S.F. proposal to purchase of Buchanan Hotel to convert into housing draws fire

The Kimpton Buchanan Hotel. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

The city of San Francisco shocked many within its Japantown community by announcing plans to buy one of two tourist hotels located in the ethnic enclave in order to convert it into permanent supportive housing.

“I was shocked, but I was also pissed that something like this would happen, and that it would be fast-tracked,” Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Osaki learned about the proposed sale Aug. 13, the Friday before most of the community learned, in a confidential e-mail the city sent, notifying several key community leaders. Most of the community learned the week after, through word of mouth and a San Francisco Chronicle article published Aug. 17.

The Kimpton Buchanan Hotel, a boutique hotel located on the corner of Sutter and Buchanan streets, was forced to close March 20, 2020 according to a spokesperson from KHP Capital Partners, the hotel property’s owners since 2014. KHP entered an agreement with San Francisco in June 2020 to lease the building as an emergency shelter-in-place hotel to house some of the city’s more vulnerable homeless people.

“Since the hotel rooms were vacant, the arrangement provided an opportunity to support the City’s efforts to house an extremely vulnerable population and help mitigate the spread of the virus, while also generating some revenue to pay our expenses and loan obligations and employ more people than the hotel otherwise could have during this time,” KHP Capital Partners said in a statement it sent to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The program, which was initially welcomed by Japantown community members, has faced criticism since it started last year. Businesses and nonprofits have complained about safety and how residents have disregarded parking restrictions on Sutter Street.

As the city aims to close the shelter-in-place hotels by June 2022, the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has been searching for properties to permanently house the people currently under the city’s care. In a letter dated Aug. 11, but postmarked Aug. 17, Shireen McSpadden, the executive director of the HSH, said the proposal is part of Mayor London Breed’s plan unveiled last year to create 4,500 permanent supportive housing units, including 1,500 new units within two years.

Emily Cohen, interim director of strategy and external affairs for HSH, told the Nichi Bei Weekly the Buchanan Hotel is part of an initial slate of proposed properties the city hopes to acquire through various funds, including Project Homekey, the multi-billion dollar state effort to address homelessness. Cohen said the city issued a request for information last year to solicit property owners who might be interested in selling their buildings.

The mayor’s office has not responded to the Nichi Bei Weekly’s inquiries at press time.

“This is a less expensive and less time consuming way of acquiring much needed new affordable housing, particularly for our most vulnerable people,” Cohen told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview.

KHP said in the statement to the Nichi Bei Weekly that it responded to the city’s call, calling “it … an opportunity both to help the city in its continued efforts to provide much-needed permanent supportive housing to address the current homelessness crisis and to help address the severe financial impact COVID-19 has had on our business.”

According to Cohen, the city is considering the Japantown hotel over others due to its number of units, “high quality construction, the large room size, the private bathrooms, and the community outdoor space, as well as some amenities like meeting rooms and offices, that can easily function as support service space within the property.” Cohen added that HSH could install kitchenettes if the city procures the building.

The Kimpton Buchanan Hotel. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

The permanent supportive housing, unlike the emergency shelter-in-place accommodations currently being provided, would serve as long-term homes for residents, Cohen said. While the building would be staffed 24/7 with on-site social services, residents would have leases, typically paying 30 percent of their income as rent, similar to affordable housing.

“When they’re in a shelter-in-place hotel or any other shelter, the focus of the services is really about getting you housed, and right now the SIP hotel … is a shelter to many seniors. And by acquiring more housing units, this is part of our strategy to ensure that nobody leaves any of the 25 shelter-in-place hotels and goes back to the street,” Cohen said.

The hotel includes 131 rooms, one of the largest sites being considered for the initial round of proposals for permanent supportive housing, according to the city. The other locations, a 25-unit building at 3061 16th St. in the Mission District and a 52-room motel at 5630 Mission St. in the Outer Mission, are much smaller, while the largest proposed site is 1321 Mission St. with 160 units in the SOMA neighborhood.

Impacting the Local Economy
The proposal has sowed deep concerns among Japantown’s merchants and community leaders. Critics quickly stated that the loss of the hotel would be detrimental to Japantown, which relies heavily on the city’s hotel tax and ancillary spending by tourists staying in the hotels. Osaki and other community leaders argued the hotel, prior to the pandemic, was performing very well and contributed considerably to the local economy.

According to a 2019 report by Oxford Economics, a company that focuses on “global forecasting and quantitative analysis” on the impact of hotels on the U.S. economy, an average hotel with 100 occupied rooms supported 241 jobs, including 137 direct jobs in 2018.

Richard Hashimoto, the Japantown Merchants Association president, said during an Aug. 26 meeting held by the HSH that the hotel generates more than $2.7 million for Japantown’s economy.

Thomas A. Maier, associate professor of hospitality management at the University of San Francisco, told the Nichi Bei Weekly, while the hotel industry will likely take some time to recover to pre-pandemic levels and that getting unhoused people off the streets will be a positive social impact, the permanent conversion will have a number of effects on the local economy. He said the loss of the hotel would impact both direct and in-direct spending, as well as tax revenue and cost jobs.

Allen Okamoto, a Japantown realtor, acknowledged the proposal’s well-meaning goals, but cautioned that the sale would impact the already suffering local businesses, which have relied on tourism in years past. “We have to be compassionate to the serious plight of the homeless and less fortunate. The City is already spending millions of dollars to address the homeless situation,” Okamoto said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “That being said, the conversion of the Buchanan Hotel will have tremendous economic impact on Japantown. Not only will the City have to purchase the hotel at an exorbitant price but the City will lose property tax revenues. The City will also lose hotel tax funds. These funds are partially given back to the community. Some of these funds help fund the Cherry Blossom Festival.”

In addition to local tourism dollars, some community members worried about Cafe Mums, a 41-year-old legacy business that has remained closed since the pandemic began. Winnie Tam, who runs the restaurant with sisters Sarah and Yvonne Tam, said they intend to reopen once it is safe to do so, but have stayed closed during the pandemic since their specialty, shabu shabu, won’t work under COVID-19 restrictions. The hotel has forgiven most of their rent since last year, Tam said.

“I understand the homelessness issue. We’re also part of the community, so it’s kinda just in this gray area of waiting to see what’s going to happen,” Tam said. She is unsure what would happen to the restaurant if the city purchases the hotel, but guesses the lease would be carried over.
Cohen, meanwhile, said she could not make any specific comments on the restaurant’s lease, but said, “I think that they would likely be very welcome to stay.”

Neighborhood Complaints
Neighboring businesses and organizations have expressed their opposition to the proposal, citing a poor track record by the current service providers working out of the hotel.

Ricky and Bobby Okamura, owners of the Benkyodo confectionery across the street from the hotel, said they often hear loud music and people coming and going at 2 a.m. They added that the temporary residents of the hotel often leave their cars parked on the street without regard to parking restrictions.

Cathy Inamasu, executive director of Nihonmachi Little Friends, said her preschool located next door to the hotel has also faced considerable challenges since the shelter-in-place program started last year.

“Initially, I thought that’s a great idea. The problem was that in reality, when it happened, there was an immediate change in the physical environment,” Inamasu told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Our staff constantly have to deal with the people sitting or laying in our walkways … Sometimes they’ll move politely, others will be aggressive and confrontational. There’s been more garbage and trash, needles, feces, so we end up having to clean up all this stuff.”

Cohen, however, countered that the degraded environment is not Japantown’s issue alone. She stressed that homelessness has become an issue across the city during the pandemic.

“This is not unique to any one neighborhood. I think this is largely due to a loss of congregate shelter capacity because of the pandemic and, of course, the economic factors. No neighborhood has really been exempt from this crisis,” Cohen told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “And the most impactful thing that the city can do to alleviate the type of conditions that you just described is to open more permanent housing, to have more solutions to the crisis of homelessness.”

Cohen also acknowledges that the city has a responsibility as neighbors to address their concerns. “We know that we have a lot of responsibilities to our neighbors, no matter what we’re doing, whether that’s as permanent housing or as a shelter. And I know that the current operator of the SIP has been very responsive to community questions and concerns.”

Japantown community organizations have held regular meetings with Providence Foundation, the service providers at Hotel Buchanan. Inamasu, however, said the outreach has not resulted in meaningful change, and it has largely fallen on her to deal with the issues she’s seen on her property.

“They listened and they’re very polite about it, but in reality … their staff in the hotel just feels like they’re just in that hotel and that’s their domain and nothing else is part of their job,” Inamasu said. “And I don’t have the time to constantly call the director; I was doing a lot at the beginning, but like this is ridiculous.”

The Nichi Bei Weekly made multiple attempts to reach Providence Foundation, but has yet to receive a reply. Cohen, however, added that the city will hold a new competitive bidding process for the permanent housing service providers, should the city purchase the hotel, citing services between a shelter and permanent housing would be very different.

Frustration with the Process
While acknowledging the need for housing, many community members also expressed frustration with the city’s process, calling it “rushed.” Multiple neighbors said they received a letter sent to surrounding properties around a week before an hour-and-a-half long community hearing scheduled via Zoom. The letter also said the city Board of Supervisors, who would ultimately decide on the proposal’s fate, could hear the issue Sept. 22.

The Japantown Task Force discussed the potential sale during its regular monthly board meeting Aug. 18. Many board members had either learned about the proposal that day or the day before.

While Sandy Mori, president of the task force board, told the Nichi Bei Weekly the organization is still gathering information to formulate an official position, many board members expressed their individual frustrations with the city and the process.

“It’s so disconcerting when we get this thing through a report from the press,” board member Rosalyn Tonai said during the meeting. “Had we known a little bit earlier about this negotiation, I think we could have been hav ing a further lucrative discussion about possibilities, or having more community control over the destination, or the determination of these properties.”

“I’ve seen a lot of lousy processes organized by this city, and this is another one of them,” Jon Osaki, another task force board member and brother of Paul Osaki, said. “We should be very adamant that, as a community, anything that affects us, we need to be at the table. And we should press that point very intimately because, if we roll over, these types of things will continue to happen.”

“This is clearly in the pattern of historically how Japantown has been treated over decades,” JTF board member Kenta Takamori said. “There’s always a bigger picture, a greater good argument.

Greater good might be national security, protecting Japanese Americans from violence, the greater good might be something like, ‘Oh, we need to develop and urbanize and modernize our cities.’

Here, the greater good is homelessness. There are always important greater good arguments, but Japantown is so small, the location of this hotel is so central, and this change is permanent.”

Additionally, community members started a Change.org petition entitled, “Stop the Sale of Hotel Buchanan in Japantown,” which gathered more than 2,000 signatures in two days and has garnered 5,528 signatures as of Sept. 1.

Supervisor Dean Preston, representing District 5 where Japantown and the hotel is located, told the Nichi Bei Weekly he has taken no position on the matter as the city gathers community reactions.

“We have insisted and advocated for there to be real community consultation and the process for the community to weigh in on any such proposal, especially here in Japantown,” Preston told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Preston added that the HSH would need to introduce the resolution to the city Board of Supervisors as a next step, saying the earliest possible date that could happen would be Sept. 7 after the summer recess. However, HSH seems to be taking more time for the Buchanan Hotel, as they have set up a second community meeting slated for Sept. 8 to hear additional comments from the community before moving forward.

While Cohen, during her presentation to the communities for the three other proposed properties, said the other buildings would be introduced to the Board of Supervisors Sept. 7, Japantown’s meeting left the timeline largely blank. The meetings for the smaller proposed properties also featured a staffer from Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office and Supervisor Ahsha Safai respectively expressing their support for the proposed purchases in their districts.

Cohen, meanwhile acknowledged to the Nichi Bei Weekly the city’s past role in the redevelopment of Japantown, and said the Aug. 26 community meeting was the “first step” toward a long-term engagement.”

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, citing eminent domain, the redevelopment agency forcibly removed hundreds of families and businesses from the Japantown and Fillmore neighbohood, in support of urban renewal.

“The initial intent was to introduce a package of all four acquisitions in early September to the board. That then would need to get scheduled to budget and finance committee; it would need to be voted on at budget and finance through a hearing; and then go to the full board. The date of Sept. 22 is the absolute soonest it could possibly go to the committee,” Cohen said. “It is not scheduled for that date, it has not been ‘calendered’ at all. And so we are really committed to ensuring that we have a robust community process, and we want to hear from the neighbors. And we are definitely trying to balance that with the urgency of 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in our community and the need to bring housing online as soon as possible.”

That community process, according to several people attending the Aug. 26 HSH listening session, however, should have come much sooner. Diane Matsuda, a local resident and attorney, criticized the city, noting other neighborhoods where the HSH had proposed to buy property appeared more well informed during their community meetings, which were Q-and-A format presentations. For the most part, representatives from the city remained quiet during the public comments portion of the Japantown’s meeting, which was extended to be three hours long.

“Why is it that we were not informed of what you wanted to do in Japantown until two days before it was published in the newspaper and just days before this meeting?” Matsuda said. “Are we not worthy of the same respect of having many meetings to discuss this? Did you not think that community input from Japantown was not important? Did you stop to think in conducting your analysis of recommending this property, what type of impact it would have to a community that has repeatedly been removed from our place in this community by the government?

The City Listens
More than 300 people registered to attend the Aug. 26 Zoom meeting the HSH organized. The city did not permit all of the scores of participants who wanted to speak during the three-hour meeting. Commenters touched upon the economic and social impacts the loss of the hotel would have, along with the reminder of the trauma Japantown continues to suffer from redevelopment.

Takamori also attended the hearing and spoke as a San Francisco resident. In his comment to the HSH, he criticized the city’s proposal to buy the hotel from KHP. “Taxpayers’ money should not be used to cushion the exit of the private equity fund that owns the Buchanan Hotel,” he said.

Among a contingent of speakers, around a dozen Buchanan Hotel employees, with support from their union Unite Here Local 2, collectively appeared in a single room to express what the loss of their jobs would mean. Many of the hotel workers said they have worked for years at the hotel and faced homelessness themselves if they were fired. The city prematurely cut off their comments midway into the third speaker after the workers were given two minutes to speak. Protests from the Zoom call’s chat box, however, convinced the meeting organizers to bring the workers back and allow all 11 employees to individually be given time to speak, and most of the workers spoke through a Spanish interpreter.

“Our union is very much in favor of the city’s efforts to secure permanent supportive housing. We are, however, absolutely opposed to the acquisition of this particular site, a union hotel, for that purpose,” Anand Singh, president of the union, said during the hearing. “I am disturbed when I hear that assurances are being made that workers will be taken care of in the event of a sale, that is patently false. No overtures were made to us to negotiate over any potential job loss, which could materially impact the terms of any acquisition agreement that’s been discussed so far. Even if that does occur, even if we do negotiate, there is no replacing these jobs for these workers.”

Incidents at Preschool
Another contingent of speakers included parents and staff of the adjacent Nihonmachi Little Friends preschool, who noted drug needles, human waste and empty liquor bottles on their property.

Takeshi Moro detailed an early August run-in with a homeless man who followed him and his daughter while shouting racial epithets. Moro said he and his daughter took refuge in the preschool while Yuji Uchida, a teacher at the school, had to confront the man.

“And this was just the most recent incident and I’m afraid it’s not isolated … other parents have experienced similar dangerous situations,” Moro said. “How do I explain that to my daughter? What do you think I said to her when we had to flee two weeks ago? Please, do not do this.”

Uchida recalled Moro’s recent incident and told the Nichi Bei Weekly he deals with similar incidents once or twice a month since the shelter-in-place program moved in. He noted during the Aug.

26 meeting, one of the scariest incidents he had to deal with was when a homeless person bundled up in sheets from the hotel blocked the entryway to the school while holding a screwdriver.

Inamasu and Uchida told the Nichi Bei Weekly they’ve called the police on a number of occasions, but usually the homeless person has moved on by the time they arrive and they realize most of the people are just mentally ill and do not wish to press charges.

Jon Osaki, who is also executive director of the Japanese Community Youth Council, said he “appreciate(s) the needs and the concerns around this issue,” but said the proposed conversion would be “putting (NLF’s) longterm sustainability in question.”

“My organization runs two childcare centers, and I know for a fact that if there were permanent supportive housing sites right next door to my centers, it would make some families think twice about which childcare center to enroll in, and that could have devastating impacts for this organization,” he said.

Reliance Upon Tourism
Other community members criticized the city’s decision to arbitrarily take the hotel away, especially after it was through the city’s urban renewal that the original Japantown residential neighborhood was razed in the 1960s and rebuilt as the tourist-reliant destination it is today.

Jamie Totsubo, an optometrist practicing across the street from the hotel, noted Japantown had become popular destination for tourists by the city’s design, and that it was nonsensical to take the hotel away now.

“I want to know what the city’s plans are for J-Town,” Totsubo said. “I mean, isn’t this the touristy place that they wanted it to be when they relocated everyone, all the residents, out of there and displace them by redevelopment? Isn’t this what they wanted? Now … you want to remove this hotel where tourists want to stay and visit our stores and restaurants. What the hell is the ultimate plan here?”

Yuka Walton, a Japantown for Justice member, asked when the city will make commitments to the Japantown community.

“We have a lot of trauma from the way the city silenced us during redevelopment, and given how this process has been so far, I’m not convinced that there’s going to be a dialogue about commitments to our community,” she said. “Japantown for Justice firmly believes housing is a human right, … and in our ideal Japantown, unhoused members of our community have access to supportive housing, and the youth and elderly get the services they need. Everyone’s needs are met, and everyone thrives, but we know it takes a lot to make our ideal Japantown a reality.”

Walton asked the city if they could guarantee the service provider that will manage the housing at the Buchanan will truly be a part of the community, citing Inamasu’s criticism of Providence’s failure to address the preschool’s complaints. She then also asked if the city was ready to provide any long-term support for small businesses in the community to offset the effects of the COVID pandemic as well as the loss of the hotel.

“I believe supportive housing needs to be prioritized, because unhoused people are part of our Japantown community, and I also invest my whole heart into the preservation of Japantown for future generations,” Walton said. “So the city needs to outline what is the collaborative process moving forward, so that we can both provide supportive housing and support our Japantown’s existence.”

Support for Project Rare
Most participants supported the city’s plan for housing the homeless in concept, but only eight of the 80 some speakers voiced their full support for the purchase as proposed by the city.

Betty Traynor, a resident of the St. Francis Square Co-Op across the street from the Japan Center and board president of Senior and Disability Action, expressed her support for the hotel’s conversion. She emphasized the residents at the hotel would live and shop in the community as well and potentially contribute more than any tourist passing through the city.

“I want to emphasize that there are so many seniors that are homeless, seniors and people with disabilities, over half of the homeless population is 50-plus, and there’s a growing number of homeless over 65 years old. We need a place for the seniors and people with disabilities to be,” she said. “They need rooms similar to what they would get at the Buchanan Hotel, a room with their own bathroom, and a little kitchenette that would be built in. It is really the ideal place for our homeless seniors.”

Cohen told the Nichi Bei Weekly the city has yet to make a final decision on which sub-population Buchanan would serve, but said they are looking at using the hotel to house older adults and people with medical needs.

At the end of the meeting, Cohen said those who had not had the opportunity to speak may have another opportunity on Sept. 8, or that they can submit written comments by e-mail. Nevertheless, commenters who had been waiting for their turn expressed their displeasure. The Zoom chat pleaded to allow one more comment, from 93-year-old Marjorie Fletcher, which the city allowed.

As Cohen closed the meeting, attendees in the chat continued to call on the city to reconsider. David Ashizawa, who had made a comment against the proposal earlier in the meeting, typed out his displeasure of the process, noting many people were lined up to speak, but were not given the opportunity that night.

“You guys are railroading Japanese Americans again,” he wrote. “The last time this happened we ended up in camps.”

The San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing plans to hold a second community meeting Sept. 8 at 5:30 p.m. on the proposal to purchase the Japantown hotel. For more information, including a link to register for the meeting, visit https://hsh.sfgov.org/get-involved/notices/. Send e-mail comments to hshexternalaffairs@sfgov.org.

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