San Francisco's Mid-Market Redevelopment Plan includes a strategy for boosting arts, cultural and entertainment uses in the Area. But instead of guaranteeing a high level of ongoing funding, the Plan relies on the Republican approach of giving tax breaks and financial incentives to wealthy developers. These developers are granted the right to build more units in exchange for making tax-deductible donations to an arts fund. The Plan could have mandated developer contributions to the arts as a condition of construction, but instead developers get lower taxes, more valuable projects, and public acclaim as patrons to the arts.
San Francisco's Mid-Market neighborhood was once a thriving hub for arts, culture and entertainment. But city leaders supported the destruction of the historic Fox Theater in 1963, and allowed the current monstrosity known as the Fox Plaza to be built on the site. City Hall then failed to inject the resources necessary to prevent the conversion of mainstream entertainment venues into porno theaters and strip joints.
Now the Mid-Market Redevelopment Plan claims to support revitalizing the neighborhood's cultural life. But rather than guaranteeing the necessary funding for accomplishing this goal, the Mid-Market Redevelopment Plan instead seeks to boost arts through tax breaks and the awarding of "development credits" to wealthy developers.
This looks more like a Bush Administration strategy than a progressive approach to supporting cultural work.
Here's how the Plan claims to help the arts. A development project in the Area will be permitted additional square footage (i.e. more units) if it the owner contributes to a "Mid-Market Arts Space Fund." The contribution takes the form of a purchase of "Art Credits," redeemable in exchange for enhanced development space.
Since support for the arts is nearly unanimous in San Francisco, the development interests that drafted the Mid-Market Plan saw a golden opportunity to use the Art Credit to boost support for their broader agenda. But upon close inspection, this scheme for expanding arts uses is a sham.
First, increasing arts, cultural, and entertainment uses in the Mid-Market should be integral to the Plan and should not be dependent on handouts from rich developers. It is Republicans who have slashed public funding for the arts while making arts organizations more dependent than ever on the largesse of wealthy donors; such a scheme must not be replicated in San Francisco.
Second, the Plan should guarantee that existing community-based arts, cultural and entertainment uses get priority for what should become a guaranteed funding stream out of the revenue generated in Mid-Market. Otherwise, politically connected interests could get the bulk of funds while the groups who have been struggling in the neighborhood will not reap the benefits.
The "community-based" issue is critical. The current plan would allow the arts use to become part of the overall gentrification agenda for the area, as wealthy developers could get tax breaks and extraordinarily valuable density bonuses by contributing to an entertainment use that is unaffordable to most San Franciscans.
Why should our Board of Supervisors allow Mid-Market real estate developers to get density bonuses in exchange for a cultural donation that does nothing to help low-income people? If density bonuses are going to be part of the arts plan, they should be linked to arts and entertainment uses that are affordable to those living in the many studio apartments and single room occupancy hotels (SRO's).
The Newsom Administration could look to density bonuses as a way to provide more housing for the chronically homeless. If Mid-Market were done correctly, arts, cultural and entertainment uses would have their own guaranteed funding stream and density bonuses would boost funding for affordable housing.
Third, the experience of Berkeley shows that granting density bonuses to encourage developers to promote the arts is not a smart strategy.
In Berkeley, a developer was granted a density bonus in exchange for agreeing to provide ground-floor retail space to a progressive women's bookstore, Gaia Books. But the bookstore went broke prior to the completion of construction, and, while the developer got the benefit of the density bonus, the projected cultural space has remained vacant for years.
The reason the space has remained vacant is that the developer, having gotten the benefit of the bonus, had no financial incentive to offer the cultural space at an affordable rent level, or with the necessary tenant improvements. Similarly, there is nothing in the Mid-Market Plan requiring developers to make affordable space available for arts or entertainment uses. After developers make their tax-deductible donation and get the right to build more units, the community arts benefit of these funds---both visually and economically-could well be slight.
The simple fact is that unless a certain percentage of Mid-Market land or ground- floor retail space is earmarked for arts, cultural, or entertainment uses, then the developers' contributions could go to expensive public sculptors and other uses that further the area's upscale look. Developers are unlikely to make space available for new evening uses such as comedy clubs or theaters, as this would attract crowds and noise that could make the proposed upscale condos in the area less desirable.
Arts groups have been desperate for money for so long that any financial assistance from developers can encourage them to support upscale projects. But in the case of the Mid-Market Redevelopment Plan, cultural groups should not settle for crumbs off the table when they are entitled to the entire cake.