Chugging along for three months like the Little Engine That Could, the campaign to require voter approval for the creation of a Bayview-Hunters Point Redevelopment Area has finally reached its goal. On Wednesday, backers of the referendum will submit over 30,000 signatures, nearly 10,000 above the 20,800 needed. The signature drive got a critical boost when the time period for gathering signatures was extended from the standard thirty days due to specific amendments within the proposed Bayview Redevelopment Plan. The extension not only made obtaining the necessary signatures feasible, but also pushed the deadline far enough back so that the referendum would not qualify for this November’s ballot. This means that Bayview Redevelopment is likely to be on hold until at least November 2007, and will then face an electorate less likely to be swayed by a big-money, pro- Redevelopment campaign.

Brian Murphy O’Flynn may have been the only person who never lost faith in the ability of the referendum on Bayview-Hunters Point Redevelopment to qualify for the ballot. O’Flynn’s tenacity in the face of funding problems, and the failure of any single powerful organization to take ownership of the campaign, shows how a single person’s passion and commitment can still make a difference in San Francisco.

O’Flynn and many others became motivated to get involved out of concern over the Redevelopment Agency’s perceived misuse of its power of eminent domain. While current Agency leadership disavows Redevelopment’s history of appropriating property from African-American residents of the Western Addition, the Agency’s track record of demolition, destruction, and displacement left O’Flynn and others unpersuaded.

O’Flynn and others argue that the Redevelopment Agency cannot generate the revenue to support its large staff without building upscale condo projects that will cause gentrification and displacement in Bayview-Hunters Point. The condos approved by the Agency at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard support this claim, as even its so-called “affordable” units are too expensive for current neighborhood residents.

Hearings on the Bayview Redevelopment Plan revealed the neighborhood to be about equally split on the issue. Perhaps the largest group in the community were those who lacked the information to make an informed decision, something that should change now that there will be another year before the referendum comes to a vote.

The referendum also gives all San Francisco voters, not just Bayview-Hunters Point residents, the ability to decide whether the neighborhood should become a Redevelopment Area. This is only fitting, as the Agency’s takeover of the neighborhood would have dramatic implications for the entire San Francisco budget. The fact that Redevelopment debates end up limited to those working or living in the targeted neighborhood has been a problem, since the impact is citywide.

A citywide debate about Redevelopment’s future role in San Francisco is long overdue. Thanks to Bryan O’Flynn’s leadership, San Francisco voters will now get this opportunity.

O’Flynn’s concern over Redevelopment Agency abuses began when as a teenager he rode the bus to school each day through the ravaged Fillmore District. He subsequently attended the London School of Economics, where he learned how government-sponsored demolitions in low-income black neighborhoods like the Fillmore and Western Addition came about.

Ironically, O’Flynn himself became victimized by eminent domain when San Francisco seized a plot of land he owns in North Beach known as “The Triangle.” O’Flynn had submitted plans to build nine housing units on the site, including one for himself and his mother. But in March 2004 the Supervisors voted 8-3 to take O’Flynn’s land by eminent domain so that the site could be connected to the adjacent North Beach Playground.

The city’s taking of land where he and his mother planned to live left O’Flynn puzzled how such acts could be happening in San Francisco. When he heard of plans to give the Redevelopment Agency control of Bayview-Hunters Point, he felt obligated to try to prevent what he had seen in the Fillmore and experienced in North Beach from happening again.

After the signatures are submitted on August 30 to the San Francisco Department of Elections, city officials test a sampling of signatures to evaluate whether there are sufficient valid ones to qualify the measure. Campaigns typically submit at least 30% more signatures than needed to account for duplicates, non-registered signers etc.
O’Flynn has been checking the validity rate throughout, and had accumulated over 21,000 valid signatures prior to this past weekend’s all-out push. With signature-gatherers working feverishly across the city, he expects an additional 10,000 by Wednesday’s deadline.

Once the Elections Department qualifies the referendum, the Board of Supervisors must repeal its legislation. The voters will then decide the question in November 2007, an election cycle that will feature a lower overall turnout and higher percentage of homeowner voters than the November 2006 statewide contest.

Homeowners are more likely to oppose Redevelopment Agency control of Bayview for two reasons. First, they typically oppose eminent domain. Second, because they will be on the hook for future tax increases caused by the potential redirection of hundreds of millions of dollars generated in Bayview from the city’s general fund to the Redevelopment Agency.

This diversion of millions of dollars from street and transit improvements and other vital services to the Agency bureaucracy has rarely received much public scrutiny. The referendum campaign will change this, exposing the true costs of Redevelopment borne by all San Francisco taxpayers.

With progressives and many moderate to conservative homeowners opposed to expanding Redevelopment, chances for the referendum’s passage appear good.

Two weeks ago, a coalition of progressive groups submitted sufficient signatures to obtain a referendum on Oakland’s plans for a massive new upscale housing development at Oak and Ninth Avenue in industrial land owned by the Port of Oakland. These two referenda addressing fears of African-American displacement are a positive sign that long-ignored communities of color will not give up the fight until the people, rather than politicians, have voted.

Oakland activists have delayed action to give incoming Mayor Ron Dellums the chance to improve the development deal. Similarly, with the 49ers plans unclear, and Lennar seeking to change its approved plans at the Hunters Point shipyard, the referendum also gives San Francisco officials time to assess whether the conditions that led some to support Redevelopment still prevail.

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