For Japantown residents the time to celebrate their recent victory over Starbucks was brief. While pleased the coffee powerhouse has decided against extending its ever-increasing reach to Japantown, activists must now focus on yet another challenge - keeping future chains and franchises from developing at the former Japantown Bowl site.
After suffering years of mistreatment from San Francisco's Redevelopment Agency and developers alike, residents now realize that winning a battle does not ensure the war's end. Indeed, the war proceeded today when John McInerney, developer of the 1600 Webster St. property, delivered yet another blow to the people of Japantown as he presented them with a mere 30 days to find a local tenant capable of leasing or renting the space before he more widely markets the property.
As activists filled room 416 of City Hall yesterday until there was standing room only, it became clear that they expected what was coming and were prepared for combat. Before they were able to speak, the Agency's executive director, Marcia Rosen, relayed an email from McInerney that addressed the 30-day period being allotted to potential local realtors. Immediately, the public expressed their concern that 30 days would not be enough time to make a "reasonable" proposal. All Agency commissioners did the same. Commissioner London Breed was the first to contest, followed by Commissioner Darshan Singh who said that 90 to 120 days would be more appropriate.
"This is not something the agency has control over, this is something the developer has offered," Rosen cautioned. Still the Agency pressed onward. According to Commissioner Covington, there was a real breech of trust against Japantown supporters. "We're here for the betterment of the people. When they turn out in such force to say we've wronged them, that we've not only hurt their feelings, but that we've wronged them economically, that's a problem for me," she said. "I'd like to know how we're going to institutionalize a change in communication patterns, to the community and to commissioners, so that we get information in a timely fashion." So would Commissioner Leroy King, who added that not only is the 30-day period unreasonable, it is insulting, as is the fact that McInerney sent a note addressing the issue rather than attending the meeting himself. "I think it was done very shabbily. It's an insult to the commissioners and an insult to the community."
Soon thereafter, as a result of urging by the commissioners who learned of his presence, McInerney came forward to speak, leaving those in the room wondering why he ever felt a need to send an email. Perhaps it is because he intended to be seen and not heard whilst quietly surveying the reaction to his announcement. It certainly was not because he felt remorse for any wrongdoings as he assured the audience that in spite of requests from both the public and the Agency, he refuses to extend the 30 days. There has been more than sufficient marketing for the property, he said. "Since June of 2002 we've offered the space. We'd love for somebody from the community to bring us someone, but we cannot wait forever," he said, adding that he would be happy to work with Japantown residents to find a tenant.
However, residents at the meeting found that hard to believe, particularly since moments after he claimed to want to work with the community, he lied about how he had advertised the property. When asked if the property had been for sale and for lease the entire time it was on the market, he said yes. According to activists, it had been for sale only, making it unaffordable to many Japantown residents, some of whom might have been interested in leasing. "That's just another of his lies," said Japantown Task Force Vice President Caryl Ito, who is used to McInerny's betrayal. "We met with McInerney in June of 2002 and said that we specifically did not want a Starbucks or Burger King," she recalled, adding that they did not feel either business would foster diversity of the community. Still, she added, "We're blaming the developers for everything when Starbucks should be taking some of it. Starbucks approached them [the developers] in November of 2004 and didn't tell us. We didn't hear about it until April of this year."
It is exactly that lack of communication and resulting breech of trust that has so many activists discouraged. Steve Nikago, Executive Director of the Kimochi Senior Center rests part of the blame on the Agency's shoulders. While attending this year's Cherry Blossom Festival he heard, through the grape vine, of Starbuck's plans to develop. "No information was provided to us directly. Trust has a lot of meaning to our people, but it's easy to break that sense of trust in terms of our picking up information off the street and not getting it from the Agency." Meanwhile, Richard Marquez, a third generation San Francisco resident and program director for Mission Agenda, questioned the agency's conscience when he said they should have defended the people of San Francisco against the "Wal-Mart of retail coffee plantations." In this battle for corporate greed, he asked, "Who will be held accountable for the damage done yesterday, today, and tomorrow?"
That is something Richard Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchants Association, would like to know. "Since the 1960s we've suffered from your poor decisions." He cited the Japantown Peace Plaza as an example, recalling a time when the community's choice of the Plaza's designer, a designer who would have taken into consideration the Japanese heritage and aesthetic preferences, was overlooked. "Now we've got a cold, harsh, concrete environment. For 40 years we've been knocked down by your punches, and we keep getting back up." That ability to "get back up" is what separates Japantown from other areas where unwanted chains and franchises develop in spite of public outcry. "They think they can mess with us and that there's not going to be any repercussions," Ito scoffed. "It's that old, quiet, Japanese stereotype."
There was nothing quiet about the Japantown activists, at City Hall, or on paper where a petition written by Linda Jofuku, Japantown Task Force's executive director, acquired more than 5,000 individuals in support of thwarting the Japantown Starbucks. It is grassroots activism such as theirs that Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who spoke at the meeting, commends. "They've shown what a community is capable of," he said. "But now the people of Japantown have to return to the drawing board to figure out what should go in the space that the developers own."
In the meantime, the Japantown community should take comfort in the fact that, on this issue at least, they have support of the current Agency who passed a motion requesting not only an extension of the 30 days to 90, but also for commissioners and developers to meet with members of the Japantown Task Force during those 90 days, and for commissioners to look into a loan program for the Japantown community similar to that of the Fillmore Street program. Too bad McInerney refuses to acknowledge any of their requests. Perhaps he would respond more positively if they sent him an email.