Plans years in the making to renovate a park and community square in San Francisco’s Chinatown appear to have again stalled, concerning neighborhood advocates for the redesign who say that it may now never be funded after the project was dropped from a multimillion-dollar city bond package.
The recent saga over redesigning the historic Portsmouth Square involves an apparent holdup between city departments and private ownership of a pedestrian bridge over the park.
But the supervisor who represents the district has raised more startling concerns, calling for the city attorney to investigate in light of public corruption charges leveled against former San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru.
“I smell a rat,” District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin said. “For almost two years, Mohammed refused to move on it, and then of course in January of this year, he was arrested by the FBI ... And now mysteriously the park is not being included in the current bond.”
This comes as federal officials announced this week that restaurateur Nick Bovis, an alleged co-conspirator with Nuru, pleaded guilty to felony charges and agreed to cooperate with an ongoing federal investigation.
The Struggle to Renovate Portsmouth Square
During a Tuesday meeting before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Mayor London Breed presented a plan that had been months in the making: the multimillion-dollar 2020 Health and Recovery bond project.
This money was originally slated to be a parks bond, totaling $255 million. But in November 2019, Breed asked the city's Capital Planning Committee to explore replacing it with a “mental health bond.” If the new proposal is passed by the voters later this year, this bond would provide funding for housing and homelessness, infrastructure improvements and projects to improve open-air spaces and parks.
But one item that was absent from the bond for stakeholders and residents of Chinatown: Portsmouth Square.
“Given the current city budget situation, we don’t know when the city will put another bond package together,” said Erika Gee with the Chinatown Community Development Center.
“Given the city’s finances, it’s really important that this park is included in the bond,” she said.
Chinatown’s 'Living Room'
Portsmouth Square sits at the corner of Clay and Kearny streets, on the eastern edge of Chinatown. It's home to several notable moments in San Francisco history — including the first raising of the American flag in the city in 1846. For decades, the park has served as an essential meeting place for the community and has been referred to as Chinatown’s “living room.”
So when plans began to coalesce around redesigning the park in 2017, the community had a lot to say.
“There were over five community design workshops, which is extraordinarily high in the park world,” said attorney Allan Low, who serves as vice president of the Recreation and Park Commission. “Over 100 people attended, which shows high community engagement.”
After numerous neighborhood meetings, a design plan was selected in July 2018 and brought to the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks, which then made it one of the department’s “core projects,” according to Low.
So far, so good, Low said: The community had decided on a design, the Parks Department approved it and things were moving forward.
Then, the project hit a snag.
A Bridge Too Far
The preferred design from the community required the removal of a pedestrian walkway over part of Portsmouth Square. The bridge extends across Kearny Street, connecting the park with the Chinese Cultural Center and the towering Financial District Hilton hotel.
Back in the 1970s, the city Department of Public Works issued an encroachment permit to a company called Justice Investors, one of the companies that owns and manages the Hilton. This permit granted it “air rights” to the bridge, allowing the company to build and manage the walkway.
In the summer of 2018, dozens of District 3 residents signed a petition to revoke the permit and submitted it to Public Works — and then-Director Nuru.