The homeless Navigation Center that Aaron Peskin proposed for a North Beach parking lot has led to a power struggle between the supervisor and his longtime political foe, Mayor Ed Lee, who wants to use the site for affordable housing.
Peskin's Navigation Center would likely interfere with the 178-unit development that's scheduled to break ground next year at 88 Broadway, now a city-owned parking lot just off the Embarcadero. And last week a sympathetic constituent gave Peskin ammunition that could help him forestall the project, making room for his temporary homeless facility.
The District Three supervisor also has political motives for delaying the project, which has gotten a chilly reception from neighbors, some of whom would prefer to keep the parking lot. Many of those project opponents, however, support the temporary homeless shelter.
One North Beach resident, Marc Bruno, filed an appeal with the city Planning Department to stall the development because it would eliminate 180 parking spaces, which he says would create traffic congestion.
Bruno, who describes himself a fervent supporter of Peskin, told The Chronicle he is also concerned the affordable housing units, which would go to low-income seniors, families and formerly homeless people, wouldn't serve "the poorest of the poor" in his neighborhood.
But by filing the appeal, Bruno handed Peskin a cudgel. Supervisors often cut deals with appellants to allow development projects to move forward. In this case, Peskin can refuse to intervene unless Lee gives in and opens the Navigation Center.
Peskin said Wednesday he'll make Lee an offer: allow the homeless facility for one year, and after that, he'll get out of the way.
"This is not an 'either-or' — this is an 'and,'" the supervisor said of the two projects.
Lee has made Navigation Centers — which provide housing and on-site services to homeless people, who may be accompanied by their partners and pets — the linchpin of his strategy to move San Francisco's street population indoors. But his spokeswoman, Deirdre Hussey, said the mayor is evaluating several other places to open them.
"We do not want to stall affordable housing projects when we have many more options for Navigation Centers," Hussey said.
Yet Peskin said that Lee had expressed support for the 88 Broadway Navigation Center when they met in June to discuss the idea.
The two haven't talked since then.
"I would respectfully say that the mayor has changed course," Peskin said.
Currently, San Francisco has two Navigation Centers in the Mission, one in Dogpatch, one in the Civic Center and one at San Francisco General Hospital.
Lee and Peskin have fought many times before, most recently over how to help merchants in Chinatown whose businesses have wilted during the construction of the Central Subway. That conflict ended when the mayor met Peskin's demand to set aside money for the merchants.
Some City Hall insiders have privately called Peskin's attempt to put a Navigation Center at 88 Broadway a brilliant political move, since it achieves so many goals at once.
For one thing, it creates the appearance the supervisor is trying to accommodate homeless people in his district, even though the site probably won't work out. It also puts the mayor in the awkward position of having to oppose temporary housing for the homeless.
And it could potentially derail a housing development started by a political adversary -- and by developers that Peskin criticizes.
The supervisor had harsh words for Bridge Housing and the John Stewart Co., the nonprofits that beat out a Peskin ally, the Chinatown Community Development Center, to win the contract to develop 88 Broadway.
"Chinatown Community Development Center has relationships in the neighborhood," Peskin said. "Bridge — it just flips these pancake (developments) all across the country, and the community isn't involved."
The bidding process took place while Julie Christensen, Peskin's longtime North Beach political rival, represented District Three at the Board of Supervisors. Christensen, who was appointed by the mayor, lost the seat to Peskin in a special election in 2015.
Christensen defended the affordable housing, calling it a more effective solution to homelessness in North Beach than the 12-month shelter Peskin is promoting.
"Permanent supportive housing is the holy grail," Christensen said. "Anything temporary is nice, but to make the Navigation Centers work, we need housing that people can graduate to."
Bridge Housing CEO Cynthia Parker emphasized that 20 percent of the 178 apartment units would house formerly homeless people.
"We're working with the city to expedite construction, which is expected to begin in late 2018," Parker wrote in a statement. Peskin's Navigation Center could delay the project for months and put its financing at risk.
The conflict has also created a quandary for city departments that initially favored Peskin's idea. Some city officials now seem wary of the political football between the supervisor and mayor.
Staff at the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development met with Peskin Wednesday and tried to steer him away from 88 Broadway, the supervisor said, saying they are reviewing other properties. The housing office did not answer requests for comment.
Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, whose department cleans up street encampments, was at first enthusiastic about the Navigation Center at 88 Broadway and instructed his staff to produce conceptual designs for the project.
Yet on Wednesday Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said the department is waiting for direction from the mayor's office.
"We will deliver projects," Gordon said. "It's up for others to let us know what projects to deliver."
Peskin introduced his plan to open a District Three Navigation Center at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 14. At that time he had two sites in mind: 88 Broadway and a vacant shed at Pier 23, which his staff later dropped because it lacked fire exits and sprinklers.
The 88 Broadway Navigation Center has backing from several neighborhood groups, including the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, which vehemently opposed the affordable housing development because of its bulk and its design.
"Frankly, it looks like a penitentiary," said Judy Irving, the neighborhood association's president.
The mayor made no mention of 88 Broadway during a brief speech to the supervisors on Tuesday about the importance of opening new Navigation Centers. The mayor thanked three other supervisors — Jane Kim, Hillary Ronen and Malia Cohen — for their efforts to alleviate homelessness, without so much as a nod to Peskin.
Even so, Peskin is resolute.
"It's really quite sad and unfortunate that Mayor Ed Lee's administration can't be more creative and can-do," he said.
Peskin added that if he and the neighbors are creating new hurdles for a building that would house poor people, they're doing it for a good cause.
"I'm trying to house the homeless," he said.
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