S.F. Japantown, Fillmore protest impending Safeway closure

Dr. Rev. Amos Brown speaks outside of the Safeway in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood.

THE COMMUNITY SPEAKS OUT ­— Dr. Rev. Amos Brown spoke at the Jan. 23 rally at the Safeway in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood. photo by William Lee

Food security became top of mind for San Francisco’s Japantown and Fillmore neighborhoods when Safeway announced its intent to sell and close their 1335 Webster St. location to Align Real Estate Jan. 4. The announcement angered and worried many local residents who had less than 60 days to plan for an alternative, but the community was granted a reprieve after Mayor London Breed announced that she had negotiated a nine-month extension with the company to ensure they will remain open through the end of the year.

The future of the site, however, remains up in the air.

Community members first learned about Safeway’s impending closure on Jan. 4 through the San Francisco Chronicle. The supermarket chain announced it planned to close in early March to make way for a mixed-use development that could potentially build more than a thousand units of housing. With no formal plans announced to the public, however, local residents complained that Safeway’s plan to leave in March was premature.

“We’ve heard the plan from the mayor and all of that, but that’s gonna take years and so we’re gonna have this big parking lot with this big empty building in our neighborhood that’s going to really bring out the worst in people,” Conny Ford, vice president of the neighboring St. Francis Cooperative residential complex, told the Nichi Bei News. “It just cannot be empty for three to five years, or whatever it would take to redevelop the whole place.”

Ford and other members of the cooperative voiced their opposition to the sale and planned closure, citing the high concentration of seniors living in the 300-unit complex. Not only does the market sell groceries, but also contains a Wells Fargo Bank and pharmacy, which many community members rely on. While some residents still have the ability to drive or use the Internet to find alternatives, Ford said many do not.

Similarly Shakirah Simley, executive director of the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, said the closure will impact the “most vulnerable” community members, including older adults and families with small children.

“If the Safeway closes, it will create a food desert in the middle of the neighborhood, limiting food access to the community. This grocery store has been operating in Fillmore for over 40 years, it’s in a very transit-friendly location and multiple neighborhoods rely on this store to access fresh food and other essential services. It hasn’t been a perfect relationship, but it’s an important resource,” Simley said in a written statement to the Nichi Bei News.

San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, representing District 5 where the grocery store is located, introduced a resolution Jan. 9 asking the supermarket and real estate developer to delay the store’s closure and start meeting with local residents to plan for any would-be development, calling for any new development to also incorporate a replacement supermarket. As the Board of Supervisors planned to vote on the resolution, Preston and Fillmore community members held a rally Jan. 23, one day after Breed’s announcement.

“I am especially proud of how our communities came together in this moment to stand up to one of the biggest grocery store chains, … but they heard loud and clear from all of you, from everyone in the Fillmore in Japantown and the broader Western Addition community, everyone spoke with one voice in the incredible coalition that’s reflected here today,” Preston said at the rally.

“I’m happy to hear that the mayor and Safeway made an agreement for this Safeway to be open another year, but let’s be clear, that was not their intent,” Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, said at the Jan. 23 rally. “They announced that yesterday because of this rally today. That’s the only reason why that announcement was made yesterday.”

Breed’s Jan. 22 announcement said the city and the supermarket reached an agreement to delay the closure to allow for more time to allow the city and Align Real Estate to work with the community on future plans for the site, “including new housing and bringing a new grocery store to replace the current Safeway.”

“We have decided to extend the closing date to January 2025 to give the community and the city more time to establish a transition plan,” Safeway said in the city’s statement. “Beyond the closure, we will continue to serve this community with our grocery delivery services and will work with our customers to transfer their prescriptions to another Safeway location or a location of their choice. We remain committed to serving San Francisco at our remaining 15 locations.”

Align Real Estate did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, the developer is no stranger to San Francisco. According to The Real Deal, San Francisco-based Align is headed by Jason Chadorchi, formerly of Tishman Speyer, and is working on multiple housing developments throughout the city, including a proposed 62-story, 826-unit apartment building known as The Cube at 620 Folsom St.

While Safeway had met with the mayor and released a joint statement with Breed through her office, community leaders such as Daniel Landry of the Fillmore Alliance said they had not had an opportunity to meet with the store as of Jan. 23. Preston, himself, told the Nichi Bei News that he had arranged a meeting with the supermarket’s leadership, but had not formally met either.

“The community is not asking for much, basic respect. We want to sit at the table to craft community benefits that trickle down to the common person,” Landry, a resident of the Fillmore neighborhood, said.

Landry and others said, during the rally, that Safeway opened 40 years ago to serve the predominantly low-income Black community in the Fillmore and Western Addition where redlining denied other markets, pharmacies and banks from opening there. That development, however, was also built on the site of a six-acre plot the Third Baptist Church could have developed initially, according to Dr. Rev. Amos Brown, head of the church and San Francisco branch of the NAACP. He said his church originally had exclusive negotiation rights to develop the parcel 48 years ago to build a school, a banquet facility, a senior citizens center and a sanctuary.

“But what happened? Because this nation, this state and this city was so racist, so unjust, so unkind, that forces got in cahoots with … Wells Fargo, Bank of America and they refused to give money for the financing of the development by black folks in the city and county,” Brown, also a member of the reparations advisory committee, said. “I come here today to tell it like it is … if San Francisco is really serious about reparations, and doing more than just talking about it, giving lip service, this is the first example of opportunity for reparations. This land belongs to Black folks and no one else.”

While the closure generally impacts the predominantly Black Fillmore neighborhood, neighboring Japantown community members have also expressed support and solidarity, including Osaki and Alice Kawahatsu, who represented the Japantown Task Force and We are One coalition. Kawahatsu noted her church has relied on the Safeway in the past for gatherings, and expressed that the two communities should work together. The task force, along with other Japantown organizations, have similarly expressed concerns over the Safeway’s closures in a flurry of letters and statements since early January.

Meanwhile, Preston said he was introducing another resolution to the board of supervisors Jan. 23 in addition to his first resolution. Unearthing a 1984 Supermarket Closure Ordinance, Preston said he is proposing a Neighborhood Grocery Protection Act that requires any neighborhood-serving supermarket to give at least six months advance notice before closing and requiring operators to work with local community members to develop future plans. The board of supervisors approved the 1984 ordinance in response to another Safeway that shuttered in 1983, but then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein vetoed the resolution, stating it would be government overreach, according to 48 Hills.

Preston’s rally drew support from the Fillmore, particularly the Black community, but also the support of several fellow supervisors, including President of the Board Aaron Peskin, whose own district suffered a Safeway closure last year in the North Beach neighborhood in his District 3.

Preston’s Jan. 9 resolution passed without incident Jan. 23 while Supervisor Matt Dorsey of District 6 also lent his support, citing his own district suffered an abrupt closure last year when Whole Foods closed at Eighth and Market Street.

“I just wanted to say that, as a supervisor of a district and a resident of a neighborhood that saw a major supermarket close, with only a few hours notice last spring, I am incredibly sympathetic to the community’s concerns,” he said during the board of supervisors meeting.

Above all, neighbors remained concerned about Safeway’s impending closure.

Although granted a year to plan, the estimated years it would take to replace it worries community members on how the empty building would also impact blight in the neighborhood.

The Webster Street location had been in the news in recent years for closing down self-checkout counters and installing security gates due to the rise of shoplifting since the beginning of the pandemic, but an outright closure would hurt the neighborhood more, according to the Rev. Erris Edgerly, a member of the Fillmore Alliance.

“When they said, they came in here (during Redevelopment), we had blight. There was no blight. This is blight. If you close this, this will be blight,” he said.

One response to “S.F. Japantown, Fillmore protest impending Safeway closure”

  1. Bogdan Avatar
    Bogdan

    Great article

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