A Decade of Building Community in San Francisco’s Chinatown

In 2017-2018, I hit two milestones in my life. The first was my 10-year anniversary of doing place-based, community-based planning work at Chinatown Community Development Center in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The second was that I was pregnant and gave birth to my child in February 2018. I was also lucky enough to be in the inaugural LISC Rubinger Fellows class at that time. Fast forward to 2021 and I now find myself the Executive Director at LISC, an organization that has always invested in place-based, community-rooted solutions. I’d like to share with you all my reflections that I wrote during 2018.

A Decade of Community Planning Work

Over ten years of community planning work at Chinatown Community Development Center, I have learned that the key to anti-gentrification work is self-determination. The key to creating community stability, maintaining housing affordability, and preventing residential displacement is the ability for the people in a neighborhood – the residents, merchants, non-profit workers, teachers, religious leaders – to determine the fate of that neighborhood. It is the ability to guide the inevitable change toward meeting the needs of those who live, work, and play in a neighborhood. For example, will a new park serve the single mother living in a Single Room Occupancy unit? Will the modified bus schedule allow seniors to get to their medical appointments? Will the rehabilitated apartment building be affordable to those who work in the restaurant next door?

What makes Chinatown special is its cultural heritage, rich history, strong residents, and resilient community network. It is an immigrant gateway that needs to be preserved and enhanced as one of the last remaining San Francisco neighborhoods for low-income people. In our work to preserve and regenerate Chinatown, we needed to address anti-displacement at all three scales of our community development work – the site, the street (or block) and the neighborhood. Below are three examples of this in action.

Scale of a Site – SW Corner of Stockton and Washington Streets

In 2007, when I started at Chinatown CDC, 30 years of advocacy for the Central Subway had already occurred and the community had won. People such as Norman Fong, Bao Yan Chan, and Rose Pak had won the political support and federal funding needed to make the dream of a subway a reality. This dream was a transportation link for residents to access jobs outside of Chinatown, and for visitors to be able to come patronize Chinatown in a transit-reliant future. The transit access was important for economic opportunities for residents, and viability of neighborhood small businesses. Advocacy would continue over the next few years to combat racist assertions that Central Subway was a “subway to nowhere,” but we also needed to focus on two important issues that would determine how the subway would impact Chinatown in the long-term. These two issues were both the station site – what would become of the existing building and what would be built in the future. Getting this right would harness the power of the subway for positive change in Chinatown.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) purchased a site at the corner of Stockton and Washington Streets for the future Chinatown Station. SFMTA was focused on their project needs such as the ingress and egress for the subway, ticketing, operator, and station agent booth. We complimented this at CCDC and were focused on the existing two-story building that would need to be demolished. Specifically, we were focused on the people who ran the eight small businesses and lived in 16 residential units. It was a people issue and a housing units’ issue – what would happen to the residents and small business owners on the site, and then how would SFMTA replace the comparatively affordable units that would be torn down to make room for the station.

The Chinatown Area Plan states that any housing units demolished must be replaced. Replacement housing requirements are an example of using zoning code as a regulatory tool to protect the fabric of a neighborhood. In 1986, after a decade of research and debate (expertly described in Gordon Chin’s book “Building Community, Chinatown Style”), the Chinatown Area Plan was created. It stated that housing should not be demolished and in cases where demolition is necessary, one for one replacement housing must be provided. This is an idea that has since been adopted across San Francisco, and Chinatown helped pioneer this for the city. 

In 2009, we worked through these requirements with the SFMTA, led by Malcolm Yeung (2021 note: Malcolm is now the Executive Director of CCDC). Key to our effort was our understanding of the intersection of local land use policy, federal relocation policy and community politics. In a win-win agreement, SFMTA paid for temporary relocation for tenants, paid for new affordable housing units at Broadway Sansome (a to-be-built affordable housing project), and paid for relocation of the commercial units. Further, the tenants had the right to move into Broadway Sansome when at construction completion. 

We then turned our attention to the future station site. We could not leave an empty physical site, a wound in the heart of Chinatown, to be the site where people emerged from the subway. The subway site needed to be a gateway to the neighborhood with a design that was deserving of that honor. At the street level, the SFMTA needed room for Central Subway’s elevators and escalators, but there was square footage to spare.

Chinatown CDC staff, we advocated to the SFMTA to take this issue seriously. We worked first with a non-profit design firm, Asian Neighborhood Design to develop a community vision. In 2008, we held two community planning workshops. Our resulting vision was: The station design should serve the needs and desires of the population of Chinatown, reinforce the identity and character of the neighborhood while reflecting Chinatown as a contemporary place, and integrate the feeling, fact, and function of Chinatown as a city-wide and regional market. 

As we will see in “Scale of a Street,” public outreach is successful when there is a rigor to the method, a laser focus on using the design input of the community. This requires city staff and their hired architects and engineers to put aside their egos and implement a community vision. Also important was the incorporation of language access and translation, and using accessible concepts: what are your favorite places and why, as opposed to what design style do you like for the station?

Five years later, as the project moved forward toward construction, we convinced the city to invest in a Conceptual Design, Implementation and Funding Study for the Chinatown Plaza. We used the same skills to execute a community design process focused on the needs of grassroots people. And now the resulting plan is a public plaza with small business opportunities incorporated. The entire station site is utilized and knit into the fabric of Chinatown. Subways have been known to be gentrifying forces in other contexts and the station design work uses “placekeeping” by providing visuals clues that this is Chinatown. By physically claiming the space, we are saying that we will not be gentrified out.

Scale of a Street – Broadway Street

The Loma Prieta Earthquake and subsequent demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway in 1991 brought new challenges as well as opportunities to the Broadway Corridor. Sites where the on- and off-ramps were located opened up, and the shadow of the freeway was gone. In 1995, Chinatown CDC completed a two-year Broadway Envisioning Project led by planner Jasmine Kaw. It was an inter-neighborhood collaboration involving Chinatown, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill to imagine a vibrant, safe, and walkable Broadway from the Embarcadero on the eastern end to Chinatown on the western end. 

With a vision to guide us, and as construction dollars became available through continuous advocacy, phase one was completed in 2005, phase two was completed in 2008, and phase three completed 2014. The final phase, named the Broadway Chinatown Streetscape Improvement Project was finally constructed in August 2018. The projects were partnerships with San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW), San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and the San Francisco Planning Department.

To guide these projects and focus the resources on the needs of those in the neighborhood, Chinatown CDC staff play myriad roles.

  • Technical planner. The continued advocacy for construction dollars ensured that the Broadway vision would become a constructed reality as opposed to a plan on a shelf. It was important to track funding streams as they changed and were renamed and repackaged into different programs. For example, what was originally the Livable Communities funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) became the One Bay Area Grant, with a subcategory of Transportation for Livable Communities.
  • Coordinating partner. San Francisco is both a city and a county but has government entities that represent both. Chinatown CDC was a go-between for the MTC, County Transportation Authority, DPW, SFMTA, SF Planning and more. The ability to do this work stemmed from years of relationship building with government staff. We offered neighborhood tours in advance of projects so that city and county staff understood the needs of the neighborhood firsthand.
  • Organizer. With Chinatown CDC’s relationships to grassroots people, we organized turn-out at public hearings where funding decisions were made. We also made sure that all the right voices were at the table during the design process. In this case, those institutions included: Wu-Yee Child Care Center, Jean Parker Elementary School, Ping Yuen Public Housing Resident Improvement Association.
  • Public engagement planners. We worked closely with SF Planning to focus on pedestrian safety and using methodology that was “straight to the people” – intercept surveys and interviews with merchants and residents. This work requires cultural competency in terms of actual language (Cantonese) but also understanding local terms (includes reading the local Chinese paper, Sing Tao, to know the colloquial language). We held all the community planning meetings at a central and public location.
  • Advocate. Individual design decisions, made by project managers and architects – speak to who you imagine to be in a space, who you imagine the users to be. Good design requires the knowledge of how space is currently used. This knowledge is either provided by Chinatown CDC or the appropriate spokespeople are convened by us. The advocacy continues after a community design is completed. Often projects get value engineered as they move through city processes, it is important to stay in touch with the city staff as the project transitions from one department to the next. When constraints emerge, delve deep into the details, and try to reach agreement that addresses everyone’s concerns.

Scale of Neighborhood

As with the Central Subway and Broadway examples, Chinatown CDC’s model has been to encourage and seek public investment in the neighborhood but to guide those investments, so they don’t lead to gentrification. I have worked seven years as Community Planning Manager and four as Deputy Director. The work described in this article is from the point of view of a planner at Chinatown CDC and, I must recognize that none of the neighborhood planning work can happen without the work of my colleagues in housing counseling, tenants’ rights, and affordable housing development. Without their foundation of work to provide housing security, we could never have pursued something like Sustainable Chinatown. 

With inspiration from Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles, we use sustainability to double down on the theme of neighborhood self-determination. Sustainability was a different framework to talk about anti-gentrification work, a hopeful vision toward the future that would reach a broader audience in the planning world. Sustainable Chinatown is an initiative to help preserve this community by increasing its affordability, sustainability, and resilience. The mission is to 1) Maintain the affordability of housing and commercial properties, 2) Sustain the community’s unique culture and history, and 3) Improve the neighborhood’s environmental performance. With Sustainable Chinatown, our message is that residents’ ability to stay in their neighborhood is just as important as an improvement on environmental indicators. If we achieve a net-zero neighborhood but everyone that lives here can’t afford the new rents, then we have failed.

Launched in 2014, Sustainable Chinatown is a partnership between Chinatown CDC, SF Planning, SF Environment, the San Francisco Foundation, and Enterprise Community Partners. Our catalytic funding was from the Partners in Place programs by the Funders Network for Smart Growth. We joined in the City’s EcoDistricts effort and helped work through what it could mean for a built-out neighborhood, especially one facing tremendous real estate pressure due to Chinatown’s high-worth location in San Francisco’s historic core. 

We began with a data project and set out to write, build and implement a plan simultaneously. With regards to data, what we measure is what we track, and what we think is important. We tracked unconventional environmental indicators such as excessive rent burden, housing code violations, and a number of rent-controlled units. Our focus has been adding a green layer to projects that already have traction, to add value. The fact that these projects have traction has already been vetted by the community, makes them part of a self-determined future as opposed to potentially gentrifying projects. Our accomplishments have been installing solar photovoltaics at Ping Yuen public housing, a re-design of Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground that increases greenery, and rain gardens at Spofford Alley. We also held the first Chinatown EcoFair in August 2017, led by Chinatown CDC’s youth program. Just a few months prior we had published “Strategies for a Sustainable Chinatown” and presented it at the San Francisco Planning Commission.

Scale of City

Being at the Planning Commission brought the work full circle for me. I sat on San Francisco’s Planning Commission from 2012-2016, serving as the President in 2014. I remember approving the big projects: the Transit Center District Plan, the Salesforce Tower, the Warriors Arena, but more so I remember the incremental work to push for community and neighborhood-centered planning.

The nature of a Planning Department is that it reviews and approves (or disapproves) projects. This leads to the department providing customer service for developers, lawyers, expeditors, more than the everyday people of a city. But what attracts people to San Francisco, the neighborhoods. How can a Planning Department harness its skills to be a leader on projects such as Broadway Street or Sustainable Chinatown? My work on the Planning Commission was to bring lessons I have described in their article to the Commission. During my term, the Mission 2020 project was launched, an effort to curbed gentrification in another low-income, cultural, and historic neighborhood in San Francisco.

No matter where we sit – as non-profit leaders or in a city department – our work should be about ensuring that residents and other stakeholders guide how they interact with their environment. As planners, we are not experts in what neighborhoods need but should be experts in elevating the voices of people who live those needs daily. We have skills and tools in organizing, planning, land use, and real estate that we can bring to the table to help realize a vision set out by grassroots people. In an era where skepticism toward government is high, public workshops and forums are looked at as a “rubber stamp” where everyday people are “talked to” instead of truly consulted. In this article I have laid out a different way, one that takes control to protects low-income people against gentrification and invests in the thriving neighborhood built by grassroots people and institutions.

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