Contested Campus in Chinatown

City College of San Francisco's proposal to build a 244-foot-tall building engages immigrant community while enraging those who say it will loom over historic districts.
July 31, 2007

A plan to create a permanent home for the City College of San Francisco's campus in Chinatown has provoked a bitter fight, with critics opposing the plan for a 16-story building on the grounds that it would loom over the historic area -- and obstruct views from a nearby Hilton Hotel.

“Right from the time it was unveiled as one of the options, it has generated a lot of energy and a lot of heat, some good, some bad,” says City College’s chancellor, Philip R. Day Jr. In response to the opposition -- led by the Hilton -- Day says, supporters of the community college's Chinatown campus have “dug in their heels a little bit.”

“Their reaction to that was, ‘Well, we’re going to fight for this as much as we possibly can because if we lose this, we may lose [the opportunity to build a permanent campus] forever.’ ”

A permanent home for the Chinatown campus has been a dream since the campus was founded in the first of its more than 30 leased homes back in 1977. Today, about 6,500 students enroll in courses held in nearly a dozen rented sites throughout Chinatown, with the main location housed at a former elementary school leased from the San Francisco Unified School District that Day describes as being in “absolutely horrendous, horrendous condition.” Through funds derived from three local bond initiatives, held in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and another $48 million in matching state monies, the college, which has 11 campuses throughout San Francisco, has obtained $122 million to build on lots it already owns in Chinatown.

The proposed 16-story building would include 18 classrooms, 24 laboratories, a multi-purpose room, student center, culinary program space, administration and faculty offices, and library. It would stretch to a height of 244.5 feet at its maximum, and its height could, a draft environmental impact report notes, “affect the visual context of the cultural resources in the area around the Project Site,” including two historic districts (Chinatown and Jackson Square). A number of other tall buildings, including the 853-foot-tall Transamerica Pyramid, the 300-foot-tall Montgomery-Washington Tower and, of course, the 310-foot-tall Hilton across the street, are also in the area, according to the report.

The college has accepted comments on the report and the board of trustees expects to vote on the next steps in September -- including a vote on whether to exempt itself, as a state entity, from city planning restrictions limiting new construction in the area to a height of 65 feet. If approved by the board, construction could start as early as the spring, with a completion date planned for 2010. An earlier effort to build a home for the campus, in 1998, fell flat after the environmental review stage.

“It’s virtually unanimous,” Ling-chi Wang, a professor emeritus in Asian American studies at the University of California at Berkeley and an active member of Friends of Educational Opportunities in Chinatown, says of community support for the City College of San Francisco's Chinatown campus plans. “We’ve circulated a petition, we now have about 20,000 people who have signed it. That’s almost the entire Chinese community in the area.”

"The last time that the Chinese-American community was united on anything at all was when Japan invaded China in 1937.”

“We are not going to allow a delay anymore,” he adds, attributing the urgency in his voice to a loss of state funds that could result from a delay and the conditions currently facing students at the campus’s main site, the former elementary school. “All the toilets are for little children, all the chairs -- everything is for little children,” Wang says.

“This is not just disrespect, it is discrimination,” Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and co-chair of the Friends of Educational Opportunities in Chinatown, wrote in reference to current conditions in a Monday San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece decrying the "systemic discrimination" he says is at the heart of the controversy.

“Why it’s a case of systemic discrimination to me is [that] the influence of money and of wealth has really distorted the priorities at work," Pan said in an interview Monday. “You have this frustration and passion on the one hand by a community that has often felt voiceless being drowned out by what is a much smaller special interest but a much more powerful special interest” -- the Hilton.

But Michael Yaki, a lawyer with Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, which represents Justice Investors, the ownership group for the Hilton property in question, stresses that his client is one of many groups concerned about the plan. He describes it as one that would exact a negative toll not only on the views from the Hilton (which bills itself as “soaring 27 stories over the ‘City by the Bay’”), but also on the surrounding historic districts. “The community college has had trouble in the past attempting to put a new campus in because they don’t understand how to really work with community groups on how to best achieve their goals,” Yaki says. “We support a campus. In fact, we have worked with the neighborhood and the Chinatown group to come up with a two-building, lower-rise proposal.”

“The question is: Is there a civil right of education? Yes,” he says. “Is there a civil right for the education of immigrant students? Yes. Is it a civil right to have your education in a 244-foot tower that has an adverse impact on people around you? No."

"City College has been in this position for 30 years; now it’s all the sudden their way or the highway," Yaki says, criticizing the college for failing to put forward any viable alternatives and calling those options included in the environmental report "straw men that would have no chance."

For his part, Pan, of Chinese for Affirmative Action, says supporters of the 16-story project wouldn't necessarily be averse to an alternative that would involve constructing two, lower buildings instead of one, but says that the environmental impact report was clear that all other alternatives presented therein would be inferior.

Yet, while both supporters and opponents of the 16-story building dismiss the other alternatives presented in the report as inferior or unworkable, Chancellor Day says the college is actively considering the other alternatives. Other options include the construction of two separate (lower) buildings and even a three-site plan that would entail a combination of leasing and building.

Both the one and two-site options would violate city building codes, which the board can exempt itself from only with a two-thirds (in this case a 5-2) vote. “As of right now, I’m not 100 percent sure the votes are there,” Day says of board support for moving forward with the controversial 16-story plan. He adds that there is concern that if they were to pursue that option, there could be lawsuits and delays, "which we want to avoid at all costs."

Day stresses that the college does not have a preferred plan at this point, and is reviewing all of the alternatives included in the draft environmental impact report.

“Everyone has agreed that they want a campus in Chinatown/North Beach,” Day says. “Everyone has not agreed what that should look like.”


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