The battle of 16th and Mission: Inside the campaign to “clean up” the plaza and build luxury housing

By Julia Carrie Wong/48 Hills

MARCH 18, 2014 — Laura Guzman, the director of  homeless services for Mission Neighborhood Health Center, had the question that was on everybody’s mind at a recent protest at the 16th and Mission BART plaza. “Who,” she asked, “is Clean up the Plaza?”

More than 100 San Franciscans, including members of Mission-based organizations like Causa Justa Just Cause, the Mission SRO Collaborative, La Colectiva, PODER, and the Housing Rights Committee, had come together under a new banner: “La Plaza 16 Coalición.” Their chief target was Maximus Real Estate Partners’ proposed development of two 10-story towers with 351 units of housing and 32,000-square feet of retail space on the northeast corner of the intersection.

The leaflet distributed by protesters laid out the concerns of the coalition in English and Spanish: “We are tired of seeing our neighbors displaced from their homes and our city for the profit and benefit of a privileged few. Plaza 16 belongs to those that hang out here and work/live here. We, not a private development company, should make a plan for OUR PLAZA.”

But mingled with outrage at the idea of $3,500/month rentals and high-rises that will cast a shadow over nearby Marshall Elementary School’s playground is suspicion about the Clean up the Plaza campaign that began months before the development plans went public.
It seemed like a remarkable coincidence: Just before a developer starts pushing high-end housing in a low-income area, a new organization with significant resources starts pushing to get homeless people out of the area.
Had the developers been laying the groundwork for their project through an Astroturf campaign? Why didn’t anyone in the community know who was behind this supposedly community-based campaign? Where did the money for glossy posters and direct mail come from? Who was Gil Chavez, the organizer named on the campaign’s website? And was Clean up the Plaza responsible for the “three-month police occupation of the plaza” that began in September and, according to Guzman, led to increased harassment of the homeless and residents who frequent the plaza?

Speaking to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, activist Andy Blue said of Clean up the Plaza and the proposed development, “Everyone has assumed those are connected, but nobody has found the smoking gun.” Mission District Supervisor David Campos hinted at a connection as well, during an Assembly race debate with Supervisor David Chiu. When Chiu challenged Campos over the thousands of signatures gathered by Clean up the Plaza as a sign of his ineffective leadership in the Mission, Campos replied, “It’s a way to get a luxury condo project.”

Whether a smoking gun linking Maximus Real Estate Partners to the formation and funding of Clean up the Plaza exists remains to be seen, but there is a clear connection between the two projects, in the form of San Francisco’s notorious political operative, Jack Davis. On Thursday, the Guardian  revealed Jack Davis’s involvement with Clean up the Plaza. Following interviews with Davis, Gil Chavez, and Maximus representative Bert Polacci, 48Hills can report that Davis is also working as a paid political consultant for the condo project at 16th and Mission.

Davis used to run San Francisco politics. He got Frank Jordon and Willie Brown elected mayor, led the campaigns for new stadiums for the Giants and the 49ers, and worked for developers and landlords on campaigns including the defeat of a measure to extend rent control to vacant units. Perhaps most infamously, he hosted a 50th birthday party attended by much of San Francisco’s political establishment where the entertainment included a woman dressed as Pocahontas sodomizing a Church of Satan priest with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

Davis is semi-retired, and he had largely vanished from the San Francisco political scene, spending most of his time in Wales and Arizona. But he’s back in town now, and he has a new mission: cleaning up what he calls “the most dangerous corner in San Francisco.”