“A breathtaking waste”: Long-planned SF Chinatown park project excluded from city’s bond funding

Portsmouth Square is considered the “living room” of Chinatown because of its open space. (Photo: Han Li)

A potential bond plan with the purpose to re-energize San Francisco’s local economy unexpectedly becomes a frustration to the Chinatown community.

The iconic Chinatown outdoor community space, Portsmouth Square, has been planned for eight years for a comprehensive renovation. But in the mayor’s latest “Health and Recovery Bond” plan, which will invest $200 million into public parks upgrades and programs to boost employments, abandons that Portsmouth Square project.

This bond announcement shocked the Chinatown community on Tuesday, as the district Supervisor Aaron Peskin described the exclusion of the project “a breathtaking waste”, referring to the “eight years of public planning” and “countless meetings” that the Chinatown community had dedicated in this project. About $1.8 million had been spent on the consultants and project design fees.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin describes excluding the project as “a breathtaking waste.” (Photo: Han Li)

“I will use all my power to make sure this project is included”, Peskin told the World Journal that he’s determined to push the mayor and the Board of Supervisors colleagues for redistributing the bond money.

Before the bond to be finalized and put on the ballot this November, the administration and the legislature can still make amendments. A wide spectrum of Chinatown community groups has sent out letters to the supervisors urging for the inclusion of the Portsmouth Square project.

Ding Lee, the president of the historic Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, emphasized the importance of this public space in Chinatown.

“Considered as Chinatown’s ‘living room’, Portsmouth Square serves as a crucial open space improving the wellness of thousands of residents each day,” Lee stated in the letter to the supervisors. Chinatown residents mostly live in crowded SROs, and Lee insisted that they “are in desperate need of the renovations”.

Other organizations, which represent almost the entire Chinatown community, came out in support of the inclusion of the project. From civil rights groups to arts-focused institutes, some prominent members of this unofficial alliance are the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Center for Asian American Media, NICOS Chinese Health Coalition, Self-Help for the Elderly, Community Youth Center, Wu Yee, Chinatown Community Development Center(CCDC), Chinese for Affirmative Action, Chinese Progressive Association, API Council, Chinese Historical Society of America, and Community Tenants Association, etc.

According to Tan Chow, a CCDC employee who has followed the project since the beginning, the total cost of the renovation will be $65 million. The detailed construction plan is comprised of tearing down the bridge connecting the square and the Hilton Hotel to create more space and building an earthquake “resilience center”.

But in the original capital planning of the bond, $121 million is set aside for the neighborhood parks project. So if the Portsmouth Square project is selected, it will take over more than half of the budget. The other $79 million will fund park programs and personnel costs.

Currently, five parks are picked for the $121 million bond funding: Gene Friend Recreation Center, India Basin, Buchanan Street Mall, Japantown Peace Plaza, and Herz Playground Recreation Center.

Facing the controversy, Mayor London Breed’s Chinese spokesperson Mason Lee addressed the issue by promising community inputs and possible changes.

“We will work with community leaders and the Board of Supervisors to get feedback on the specific projects to be included in the bond as we go through this process”, said Mason Lee.

The bond measure has other capital plans in funding healthcare, homelessness, and street repair. It needs two-thirds of the voters’ support to pass.

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The Chinese language version of this story appeared on the World Journal on May 13, 2020.

Bilingual journalist. San Francisco-based.