Fill-No-More: The Fight For The Fillmore Heritage Center

Fillmore Black community leaders clashed at a recent community meeting over how to bring the Fillmore Heritage Center under Black ownership, after the city of San Francisco issued a request for proposal (RFP) for the sale of the building.  

 The community meeting, sponsored by the Black American Political Association of California (“BAPAC”), was meant to unite the Black leaders in creating a plan for the proposal. The leaders fear that with the RFP allowing bidders from around the world, the center’s original purpose — highlighting the Fillmore’s heritage and revamping commercial business — will never flourish, putting at risk the last institutions that the community can call its own.     

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“We had shouting matches with city hall,” said Fred Jordan, president of the San Francisco African-American Chamber of Commerce. “It is important that it [Fillmore Heritage Center] be Black owned… [The Fillmore District] was destroyed by redevelopment agency; we don’t want any other ethnic group to come in and to own… the last bit of our culture [in the city.] “We want to be able to show that we own something… it’s an insult,” Jordan said.

The Fillmore Heritage Center, one of the last projects of the Western Addition redevelopment program, was set to revitalize the commercial business and honor the African-American cultural heritage of the area, once known as the“Harlem of the West.”.

But the initial redevelopment plan, in the form of Yoshi’s jazz club, faltered after the business filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and closed its doors in 2014, according to an Approved Long-Range Property Management Plan. Its successor, “The Addition,” another live music venue, failed after only five months in business.

The minimum bid price for the Heritage Center is set at $6.5 million, a lower amount than its appraised value of $11.2 million.

The minimum bid price will allow the city to pay down the debt it owes to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”).  

According to an “Informational Memorandum” to community investment and infrastructure commissioners, the city borrowed $5.5 million from “HUD” in an effort to finance the construction of the commercial space” of the Fillmore Heritage Center.  

By selling the property, and paying down its debt, the city anticipates to free up other city resources for use in the community, according to the RFP.  

The lower price for the Heritage Center comes in “light of the covenants and restrictions required under a property management plan (PMP).”

The RFP itself was established through a two-year process that included community meetings in 2015 among city officials from various departments, Supervisor London Breed, community members and area business leaders. In addition, the city issued a request for information in January 2016 with an “accompanying” community meeting in February 2016, to “gather additional input on the desired uses and community benefits for the property,” the RFP states.

According to the RFP, the two-year process acted as a guiding principle for the issued RFP and its established objectives under the “PMP.” Among the objectives, usage of the property is to be “a catalyst for the revitalization of the Fillmore Street commercial corridor, the creation of employment opportunities for the community” and to benefiting minority and women-owned enterprises, according to the RFP.   

But the “BAPAC” meeting escalated into screaming matches among the Black leaders amid disagreements on what the next steps for the Heritage Center should be.

Some leaders did not want to partake in the RFP process, arguing the worldwide competition the proposal raised for the property, decreased the chance of a Black ownership. Moreover, some leaders suggested, the city should repay its loan to “HUD” through its hotel tax revenue,” and leave the center to the African-American community. Their reasoning was that the center’s original purpose was to honor the African-American cultural heritage of the Fillmore.

 Others, including the “BAPAC” organizers, believe that as a united front, they can assure Black ownership through the RFP process. Nevertheless, their first meeting foreshadowed the rigorous “war,” as some put it, for the future of the Heritage Center.  

“Who told you, you were the leader?,” Charlie Walker asked, Ted Frazier, State Representative of the “BAPAC.”

“When I was a little boy, I was a white supremacist,” Frazier said. “Tarzan was white, Jesus was white — anybody that was anybody was white. I outgrew that, and I hope everybody here has outgrown that… We as a people, we survived and we progressed. [Now,] we need a team. The team has to represent the community,” Frazier said, trying to defuse the frustration that lingered in the room.

Some individuals at the meeting remember the Fillmore of the past. They witnessed the “Harlem of the West” and its fall.

Jordan described the early 1970s Fillmore as vibrant. He would hit its roads at 4 p.m on a Saturday and check out the varied jazz clubs it had at the time. The streets bustled with Blacks. People knew each other and greeted one another; the Fillmore was then still the “Harlem of the West,” the “second best mecca of jazz,” as Jordan phrased it.   

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But not understanding African-American culture, the redevelopment agency labeled the San Francisco’s Black nexus a ghetto, mowing down block by block, and displacing many African-Americans, according to Jordan.  

“I was just so devastated myself… to see all of that,” Jordan said.

It was San Francisco’s Black exodus.

In 2015, Blacks made up 5.6 percent of San Francisco’s population, according to American Community Survey (ACS.) In comparison, in 1970, Blacks made up 13.4 percent of San Francisco’s population, according to Bay Area Census data.   

David Lawrence, who owns “Black Bark BBQ” and “1300 On Fillmore” with his wife, Monetta White, sees some of the problems African-Americans face.

“That’s a huge problem for a liberal city like San Francisco to have lost that many African-Americans,” Lawrence said.

“Obviously, the financial… San Francisco has become one of the most expensive cities in the world… pricing, housing, apartments,” Lawrence said. “Unfortunately, African-Americans are always on the lower end of the totem pole, so we always have to look for cheaper residencies or cheaper places to rent,” Lawrence said. “We’ve been basically priced out of San Francisco.”  

In addition, Black businesses are impacted.

“You don’t have Black clientele to come to your Black businesses, so you’re reliant on other clientele to come to your business, who’d come and check it out but they don’t have a need or desire to come to your place as often as African-Americans used to,” Lawrence said. “There is a sense of pride as an African-American when you go to a business that is owned by an African-American and you feel good about it, you want to partake in that, you support it, I mean, that’s just natural, I think.”

According to Lawrence, his restaurant, “1300 On Fillmore,” lost 35 percent of their business after Yoshi’s closed in 2014.

“We’re never really able to recover from there,” Lawrence said.

Joaquin Torres, deputy director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said the RFP is designed to “enlist creative, economically and culturally beneficial proposals that maximize the opportunities for this neighborhood.”

“The city, through its RFP process, absolutely, as it outlined in the document, and as it heard directly from the community, wants those proposers to know that the community very strongly wants to see the historical context for the lower Fillmore, Western Addition, the diverse communities and African-American community to be reinforced with whatever their proposal ultimately is,” Torres said.

The RFP states that the city will “set up mechanisms to ensure the community benefits are delivered.”

But for individuals at the “BAPAC” meeting, including Velma Landers, vice chair of the “BAPAC,” the city’s emphasis on diversity, inclusion and the issuing of the RFP, contradicts actions of the past, or the lack thereof.

“This was the area… where… the Black life was,” said Landers. “A city like San Francisco that prides itself on its cultural diversity and I don’t see me… there is a problem.  

For Landers and others at the “BAPAC” meeting, the Heritage Center is the last Black pillar of a once thriving community. 

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“With so many African-Americans leaving the city… and businesses have gone from the [Fillmore…] this is the last of it,” Landers said. I think that’s why we are fighting and wanting to hold on so tight, so badly.”  

“We have a lot to be proud of. We can showcase all kinds of things in that building; we can showcase our history and that’s something you young people [young African-Americans] need to know. You [young African-Americans] didn’t come from junk,” Landers said.

The Heritage Center remains in limbo.  

The proposals are due on April 3, 2017. The “RFP Review Panel,” a group of nine individuals, “five from the community — two of whom are Black — and four from the representative City departments,” will evaluate the proposals and interview the finalists, the RFP states.

The final decision will be made after the panel picks a finalist who may enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement (“ENA”). “The proposed “ENA” will be recommended to the City’s Board of Supervisors and Mayor for consideration of approval, in their absolute and sole discretion,” according to the RFP.  

Kali O’Ray, director of the San Francisco Black Film Festival, and a potential community partner for the Heritage Center, hopes “the right thing will flourish.”

“I would love to see a Black owner of that property… we need to have some sort of history here in San Francisco,” O’Ray said. “If you happen to live here you want to see something that looks like you, makes you feel comfortable, that lets you know this is accessible for somebody like you.”   

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