By Julia Carrie Wong
MARCH 18, 2014 — Laura Guzman, the director of homeless services for Mission Neighborhood Health Center, had the question that was on everybody’s mind at a recent protest at the 16th and Mission BART plaza.
“Who,” she asked, “is Clean up the Plaza?”
More than 100 San Franciscans, including members of Mission-based organizations like Causa Justa Just Cause, the Mission SRO Collaborative, La Colectiva, PODER, and the Housing Rights Committee, had come together under a new banner: “La Plaza 16 Coalición.” Their chief target was Maximus Real Estate Partners’ proposed development of two 10-story towers with 351 units of housing and 32,000-square feet of retail space on the northeast corner of the intersection.
The leaflet distributed by protesters laid out the concerns of the coalition in English and Spanish: “We are tired of seeing our neighbors displaced from their homes and our city for the profit and benefit of a privileged few. Plaza 16 belongs to those that hang out here and work/live here. We, not a private development company, should make a plan for OUR PLAZA.”
But mingled with outrage at the idea of $3,500/month rentals and high-rises that will cast a shadow over nearby Marshall Elementary School’s playground is suspicion about the Clean up the Plaza campaign that began months before the development plans went public.
It seemed like a remarkable coincidence: Just before a developer starts pushing high-end housing in a low-income area, a new organization with significant resources starts pushing to get homeless people out of the area.
Had the developers been laying the groundwork for their project through an Astroturf campaign? Why didn’t anyone in the community know who was behind this supposedly community-based campaign? Where did the money for glossy posters and direct mail come from? Who was Gil Chavez, the organizer named on the campaign’s website? And was Clean up the Plaza responsible for the “three-month police occupation of the plaza” that began in September and, according to Guzman, led to increased harassment of the homeless and residents who frequent the plaza?
Speaking to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, activist Andy Blue said of Clean up the Plaza and the proposed development, “Everyone has assumed those are connected, but nobody has found the smoking gun.” Mission District Supervisor David Campos hinted at a connection as well, during an Assembly race debate with Supervisor David Chiu. When Chiu challenged Campos over the thousands of signatures gathered by Clean up the Plaza as a sign of his ineffective leadership in the Mission, Campos replied, “It’s a way to get a luxury condo project.”
Whether a smoking gun linking Maximus Real Estate Partners to the formation and funding of Clean up the Plaza exists remains to be seen, but there is a clear connection between the two projects, in the form of San Francisco’s notorious political operative, Jack Davis. On Thursday, the Guardian revealed Jack Davis’s involvement with Clean up the Plaza. Following interviews with Davis, Gil Chavez, and Maximus representative Bert Polacci, 48Hills can report that Davis is also working as a paid political consultant for the condo project at 16th and Mission.
Davis used to run San Francisco politics. He got Frank Jordon and Willie Brown elected mayor, led the campaigns for new stadiums for the Giants and the 49ers, and worked for developers and landlords on campaigns including the defeat of a measure to extend rent control to vacant units. Perhaps most infamously, he hosted a 50th birthday party attended by much of San Francisco’s political establishment where the entertainment included a woman dressed as Pocahontas sodomizing a Church of Satan priest with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Davis is semi-retired, and he had largely vanished from the San Francisco political scene, spending most of his time in Wales and Arizona. But he’s back in town now, and he has a new mission: cleaning up what he calls “the most dangerous corner in San Francisco.”
Nothing simple here
The logo for Clean up the Plaza depicts crossing 16th and Mission street signs – simple and clean in kindergarten-clear lettering and primary colors. But there’s nothing simple about the dynamics at play at 16th and Mission. A busy transit hub, with BART below ground and Muni above, the corner is surrounded by one of the city’s highest concentration of SROs. On any given day, the two plazas on opposite corners of the intersection fill with SRO residents and homeless people, using the space as an outdoor living room.
Chess players, preachers with bullhorns, men attempting to sell Muni transfers, and street vendors jostle for space with the typically working-class, Latino Muni riders and the increasingly middle-class, increasingly white BART riders who swarm the area at commute times. After dark, night ministries serve meals with a side of scripture, and the roofless move a few blocks away to sleep on the sidewalk.
To Davis, it’s a scary scene. “I can’t remember a level of danger this high in my 66 years,” Davis told 48hills. “There are more reported stabbings than any other intersection, nearly two muggings a day. There’s drug culture and peddling that a blind person could find.”
Davis points to the high number of homeless people and SRO residents hanging out in the plaza as part of the problem. “When you start mixing it all, then the criminal element can hide within this landscape of poverty. I’m not dissing homeless people, but when you have two to three hundred homeless people, plus the SROs, plus the urine and feces, plus gang violence, it’s unacceptable to me as a person.”
Gil Chavez, the organizer of Clean up the Plaza, describes a similar scene on the campaign’s website: “The conditions around the Plaza at 16th and Mission are deplorable. Visitors and transit riders are afraid to use the Bart station. Commuters are harassed, accosted and assaulted. In fact, the Captain of Mission Police Station stated that there are almost two assaults a day at this corner. You are more likely to be stabbed here than in any other place in San Francisco.”
Chavez and Davis don’t lack for journalists willing to back up this depiction with their own hyperbole. In San Francisco Magazine, Lauren Kelly described the mix of “down-and-out SRO residents who gather on the sidewalks and in the BART plaza” and “violent gang members and other criminals” as the reason for the Clean up the Plaza campaign. In the same publication, Gary Kamiya called 16th and Mission “one of the grittiest, most drug-riddled, crime-plagued intersections in the entire city. For decades, it has been a notorious hangout for junkies, ‘smash and grab’ thieves who prey on parked cars, prostitutes, the mentally ill, the substance addicted, and assorted other criminals and lost souls. It’s on turf controlled by the Sureño street gang and has been the site of numerous murders, the most recent a shooting on October 20.” In 2012, the San Francisco Chronicle published a (self-explanatory) article entitled, “16th Street BART smells like urinal.”
There is truth to the concerns about crime at 16th and Mission. Former Mission District Captain Bob Moser of the SFPD confirmed to the San Francisco Business Times that 16th and Mission is a trouble spot: “The activity at 16th and Mission has been fairly consistent over the years. You have everything from quality of life issues to narcotics to assaults and robberies.”
But concrete information about the exact degree of danger or prevalence of crime at the intersection is hard to come by. In an interview with 48hills, the new Mission District Captain, Dan Perea, responded to claims like Chavez’s, saying that, while he is “aware of the issues and concerns of people in the district,” he “can tell you that since Saturday, March 1st [his first day as captain], there have not been three stabbings a day.”
Perea’s first assignment with the SFPD was in the Mission District 23 years ago, and he has family members who live in the area. His assessment of the conditions of the plaza are measured by an awareness of the difference between so-called “quality of life” issues and actual violent crime. “People hang out there, but are they committing a crime?” he asked. “Or do certain people just not want to walk by and see that? We have to consider people’s civil rights.”
So far, the SFPD has not been able to provide 48hills with data on the crime rate at the plaza and how it compares to other busy intersections in the city. However, an analysis of the publicly available, geocoded incident reports gives a rough picture of the police activity at the intersection. (For the purposes of this article, 48hills only looked at incidents whose location was listed as 16th Street/Mission Street.)
In 2013, there were 519 incident reports filed at 16th and Mission, of which 194 led to arrests with bookings, and 114 led to arrests and citations. Of the 519 incidents, 89 (or 17 percent) were for drug possession, public drunkenness, or public alcohol consumption. Another 260 incidents (50 percent) were for various non-violent or non-criminal events, such as using a false ID, suspended drivers licenses, or outstanding warrants. Of the more serious crimes, there were 38 assault incidents, 68 incidents of grand or petty theft, 25 robberies, 1 stolen automobile, and 4 violations of weapon laws. Of these, 26 (17 percent) resulted in arrest or citation.
Unless hundreds of muggings are going unreported every year, the violent rhetoric used by Davis and Chavez does not quite match reality.
‘There should be progress.’
Gil Chavez met Jack Davis at least ten years ago at the bar where Chavez works as a bartender, The Mix on Castro Street. They are longtime friends, and Chavez now lives in Davis’s house at 17th and Valencia, serving as a caretaker when Davis is out of town. So when Chavez decided to launch a campaign to do something about the conditions at 16th and Mission, he turned to Davis for advice.
In an interview with 48hills several weeks ago, Chavez described how Clean up the Plaza came to be. A native of the Bay Area, Chavez has lived in San Francisco for 14 years, mostly in the Mission. “This has always been my neighborhood,” he said. “I’m a Latino male. I’m a gay Latino male. I work in the Castro and I live in the Mission.”
Chavez said he believes that renovations around the 24th Street BART station are partially to blame for the deterioration of the 16th Street plaza. “I think it kind of pushed a lot of people, a lot of the criminal and bad element down to 16th Street station, and I’ve noticed since living here, especially at 17th and Mission for the past three or four years, that 16th was getting worse and worse and worse every year. It’s my neighborhood, and talking to a bunch of people at the bar, it just made me say, okay something needs to be done. This is my neighborhood it shouldn’t be getting progressively worse and worse. There should be progress.”
Chavez consulted Davis, who told him to take it to City Hall: “He just said, if you really want to get permanent changes done it has to go through the city,” Chavez recalled. “You can’t do anything on your own. You need the city involved, the city government, departments of the city. You need the Police Department involved. You need human services for the homeless. He said the way to get something done is to have a strong community voice pressuring the city to get some change done here. And he said the way to go about that is to collect petitions of residents, of visitors, of people who work here. Get a petition going and once you have a strong, good number of signatures on the petition, then you can go to the city and say look, here are some voters, registered voters, residents of San Francisco, people who work here, who believe this place is an unsafe area and who want this done.”
Davis confirmed to 48hills that he was “absolutely involved [with Clean up the Plaza] from the beginning.”
Chavez says that he started collecting signatures in May, working with volunteers recruited in large part from his co-workers at the Mix. He and the volunteers would go to Dolores Park and events like Pride and Carnaval to sign people up. “Our goal was originally 10,000 signatures and through May, June, July, August, four months we collected 10,000 signatures,” he says. “Since then it’s gone up to 15 or 16,000 signatures.”
Chavez and his team visited businesses in the neighborhood to ask for support and distribute Clean up the Plaza window signs. He made presentations to groups like the North East Mission Business Association, Valencia Corridor Merchants Association, and Mission Creek Merchants Association. NEMBA was particularly helpful, Chavez says, because 16th and Mission is right in its territory.
Chavez says he funded Clean up the Plaza’s activities with “a little bit of money from me and a little money from other residents who are really interested.” The window signs, he says, were only about $100, but the mailing to residents of the neighborhood was much more expensive. That money came from unnamed “merchants,” with assistance from Gwen Kaplan.
Kaplan is vice president of NEMBA and the owner of ACE Mailing, which is located a few blocks from the plaza, at 16th and Folsom. She is a past president of the San Francisco Small Business Commission and a member of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. According to Chavez, she gave Clean up the Plaza “a really reduced rate on the printing of the flyer.” Chavez says Kaplan also assisted the initiative through her connections. “She’s been a great, great help. Not only with that [printing costs] but volunteering, she and her son, and being a liaison with the government. She knows a lot of the city officials so she’s been a great, great help.”
According to Kaplan, who spoke with 48hills by phone, the connection between Clean up the Plaza and NEMBA came through her son Miles, the vice president of ACE Mailing, who knows Chavez from The Mix. Miles brought Chavez to present at a NEMBA meeting, and NEMBA signed on to the campaign. Kaplan confirms that ACE helped Clean up the Plaza with the mailing, which she says helped increase the number of signatures on the petition.
Kaplan says she and other NEMBA members have long been concerned about safety at the BART plaza, especially for employees who take BART to work. Kaplan wants to see a “vibrant business community” and an end to the vacant storefronts at the plaza. She thinks the proposed development is a good idea. “I don’t know much about development,” she said, “But it seems like to me if we need housing, we ought to build housing.”
Although Kaplan knows Jack Davis (“doesn’t everyone in San Francisco?” she asked), she did not interact with him on the Clean up the Plaza campaign.
More police presence
The demands of Clean up the Plaza have always been a bit hazy. The original petition text called for the city to “commit all resources necessary to securing this area for the good of our community, businesses, families and children.” The direct mail piece condemned city leaders for past “Band-aid approaches” and said, “We demand better… Those charged with public safety, social services, transportation, and public health – must wake up and address this issue.”
In our interview, Chavez recognized that there are no simple solutions to the complex mix of issues at play at 16th and Mission. “We have to work together to try to solve the issues there, which are crime issues, drug issues, drug selling, homeless issues,” he said. He did not offer concrete policy proposals, saying, “For us to develop solutions, we can’t implement them by ourselves. We don’t have any power. Our power is in speaking out to the city, to the police department, to the BART authority, to DPW [the Department of Public Works], and pressuring them to implement some solutions.”
Chavez has held meetings with leaders like Supervisor David Campos, Director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement Bevan Dufty, and the Police Department. Ultimately, he says, “We have to find some solutions for the SROs and the homeless.”
But the city, police, and political leaders were already working on issues around the 16th and Mission BART plaza prior to Clean up the Plaza’s formation. In September 2013, the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team and SF Department of Health published a report on a homeless outreach initiative stemming from conversations that began in July 2012. The conversations were a response to complaints to BART about “alcohol and drug use, use of the plazas as a public toilet, and the presence of criminal activity such as selling illicit drugs,” and included representatives from BART, DPH, the Mayor’s Office, Supervisor Campos’s office, and other city departments.
The result was a March-June 2013 pilot program whose mission was “to conduct an assessment of the population using the plazas, an evaluation of needed services, the provision of in-the-moment connections to existing City services, and to offer case management as available, to especially vulnerable homeless individuals at the plazas.” BART assigned a budget of $10,000 to cover the cost of outreach by members of HOT. The final report recommended non-law-enforcement approaches like continued outreach and case management, possible vocational rehabilitation services, and engagement with local businesses.
In an interview with 48hills, Campos said the efforts his office has been involved with to improve conditions at the plaza started long before Clean up the Plaza launched. “We’ve been working on 16th and Mission for quite some time,” he said. “We’ve increased police presence and services to people hanging out. We’re focused on incidents of crime, but what we haven’t done is criminalize people just for being poor.”
This hasn’t stopped Clean up the Plaza from claiming credit for changes at 16th and Mission. In a March 11, 2014 update to the website, Chavez reports: “We have already achieved greater security with increased uniformed police presence. Our efforts have led to the Dept. of Public Works power washing the plaza on a daily basis. Increased efforts to provide homeless services are happening.”
When told that Clean up the Plaza is taking credit for improvements at 16th and Mission, Supervisor Campos said, “I think that they’re somewhat delusional.”
At the time of our interview, Captain Perea did not know details about exactly when or why the SFPD had ramped up its policing of 16th and Mission, but he confirmed that such a move had occurred: “We’ve increased police presence to reduce violent crime and property crime. Police presence is a visual deterrent, and we’re there to make an arrest.”
However, activist Laura Guzman’s report that enforcement increased in September is somewhat borne out by looking at the rate of incidents, which definitely increased in the second half of 2013.
Chavez’ most recent website message recognizes that there is opposition to his campaign: “Recently a coalition has been organized with demands to end the police presence.” He has not yet responded to an inquiry about whether he’s referring to La Plaza 16 Coalición or another coalition. La Plaza 16 Coalición’s main target, of course, is the Maximus development of 351 units of housing.
Champagne and sabers
Maximus Real Estate Partners is a new company, but its principals have been operating in San Francisco for several years. Robert Rosania, the CEO of Maximus, was formerly the CEO of Stellar Management, a New York City based real estate company that he ran with partner Laurence Gluck. Seth Mallen, Maximus’ executive vice president, was formerly an executive vice president of Stellar as well.
Stellar Management is probably best known in San Francisco as the company behind the massive redevelopment of Parkmerced. Stellar bought the housing development, with its 1,538 rent-controlled units, in 2005, and ushered it through an extensive and controversial planning process that will see the rent-controlled units demolished. In 2010, Stellar sold a 75% stake to the private equity firm Fortress Investment Group.
Gluck and Rosania have had a high-profile falling out, and Rosania is now on his own. Rosania appears to have received Parkmerced in the divorce; he retains part ownership and manages the property for Fortress. Bert Polacci, the community outreach and government relations director for Maximus, is also a veteran of the Parkmerced effort. He held the same position with Stellar, where he “led the Outreach Team through the successful entitlement process for the Parkmerced Project.”
Employing Polacci, a native San Franciscan, to perform community outreach is probably a wise move for Rosania, whose track record will likely not endear him to a community concerned with affordable housing and rising income inequality.
During his time with Stellar, Rosania was part of a controversial deal involving Riverton Houses – a 1,230 unit complex of affordable housing in Harlem. As detailed in a report by the progressive magazine Mother Jones, Stellar bought Riverton Houses in 2005 and told tenants that their rent-stabilized apartment would be safe, while simultaneously borrowing against the property on the assumption that it would be able to triple the rent of half the tenants. When the real estate bubble popped, Stellar defaulted on the property, but because the purchase had been made through a shell company, managed to walk away unscathed, with almost $42 million in profit. (Mother Jones does not mention Rosania’s role in the deal, but according to Crain’s, Rosania was a lead investor in the property with Gluck.) Mother Jones called the practice “predatory equity.”
In his spare time, Rosania indulges his hobby as, in his own words, “a connoisseur of fine and rare Champagne.” In 2012, he held a sale of 1,000 bottles of Champagne that was expected to earn him $6.5 million. Rosania is known as a sabreur, meaning he opens the bottles with a saber. His nickname among wine collectors is Big Boy.
Polacci has spent the last six months “out in the Mission” meeting with community groups to try to drum up support for the development. Of the protests by La Plaza 16 Coalición, he says, “We don’t believe the 16 Coalition represents the Mission.”
Polacci said he thinks the problems at 16th and Mission are caused by bad design, and will be fixed by the new development. “The way that the buildings are built with the BART plaza,” he said, “they just cut off the buildings and left two blank walls so there’s no eyes on the plaza, and a lot of illicit activity is happening. We feel that with retail [in the new development], it will improve the illicit behavior.”
It’s a convenient argument for a developer to make, and it’s one that is shared by Jack Davis and Clean up the Plaza.
Davis and Maximus
In our interview, Davis admitted that he’s working as a consultant for Maximus, but claims that his first loyalty is to Clean up the Plaza. “If Maximus rolled off the curb tomorrow, I’d be talking the same way I’m talking now.” Polacci explained the relationship by saying that Davis is a consultant to his firm, Public Advocacy Partners, which is consulting for Maximus.
To Davis, opposition to Maximus’ proposal doesn’t make sense because the plan “represents what planners, Aaron Peskin, and the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan called for at that corner.” He said, “When I look at Walgreens and that cement back wall, I see dead space. It’s bad mojo… A project that brought more people into the corridor with inventive retail and positive space would be a good thing.”
(We spoke to Peskin, who agreed that the project abides by the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, and doesn’t incite his “aversion to site-specific upzoning.” But he’s not supporting (or opposing) the project at this point: “That has to be worked out between the community, developers, planners, and the Board of Supervisors,” he said.)
Chavez also supports the development. “I would say it would go a long way in improving the area, not just aesthetically but in increasing the people, calling more attention to the area and to the homeless and the crime that’s there.”
But which came first? The development or the campaign? Maximus obviously benefits from community sentiment that 16th and Mission is dangerous and needs to change. Its future rental prices will likely depend on moving the homeless and SRO-residents away from the front door of new tenants.
Chavez denies that Clean up the Plaza is a front group for the developers. “That’s just basically not true,” he said. “That’s a lot of hearsay and just lies. Clean up the Plaza has been my project of trying to clean up my neighborhood. Just because of Jack Davis maybe? I mean, I rent from him. I mean, I don’t know what to say that’s just not true.”
Chavez claims that he first learned of the development in September or October of last year, when Maximus reached out and held a meeting between Chavez, Bert Polacci, and the architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “I’ve talked to them. I’ve seen the plans that they want of the buildings they want to develop there and that’s about it. I have seen the plans and honestly I do approve of the development going on there. I don’t think the plaza or that corner can stay the way it is or should stay the way it is.”
But Polacci denies such a meeting ever took place. When asked about Clean up the Plaza, he responded: “I know about it. I’ve seen the signs all over the neighborhood. We have not met. I want to, but I haven’t had the opportunity.” After being informed that Chavez claims a meeting did occur, Polacci said, “I do not remember that.”
Of Davis’ dual role with Clean up the Plaza and Maximus, Polacci said, “We’re keeping it separate. That’s a completely separate endeavor that we have watched but are not involved with.”
For Davis’s part, he wants someone to come forward and negotiate a community benefits agreement with him, and he thinks it should be Campos. Indeed, Davis’ displeasure with Campos might lead him to get involved in the Assembly race. “If I do anything in this race,” he said, “I will enter this race and talk about 16th and Mission.”
Davis has never run for public office before, and it’s hard to see how he would be able to mount much of a campaign, starting this late, against two elected officials with high name recognition and solid legislative records.
Campos defended his record to 48hills: “We have done more [around 16th and Mission] under my watch than any other supervisor, and I think we have addressed some of the problems.” He is “keeping an open mind” about the new development, but thinks “we have demonstrated that we can address the issues at 16th and Mission independent of any [development] project.”
As for Jack Davis and Clean up the Plaza, Campos said, “I think people have to jump to their own decisions on that. The facts speak for themselves.”
Davis thinks a deal can be reached that includes supporting Mission artists and donating computers to Marshall Elementary School. “You’d think we had some nefarious thing going on,” he said. “It’s just not like that.”
One group he’s not particularly interested in negotiating with is La Plaza 16 Coalición. He calls their demand for 100 percent deeply affordable housing on the site “absolutely ridiculous” and disdains their concerns about the growing gentrification of the Mission.
“For people to call it condos for the wealthy is absurd,” he said. “What wealthy person is going to want to live at the most dangerous corner in San Francisco?”