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Interview: City Hall’s Diana Ponce de Leon on the Broad-Randolph Corridor’s Future

Raymond Rudolph/Ingleside-Excelsior Light

For years the Broad-Randolph corridor has struggled with vacant storefronts and crime. Today, there seems to be a resurgence. There are several new buildings and City Hall has completed a few beautification projects. Still, problems persist, particularly around the fate of the M-Streetcar Line and the commercial zoning. In an interview conducted in February, Diana Ponce de Leon, the manager of the Broad-Randolph corridor for the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, discusses City Hall’s efforts to revitalize the corridor.

Alexander Mullaney: What’s your background?

Diana Ponce de Leon: I’m a city planner. I have my masters in city planning. Before San Francisco I worked as a planner for the city of Houston for almost seven years. I worked on community development and their Super Neighborhood Program implementing projects and grant management. All of it pretty much at the neighborhood level. So I wasn’t doing regulatory work, it was mostly community development. I joined the Office of Economic and Workforce Development three years ago this February.

AM: What do you do for the corridor?

DPL: Invest In Neighborhoods is part of our tool box. Our approach is, each of the 25 neighborhood corridors around the city has a profile. For that profile we did community interviews. Our contractors and subcontractors interviewed folks on the ground or information was put there in terms of community strengths and potential and also data. So we have some basic demographic data, Sales tax data, vacancy data and so on. There are certain elements for this program that are citywide. I’m the point person for the Broad-Randolph corridor and our approach is to engage with already existing organizations. The point is not to go create something new from scratch, it’s to figure out what’s the best approach for that neighborhood to engage folks. Some neighborhoods do have pre-formed merchants associations, others don’t. So, sometimes it takes a combo approach. At the time I started on Broad-Randolph Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment was very active.

AM: Right, but then their funding dried up.

DPL: Yeah. So ACCE was very active. They had a community organizer on the ground and for Broad-Randolph specifically they were huge in terms of organizing folks around issues. So that was sort a perfect platform for me to tap into  the people who were already gathering here. Of course, you have other organizations other than ACE and that was also recognized. There’s the Ocean View, Merced Heights, Ingleside Neighbors In Action and the Family Resource Center. However, for the Broad-Randolph corridor, ACCE seemed to be the one that was advocating more strongly for the businesses that had been calling us, checking on us because they had a vision for the corridor itself. That organization ceased to exist but we wanted to continue to focus on Broad-Randolph. OMI-NIA’s focus is a little bit broader. It’s the three neighborhoods, Ocean View, Merced Heights, Ingleside and even Ocean, so it’s more of an overview, a check in about what’s going on on different issues. We continued trying to prioritize what some of the issues were that we took from previous meetings. There was no reason to start from scratch so I used what ACE had done in terms of prioritizing their needs and issues, a coffee shop and other things like that and then we went through a process with this group of prioritization. So these are some of the categories that basically is my menu of what am I going to focus on this corridor. For us at OEWD, our goal is to strengthen the existing businesses, to see what’s there and how we can assist them so it would be stronger.

Pedestrian safety came up a lot. At the time, SFMTA already had a plan for some upgrades along that corridor. One of those upgrades was going to be realignment of Orizaba. So where that new bulb out is now, that was basically just going to be a concrete bulb out and one of the other priorities was beautification so we engaged and said, “Let’s try to make something more of this rather than just a concrete space.” The neighborhood’s priority is beautification and this creates the perfect opportunity to do that. So we actually advocated for that and worked with the departments, both Public Works and SFMTA, to get that investment and then we engaged the community a little bit for the design and collecting ideas and all of that.

And the other was the vacancies along the corridor. The thing that we have really focused on was what businesses are there that want our services, that need our help strengthening their lease or what is it that they want to see for the corridor also and engaging with them. So we have relationships with businesses on the ground that we’ve invested in, we’ve talked to, we keep them engaged because that’s what we want ultimately and that’s what the neighborhood wants. They want to see that the businesses have improved so it’s not only about bringing in new ones but the ones that are there. How can they provide the products and services that you want?

The other huge investment we made was through Healthy Retail SF at Ana’s Market. So, one of the things that the neighborhood has brought up continually is having the grocery store close obviously at Ocean View Village had a major impact for them and so they kept talking about access to fresh food. Ana’s Market is the only market  that does not sell liquor. So it was a natural fit for our Health Retail program. By now I would say they’ve received over $15,000 in investment. That includes reshelving, new goods (they sell organic products now), refrigeration so they can sell meats and cheeses and fresh goods.

Our program does not just do the investment and leave. We’re tracking the improvement on an ongoing basis. They have a criteria they have to track so that we are able to assist if they’re not doing so well. After their grand reopening, they saw in the next three months a twenty percent increase in terms of their profitability. Now, there’s still a lot of room for improvement and we’ve gotten feedback from the neighbors, but I think definitely it’s these small neighborhood businesses that we want to continue to support because we do have the challenge of figuring out the vacancies.

AM: Is there a possibility of another community group focused on the corridor?

DPL: We actually had a consultant on the ground trying to see if we could form a different organization that was focused on a vision for Broad and Randolph that could keep these projects going over time.

The consultant we used was Andrea Baker Consulting with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation to see what they could offer in terms of forming an actual structure for a neighborhood organization. So where you would have a president or a chair and a secretary, like people who have greater responsibility than just the format which we were following, which was the volunteer format.

(In the current format) people show up for the project because they care about this particular issue and then they’re engaged because we’re there. But then when we leave, what happens? That’s lost. So we really wanted to build something at their request. It didn’t stick.

People are busy, there’s multiple organizations and so, while we tried to do that for a few months, we found that really the best way to engage people was on a project level. Like the beautification, the planter boxes, the design.

AM: You’re also planning a mural for the corridor. What’s happening with that?

DPL: The community stakeholders and the property owner in addition to the businesses said that this mural should reflect the diversity and history of the neighborhood. That particular building is really special in that it’s a piece of the neighborhood, the property owner is in the family, it’s been there for many years and it used to be the place of the old library.

AM: So something people keep talking about is the zoning. I guess the issue  is that Broad-Randolph is Neighborhood Commercial but it should be Neighborhood Commercial Transit because it has the M-line and that’s been causing problems with developments. Is there any movement to look at the zoning?

DPL: I’m not sure. Our scope involves looking at when a blighted property has been vacant for a while, all of a sudden it becomes, can we attract somebody to that vacancy that is able to be filled. And there’s a real challenge there in that corridor with that, even with the businesses that are there that are struggling. That’s why beautification was a big thing for the neighborhood. It’s not only a matter of neighborhood pride and that something is happening. Our focus was the ones we want to make them stronger, we want to make them better where we can and where they make themselves amenable to that.

AM: What’s the business mix? Do you have an idea what a corridor could look like or should look like?

DPL: It’s different for everyone and this one is really unique because we have intersections of commercial. Almost in a way, you might not even use the word corridor but there’s these linkages of corners that are neighborhood serving and so that’s why they’re important. So we’re focused on this corridor in a very different way than we would be in others.

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