City slows down process to pursue S.F. Japantown hotel for permanent housing


HOTEL OR HOUSING ­— San Francisco hopes to convert the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel in Japantown into housing, but community members argue the hotel’s loss would adversely impact the local economy. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

HOTEL OR HOUSING ­— San Francisco hopes to convert the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel in Japantown into housing, but community members argue the hotel’s loss would adversely impact the local economy.
photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

As pressure from San Francisco Japantown community members mounts, the city has emphasized its intent to slow down the proposal to purchase the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel at 1800 Sutter St. introduced mid-August, while the city supervisor whose district includes the ethnic enclave proposed two other hotels to purchase.

San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing presented a proposal in mid-August to purchase a slate of four properties using city and state funds, including California’s Project Homekey, with the intention to convert them into permanent supportive housing facilities to provide stable housing for unhoused city residents.

This is part of Mayor London Breed’s plan to add 1,500 units of permanent supportive housing to the city by next June and to house those currently staying in the city’s temporary shelter-in-place hotels, which were implemented to house vulnerable homeless community members during the pandemic. The hotel, owned by KHP Capital Partners, currently serves as one of 25 such shelter-in-place hotels, primarily housing older unhoused people who have health issues and/or disabilities.

While representatives from HSH initially said the proposal could go before the city Board of Supervisors as early as Sept. 22, the department reconsidered that timeline after more than 300 people registered to join a community meeting Webinar held Aug. 26 by the city agency.

Emily Cohen, interim director of strategy and external affairs for HSH, participating in a Q-and-A format session with Japantown For Justice Sept. 2, reiterated that HSH had slowed its efforts in order to listen to community feedback to the proposal.

“We do not have an introductory date right now. So I just want to be very clear about that. We want to have this community process, and we have not yet determined when we will be ready to introduce,” Cohen said during the Sept. 2 meeting with community members.

The city later reiterated that it will take its time with the 1800 Sutter St. proposal. On Sept. 7, as the city introduced plans for two of the four projects the HSH first proposed, Mayor London Breed and District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston both said HSH must take its time with the Japantown proposal. According to Breed’s office, two of the proposals were deemed ready to be introduced, while HSH still needs to work out some of the terms of the deal for the project in the South of Market neighborhood.

The reaction to the proposal to purchase and convert the Buchanan Hotel, however, emphasized the need for further community outreach, as the Japantown community expressed outrage over the potential loss of the tourist hotel, its economic impact on the neighborhood, safety concerns for the adjacent childcare facility and the seemingly rushed process.

“There is no specific timetable for continuing the community process for the hotel acquisition programs,” Jeff Cretan, the mayor’s communications director, told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail. “While we are moving with a sense of urgency to address what is a crisis in our City related to homelessness, we also are listening to those in the community who have legitimate concerns and questions. Our plan is to introduce leases when they are ready.”

Supervisor Proposes Other Sites
Preston, meanwhile, advised HSH to examine other potential projects in his district. In an open letter to Shireen McSpadden, HSH’s executive director, Preston wrote Sept. 9, “(t)he sole focus should not be whether D5 adds one supportive housing site specifically at 1800 Sutter. We need to scale up to meet the need, and there’s no reason to limit that conversation to one controversial site.”

According to Preston, the Oasis Inn at 900 Franklin St. is already being slated to become a permanent shelter for homeless community members, while he proposed the city should consider purchasing the Gotham Hotel at 835 Turk St. and Hotel Majestic at 1500 Sutter St. — the latter located three blocks east from the Buchanan Hotel, at Sutter and Gough streets.

Preston, in his letter, argued that the two hotels in his district within six blocks of the proposed site in Japantown would add 174 units of supportive housing besides the 131 units being pursued at 1800 Sutter St. At the same time, Preston encouraged the city to continue dialogue with the Japantown community over the Buchanan Hotel site, “take the time to understand these concerns, evaluate the economic impacts, and address them to the greatest extent possible.”

Deborah Bouck, strategic and external communications and community lead for HSH, said the department is “holding introduction of the request for approval of the property at 1800 Sutter acquisition as we continue our engagement with community stakeholders, and as the state rolls out its Homekey funding guidelines we will assess which projects are best positioned to take advantage of this funding, and on what timeline. We continue to monitor and respond to e-mail input and are open to hearing recommendations from the community.”

Bouck said in an e-mail that the city is considering “all options” when asked about the two additional sites Preston suggested. She added that, “we are regrouping with city partners and we have taken a lot of the suggestions offered,” as they evaluate the comments they have received thus far.

Community Opposition Grows
The community, meanwhile, largely remains opposed to the proposal. More than a dozen community members, many noting their affiliations with local organizations, signed a letter to Mayor Breed dated Sept. 10 opposing the sale, while an even larger group of community members signed on to a similar statement and more than 7,200 have signed an online petition opposing the sale. The Japantown Task Force board voted unanimously Sept. 7 to oppose the proposal, ahead of the second city hearing on the meeting held Sept. 8.

People raised a number of concerns at the community meetings. Some argue the loss of the hotel will have an adverse impact on the businesses that cater to tourists in Japantown, along with concerns from the union representing Kimpton Buchanan Hotel employees over the potential loss of some 30 jobs. Some community members expressed concern for the future of Cafe Mums, a 41-year-old restaurant located within the hotel building, which is recognized as a Legacy Business by the city. The Nihonmachi Little Friends preschool located next door to the hotel said that since the shelter-in-place program was instituted, the organization has had to increasingly deal with feces, needles and aggravated homeless community members on their property.

“From what I’ve seen from HSH, including from the Q-and-A that was hosted (Sept. 2), they haven’t done any substantial steps to engender trust and instead have been giving vague and noncommittal answers,” Jeremy Chan, a task force board member said during the task force’s meeting.

Meanwhile, the community’s letter to Breed expressed resentment with how the city presented the proposal to the Japantown community, and said the ethnic enclave had sacrificed much through the wartime incarceration and redevelopment of the 1960s and 1970s, reducing a “self-sustaining 40 block community” into a “commercial corridor controlled by two corporate landlords … with just a few remaining buildings and businesses that are struggling to stay alive.”

Advocates on Both Sides Come Forward
While Japantown’s opposition to the proposal has become more vocal, so have advocates’ support for the project, as mainstream news outlets’ reporting on the issue has raised awareness among a wider audience. While the initial Aug. 26 community hearing was overwhelmingly against the proposal, with approximately one-tenth of the speakers supporting the project, the second community meeting featured more vocal support from homeless advocates, with around 23 of the 74 speakers speaking for the project. Many stressed that San Francisco’s Japantown must do its part in housing the homeless in the city.

Jose Gonzalez-Brenes said during the Sept. 8 HSH meeting that he supports the project.

“I don’t know why business and homeowners prefer to have people living on the streets than under dignified conditions,” he said. “And I’m very saddened that a lot of these comments make people that live in homelessness sound like they’re criminal or dangerous, just in the chat, somebody said ‘what about mental health,’ but nobody says what about the mental health of hotel guests.”

Gonzalez-Brenes said he lives in Japantown and had not noticed the Buchanan Hotel had been converted into a shelter-in-place hotel since the pandemic began. He countered the preschool’s complaint that the local environment had degraded since the shelter-in-place hotel opened in June 2020.

According to Grace Horikiri of the Japantown Community Benefits District, the organization’s community ambassadors picked up 43 “sharps” or needles around the CBD in July of 2019. That number dropped to 25 in July of 2020 and further dropped to 12 in July of 2021. Horikiri also noted that biohazard clean-ups in the Japantown area decreased from 53 cases in July 2020 to 45 in July of this year.

Meanwhile, Cathy Inamasu, executive director of the preschool, says her staff has been dealing with the uptick themselves, but has largely refrained from informing Providence Foundation, the service providers at the shelter-in-place hotel, of these issues.

“The discussions we had with Providence over the past year did not deal with the things we mentioned for the most part because we couldn’t prove it was their residents responsible for trash, needles, alcohol bottles, etc. More homeless were attracted to the area once the shelter opened and with that, came much of the problems,” she said.

Inamasu said HSH contacted her Sept. 8 to discuss the issues her school brought up with Providence.

‘Stop Pitting Communities Against One Another’
During the Sept. 8 meeting, Takeshi Moro, an NLF board member, stressed that his opposition to the plan is reflective of neither a “not in my backyard” nor an anti-homelessness perspective.

“I want people to stop conflating two separate issues here, and to stop pitting two marginalized communities against one another,” Moro said. “You need to be familiar with the Japanese American history and the experience. If you’re not, I urge you, I plead you to go and listen to stories of how folks endured the concentration camps in the 1940s. I bring this up, because I looked at the HSH FAQ on your Website and it seems to me, you have bullet points after bullet points about the quality of the building, the features of the location, that’s great. We get it. But you do not address the historical injustice. You have one paragraph for that, and, did you listen to our comments from last time? Because it seems to me, conveniently, those things are not addressed.”

Kiyomi Takeda, another community leader and parent of an NLF student, said she is passionate about Japantown’s sustainability.

“We’re hearing hundreds of stories and emotions from people of the community, and regardless if you agree with them or not, we have to respect their stories,” she said.

“If you really want to know what Japantown wants, simply listen. I would like to see that the city actively puts forth the effort to listen and understand and act upon the unique and individual efforts and needs of the Japantown stakeholders,” she said. “This includes their small businesses and organizations, Buchanan Hotel workers and all who will be impacted by the sale. Through this process we have identified the many vulnerabilities of our community and I am calling on the city and our community to work together for the sustainability of Japantown.”

Current SIP Residents at the Hotel
Meanwhile, the homeless residents currently staying at the Buchanan as part of the city’s emergency shelter-in-place hotel program have also expressed their thoughts on the proposal. Annabella Bush, a current client of the shelter-in-place hotel, spoke during the meeting, with technical assistance provided by Providence Foundation of San Francisco. While another client’s remarks were inaudible, Bush appreciates having been able to stay in the hotel for the past year.

“I’m just saying that it has improved my situation, and I’m looking forward to moving on,” Bush said.

While Providence has not returned any requests for comments to the Nichi Bei Weekly, several residents spoke about their experience living in the hotel over the past year.

A. Johnson said he has been staying at the hotel since it opened in June 2020, when the shelter opened. A lifelong San Francisco resident, Johnson said he had been homeless for around a decade, and going through navigation centers and shelters in the past, but the shelter-in-place hotel is great compared to a shelter, as he has his own room.

“You’re only dealing with yourself. You’re not dealing with a gang of people around you, worrying about yourself,” he said.

Other residents generally agreed. Michael Casilac, another resident, said that while there are rules to follow, he prefers abiding by them, rather than living on the street. Casilac and Johnson both said if the hotel were to become permanent supportive housing, they would like to stay in the neighborhood.

Cohen said HSH was considering converting the hotel to focus on seniors, but future plans for the site have not been solidified.

One resident told the Nichi Bei Weekly he had been attacked by staff and other residents while staying at the hotel over the past year, but three other residents said they hadn’t observed any such issues. Johnson said the staff treat him well and residents mostly keep to themselves due to the ongoing pandemic.

“I’ve been here 15 months, I seen no fights, none of that stuff,” Johnson said. “They got a lot of people with mental problems, and they alright, they might go off once in a while and the police come, the ambulance come, and they take’ em to the hospital and bring them back, they might forget their meds or whatever, but I ain’t seen no (one) hurt anybody, no fights.”

‘Flawed Process’
Thus far the city has sat through six hours of public comment, but some have alleged the process has been flawed, or at the very least, disorganized. While HSH had stressed that they wanted to allow people who hadn’t had the opportunity to speak previously to share their thoughts, a number of the speakers during the second meeting had also spoke during the first meeting.

One man spoke a third time, having been accidentally called twice during the previous meeting. (He opposed the proposal.) Meanwhile, around two dozen speakers appeared to have been in line at the end of the second meeting to talk and at least one person did not have an opportunity to speak at either meeting.

Glynis Nakahara, co-chair of the Japantown Task Force’s Land Use and Transportation Committee, expressed her frustration during her committee’s meeting Sept. 9. Having attended both hearings and the Japantown For Justice question-and-answer session, Nakahara said she had still not been afforded an opportunity to speak.

“Last night, I had a prepared statement and I kept revising it because I didn’t want to pile on or be redundant in any way,” Nakahara said. “And at the end, the only words I was left with was to point out … no one here is listening. No one. … The supporters of the proposal are basically saying, ‘Oh yeah, we heard what you said, but our cause is more important,’ that’s what I’m getting from the audience last night.”

As the city closed its second community meeting, a man called out on the Webinar: “schedule another meeting please.”



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