing success. Looper maintained that the Tenderloin could only move forward if everyone was at the table, and that the benefits being sought would be spread throughout the community. This became the operating principle of the Tenderloin CBD drive, and has been the model for other successful neighborhood campaigns.

When one examines the history of the city’s most low-income neighborhoods—Bayview-Hunters Point, the Mission, SOMA, Western Addition, Chinatown and the Tenderloin—only the latter two have avoided high-profile and divisive internal battles. I don’t know if Chinatown Community Development Center Director Gordon Chin ever used Looper’s exact words, but he has played a role similar in making neighborhood unity a priority. While Chinatown has its factions and diverse interests, its decision-making process resembles the Tenderloin in being more collaborative than hostile.

In the city’s other low-income neighborhoods (with Bayview’s future still uncertain, developers and real estate interests used their political clout to run roughshod over the poor and, often with the aid of the Redevelopment Agency, drove low-income people and businesses out of the community. “Might makes Right,” rather than mutual respect, has the governing principle.

The Mission had great success in beating back the gentrification tide, but even today there is little if any productive relationships between real estate/developer and tenant interests. Even progressives in the Mission have a high degree of internal conflict.

This lack of constructive engagement has kept the Mission in a holding pattern, as upscale development has been halted but little new affordable housing is even on the drawing board. The Mission has long suffered from lacking a unifying figure like Leroy Looper or Gordon Chin, whose broad trust enables otherwise competing factions to come to the table.

In the two prior efforts to improve the Tenderloin, the collaborative process was bypassed while special interests pushed agendas without broad community buy-in. The push to make the Tenderloin a Redevelopment Area came from a community group whose future funding depended on such action. The Business Improvement District (BID) was promoted by those seeking a crackdown on homeless persons, and while many Tenderloin residents and businesses are upset by the homeless problem, there was little support for funding an assault on the downtrodden.

Contrary to popular perception, the Tenderloin has many wealthy and/or powerful interests. The multinational Hilton Corporation, the Shorenstein Company, Hastings Law School, Glide Church and the YMCA all own property in the neighborhood’s inner core. In most low-income neighborhoods, interests like the above call the tune, but in the Tenderloin there has been a recognition—sometimes arrived at reluctantly—that Looper’s rule about bringing people to the table is the key to success.

The key to winning broad neighborhood support for a major initiative like the Tenderloin CBD is ensuring that it really provides a community benefit. Activists have seen too many proposals that cloak private gain in community language, and are not fooled.

In the case of the Tenderloin CBD, the main driver of the process was Elaine Zamora, an attorney who was a recent arrival into the neighborhood. Lacking any particular economic interest in neighborhood improvement different from other property owners, Zamora was the ideal person to spearhead the campaign.

Recognizing that prior improvement efforts had been linked to potential displacement, Zamora made special efforts to assure homeless and tenant advocates that the goal of the CBD was the improvement of the neighborhood for those currently living and owning property and businesses there, not for new folks attracted by neighborhood improvements.

CBD’s require two rounds of voting, and in the first round the chief opponent of the improvement plan was the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). Zamora and others tried their best to convince TNDC Director Kelly Cullen to support the plan, but he refused, and his group’s ownership of many properties in the area made them the leading voters against the CBD.

Before the recently completed second round, longtime neighborhood activists and TNDC tenants John and Michael Nulty attended a TNDC Board meeting to plead for support for the CBD. They soon learned that the Board had been told little about the project, but before a public debate could ensue, Cullen moved the Board to Executive Session.

Following the session, the Board agreed to oppose the CBD. Although Cullen reportedly worked with Reverend Glenda Hope of SF Network Ministries to build opposition to the plan, both nonprofits abstained from the final vote.

In many neighborhoods, opposition from a group like TNDC could have scuttled the CBD. But because the pro-CBD coalition had gone person to person and group to group to build confidence in the plan, the opposition from a prominent single group could be marginalized.

(Glide Church, which spoke in favor of the CBD at the committee level, reversed course and renounced its support. It too abstained in the final vote)

I argue in The Activist’s Handbook that winning social change often requires the willingness to work with diverse allies and to round up the unusual suspects. With Hastings, the Hilton, and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic all supporting the CBD, that message once again proved correct.

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