A 320-foot stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in San Francisco had been a popular dumping ground for years. It wasn’t unusual to see abandoned sofas, TVs, and other appliances amid the wild fennel that flourished along the fence above the Caltrain embankment. It was a stereotypical scene of urban squalor. But in 2016, the area was transformed into a showcase of drought-tolerant landscaping. A neighborhood group received permission from Caltrain, the commuter railway running from San Francisco to San Jose, to fix up the road’s dirt shoulder and plant a garden of Mexican sage, agaves, and other succulents.
Since then, that same group of residents—from the city’s Dogpatch neighborhood and a small section of Potrero Hill—has managed to accelerate the excruciatingly slow engines of government bureaucracy to quickly build or refurbish several small parks and green spaces like Pennsylvania Avenue. Its power tool: the Dogpatch and Northwest Potrero Hill Green Benefit District (GBD), a nonprofit organization funded by about 1,150 property owners within the 70-block area and run by a community-elected board of 15 directors and one full-time paid employee. While the GBD operates independently, San Francisco’s public works department oversees its finances and activities. The GBD is able to expedite projects by plugging funding gaps where needed, doing the time-consuming work of community outreach, and providing the city with a single, consistent point of contact. Through the GBD, residents can advocate for new parks, hire landscape architecture firms and contractors to create them, spiff up existing ones, and, perhaps most important, ensure that all the parks get regular TLC.
“The GBD disarms the typical laundry list of excuses, like ‘We don’t have the budget or staff’ or ‘We can’t maintain it,’ ” says Jonathan Goldberg, S.F. Public Works’ program manager for the GBD. “It creates a compelling case for the city to invest significant capital dollars in neighborhood projects, and in ones that aren’t cookie-cutter but reflect the unique character of the community.”
Dogpatch is a warehouse district turned hipster neighborhood. When live-work lofts started popping up in the mid-1990s, there was just one park there—the privately owned Esprit Park, which was created and maintained by the Esprit clothing company (and later donated to the city). Community members started to worry about the lack of green space. “We had developer after developer come and propose all these new projects,” says Susan Eslick, the president of the GBD’s volunteer board of directors. “We wondered where this whole bunch of new people would be able to go and hang out in some form of nature.”
The 101 and 280 freeways run through Dogpatch and the northwest corner of Potrero Hill, respectively, creating desolate stretches of no-man’s-land around them. In 2009, in the lead-up to the GBD’s formation, the residents began lobbying to turn a construction-debris dump site under a 280 on-ramp into what they dubbed Progress Park. They asked the California Department of Transportation to open up the fenced-off property and cobbled together around $100,000 from community grants and public benefit funds to set up the one-acre space with plants, irrigation, a bocce ball court, and a dog run. The city contributed technical advice and truckloads of dirt, and the residents volunteered to do most of the installation and maintain the park. “We went out one rainy day to mark where the paths were going to go,” says Bruce Huie, a GBD board member and Progress Park’s steward (a volunteer role akin to that of class parent). “When we’d finished, one of the volunteers said, ‘If we could just shift the path two feet over, it would be excellent.’ So we did.”
As plans for Progress Park gained momentum, the residents pursued two more projects: Gears, a sidewalk sculpture garden that features two enormous gears unearthed from the site of a local rope-making factory, and Woods Yard, an old sandpit that they transformed into the area’s only children’s playground.
But after the opening of Progress Park in 2012, the group realized that the real challenge wasn’t raising the money to create a park but, rather, paying for its maintenance. Former developer Michael Yarne, who started proposing housing developments in Dogpatch in 2002 and whose hobby is “creative public-private finance mechanisms,” presented the neighborhood group with a handful of potential ways to get ongoing funding. These strategies would generate money not just for capital improvements but also for park maintenance. “You can’t rely on charitable contributions and one-off fundraisers for maintenance—they’re not efficient or reliable,” says Yarne, who also serves on the board of the San Francisco Parks Alliance.
The solution that the residents found most appealing—because it was the easiest to get approved, requiring only a simple majority of property owners to pass—was a long-standing method of self-taxation: the business improvement district. Shopkeepers in a Toronto neighborhood pioneered the concept back in 1970: After a subway line opened, they wanted to attract foot traffic by installing flower-filled planters and stringing lights on trees. All the business owners in the designated area had to contribute fees on top of what they paid in local taxes. Today, the United States has more than 1,000 business improvement districts, which are called community benefit districts in San Francisco and some other locales. They typically provide more frequent street sweeping and cleaning, trash removal, and landscape maintenance beyond what the city does. It took three years and 15 community meetings to create the San Francisco GBD. Following the city’s guidelines, neighborhood organizers worked to define the exact borders of the district and then put it to a vote by sending a petition to property owners; 76 percent of the respondents said yes.
Launched in 2015, the GBD is uniquely focused on developing and caring for “a menagerie of parks and open spaces,” as Goldberg describes it. And as a nonprofit, it’s able to funnel donations toward creating more green space. In addition to the $630,000 it collected from businesses and residences in the previous fiscal year—the median amount was $127—the GBD received $518,000 in grants. “We have clout with the city and with donors,” says Julie Christensen, the GBD’s executive director and its sole full-time paid staffer.
To date, the GBD’s most significant project, a showcase of its organizational strength, is the redesigned entrance to Dogpatch’s grim, below-grade Caltrain station. On the west side, what was a sad little concrete plaza now has seat walls, beds of ornamental grasses, and a jazzy red railing. It seems like a modest improvement, but the nonprofit had to negotiate for nearly two years before Caltrain agreed to let it replace the plaza. Using $250,000 in community funds, the GBD hired the nationally recognized firm Fletcher Studio to design the new entrance and a large contractor specializing in public-realm work to install it.
Walking around the neighborhood, Christensen points out other upgrades the GBD is responsible for: the new outdoor gym equipment and concrete pad for tai chi at Progress Park; an experimental dog restroom, complete with clay-pipe “hydrants,” artificial turf, and pop-up sprinklers that rinse everything off, at Benches Park. On the list for this year is an extension of the lovely Minnesota Grove, an impromptu botanical garden formed on top of a pile of construction dirt along an old railroad spur. As if in anticipation, some plants have already started to colonize the end of the block. “This is what I love—all those agaves came up through complete hard-packed asphalt,” says Christensen. “It’s amazing.”
Lydia Lee wrote about Wilburn Forge knives for Alta, Summer 2019. She is working on a book about Napa Valley wineries.