Renovations to Portsmouth Square park have been planned for the past few years. But, as of now, the project has not yet been funded. Beth LaBerge/KQED
Renovations to Portsmouth Square park have been planned for the past few years. But, as of now, the project has not yet been funded. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

‘I Smell a Rat’: Peskin Wants Investigation Into Why Chinatown Park Project Stalled

‘I Smell a Rat’: Peskin Wants Investigation Into Why Chinatown Park Project Stalled

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 residents look over plans for the square renovations. (Courtesy of the Chinatown Community Development Center)

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.

Public Works officials said 'discretionary actions' — in this case keeping or revoking the adjacent Hilton Hotel's permit for its pedestrian footbridge — require an environmental analysis before they can move forward.
Public Works officials said 'discretionary actions' — in this case keeping or revoking the adjacent Hilton Hotel's permit for its pedestrian footbridge — require an environmental analysis before they can move forward. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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.

“The matter was fully heard, briefed, argued. Public testimony opened, public testimony closed, in October 2018,” Low said. “To date, there has been no decision.”

Public Works officials said “discretionary actions” — in this case keeping or revoking the permit — require an environmental analysis before they can move forward.

But Low said that explanation doesn’t make sense and questions why an environment review wasn’t started until a full year after the October 2018 hearing.

“The dates don’t line up to the justification given by the Department of Public Works,” Low said. “If it is true that the decision wasn’t issued because of environmental review, they should have said so.”

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There currently is an analysis underway as part of a larger environmental impact review of the site. City officials expect the review to be completed in 2021.

But Sarah Madland, director of policy and public affairs for the Recreation and Parks Department, said it’s impossible to know if revoking the bridge permit would have made the project move forward sooner.

Madland said that the timeline for Portsmouth Square, including a complex environmental review involving property not maintained by the city, is not atypical.

Regardless of what happened with the permit in the past, the project is on track and all stakeholders are on board, Madland said. That includes Hilton, which Madland said has committed to the project through multiple conversations, and the hotel’s support is documented in the environmental review submission from late last year.

Hilton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Peskin said he raised concerns with the city attorney’s office about Nuru’s involvement in the Portsmouth Square project shortly after the former Public Works director’s arrest. The city attorney’s office did not confirm if an investigation involving the park project is taking place.

Nuru was arrested by the FBI in late January under suspicion of fraud, including allegations that he and restaurant owner Nick Bovis attempted to bribe a San Francisco International Airport official. Since then, numerous reports have detailed the allegations against Nuru, including that he and Bovis used a series of charities to funnel funds to allegedly finance Public Works parties.

The city attorney’s office currently has an investigation open into public corruption at City Hall and has issued multiple subpoenas.

Nuru's defense attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

A design plan for the renovation of Portsmouth Square was selected in July, 2018 and brought to the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks - but little tangible progress has been made since then.
A design plan for the renovation of Portsmouth Square was selected in July 2018 and brought to the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks - but little tangible progress has been made since then. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

What's Next for Portsmouth Square?

After years of planning, an ongoing environmental review slated to end in 2021 and nearly $2 million racked up in consulting fees so far, according to both Peskin and Low, the future of Portsmouth Square feels murky — especially since the project has been left out of the 2020 bond.

A spokesperson for the mayor's office said that the Board of Supervisors could theoretically add the Portsmouth Square project to the bond by either adding more money to the total bond package or changing the existing fund allocations to make space for it.

“Portsmouth Square is essential to the quality of life for residents and visitors alike,” Peskin said. “And I am deeply committed to ensuring that the necessary funds for its redesign to bring it into the 21st century will be included.”

Peskin said on Friday that negotiations have begun to add the project to the bond.

As of May 14, the Hilton's owners still hold the permit to the bridge and there has been no ruling made by the Department of Public Works to change that.

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