Patches of rust now find solace on the street-facing sign of the Fillmore Heritage Center. Built in 2007 to help fuel long-sought lower Fillmore economic prosperity — while honoring the area’s African American heritage amid swelling tides of gentrification — the building has stood empty without an owner for much of the last three years.

Thursday, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit against Michael Johnson, developer of the Fillmore Heritage Center, and three of his companies, for failing to repay the $5.5 million loan and interests Johnson received from the City in 2005 to construct the building. The City borrowed the money from HUD to finance the construction of the commercial space of the Heritage Center, according to an informational memorandum.

The lawsuit seeks the repayment of the loan as well as interest and late charges, which add up to a total of more than $6.5 million as of last month. The suit also seeks compensatory damages.

In addition to Johnson, the suit also names three companies that Johnson controls: Fillmore Development Commercial, LLC; EM Johnson Interest, Inc.; and Urban Core Development LLC.

For now, the hopes of renowned jazz echoing in the streets, and economic growth resurfacing in the once-thriving neighborhood, remain just that: hopes.

But a band of Fillmore District residents and community activists have initiated a series of weekly community meetings to establish “100 Black Organizations,” one of several ongoing ideas to potentially re-activate and operate the Fillmore Heritage Center.

The center, one of the last projects of the redevelopment program, cost $80.5 million and was financed with public funds from the City and SFRA, and a $5.5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to a request for proposal. The building includes 50,000 square feet of commercial space, a public parking garage, and 80 condominiums.

Originally, Yoshi’s San Francisco, a 28,000-square-foot jazz club, opened in the commercial space, but closed its doors in 2014 after filing for bankruptcy. Soon afterward, another live music venue, The Addition, also closed its doors after only five months in 2015.

The group seeks to operate the commercial space and parking garage, which in 2017 went up for sale, with no qualifying buyers. The 80 condominiums, which were privately financed and were not part of the 2017 sale, are separate from any purchase or re-activation attempts, according to the RFP.

The goal of the meetings, facilitated by the nonprofit New Community Leadership Foundation and the Black American Political Association of California, is to re-activate the Heritage Center for a period of time, and to use that period “to raise funds to acquire the building,” according to meeting documents.

The NCLF has partnered with the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation and Hard Hitta Promotions to create the Fillmore Community Benefit Group, which would function as the master tenant and manage the Heritage Center should the group be successful in activating and operating the building, according to Majeid Crawford, longtime Fillmore resident and secretary of the NCLF.

Crawford told SFBay:

“The community has been waiting for the longest time to do business in the community. The community can’t survive if they don’t have access to economic resources in the neighborhood; that’s why we are working with these new initiatives.”

The idea behind 100 Black Organizations, which would operate under the supervision of FCBG, Crawford said, is to bring together 100 groups that will pay monthly fees to host at least two events each year in the Heritage Center. The monthly fee would go toward the $25,000 or so needed each month to operate the building, according to Crawford. Use of the building for events would not be exclusive to the 100 organizations, Crawford said.

In addition to monthly fees from member organizations, the FCBG has raised over $100,000 in commitments, with $50,000 donated by San Francisco native and boxer, Karim Mayfield, toward the costs of re-activation and operating the Fillmore Heritage Center.

Many see the Fillmore Heritage Center as a key project to not only revitalize the lower Fillmore, but to help keep African Americans in the neighborhood and city at large.

According to Bay Area Census data, African Americans made up 6.1 percent of the City’s population in 2010. In 1970, African Americans made up 13.4 percent of the City’s population.

In its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, the Fillmore was San Francisco’s African American hub. Billie Holiday blessed the Champagne Supper Club with her spellbinding voice. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, dropped by Fillmore’s Bop City for jam sessions. And grand John Coltrane commanded the saxophone, also at Bop City.

But urban renewal, under The City’s redevelopment agency in the 1940s through 1970s, bulldozed much of the neighborhood, replacing the majority of Victorian residences and businesses with “superblock” developments, and widening Geary Boulevard into an expressway, according to a 2016 report produced by city planners.

According to the planning report, by 1970:

“The black population of the entire district had increased to around 60 percent.”

At the time, the area was steeped with African American cultural influence. Ken Johnson, chapter chairman of BAPAC and San Francisco native, called it a “Black Market street.” Black-owned businesses lined Fillmore, and the area became best known as the “Harlem of the West” for its jazz clubs and the musicians that frequented them.

Yet the subjective labeling of the neighborhood as a “ghetto” and “blighted,” used to justify redevelopment, didn’t acknowledge the rich cultural heritage of the Fillmore. Ultimately, thousands of Fillmore residents were displaced through decades of redevelopment.

According to city planners, the City’s redevelopment agency policy “was controlled by prominent members of San Francisco’s business community, whose real motivation was the replacement of low-value “slums” with high-value commercial and residential development.” According to the report, city officials did little to stop the destruction “of poor and working-class communities targeted by Redevelopment during the 1960s and 1970s.”

The City’s redevelopment agency in 1995 created the “Historic Fillmore Jazz Preservation District,” an attempt to revitalize the district with dining and entertainment and attract consumers into the neighborhood, which was meant to supplement local businesses.

In 2007, the Fillmore Heritage Center, one of the last projects of the redevelopment program, opened in the form of Yoshi’s San Francisco jazz club. But, Yoshi’s, and then the Addition in 2015, failed to bring economic stability to lower Fillmore street.

In 2016, the City and then-District 5 Supervisor, London Breed, sponsored a community activations and events program, according to the RFP. This allowed local groups to rent the space for events. Despite success, according to the RFP document, the program ended in 2017.

In early 2017, after multiple failed attempts to operate the space, The City issued a RFP for the Heritage Center, seeking a new owner for the building at a minimum bid price of $6.5 million, lower than its appraised value of more than $11 million, according to the RFP. Yet, the sale ultimately failed after all bidders failed to meet community standards set forth with the sale of the building.

Last year’s RFP also grew the frustration and anger of many in the community, as the bid for the building was believed, by some, to neglect community involvement.

The Office of Economic and Workforce Development, who published the RFP last year, told SFBay in an email:

“The community benefits component of any proposal to be considered by The City remain essential for moving this process forward. OEWD is currently assessing options to maximize positive community impacts informed by the history of this community and neighborhood.”

OEWD continued:

“Any proposal that merits consideration must include a robust community benefits package informed by the priorities articulated by the community engagement process.  The City wants the diverse community of the Lower Fillmore to be served and its long history to be incorporated in any plan that moves forward.”

Today, the intersection of Geary Boulevard and Fillmore Street divides Fillmore street into what many refer to as “lower and upper Fillmore.” North of Geary, upper Fillmore appears upbeat, fused with expensive restaurants, shops and an abundance of foot traffic.

South of Geary, lower Fillmore, while hosting a few new businesses like State Bird Provisions, Boba Guys and Panda Express, is more known for empty storefronts. Names of long-closed stores and venues like Bop City, the Booker T. Washington Hotel, the Black Panther headquarters, and names of prominent African Americans, are carved into the sidewalk along Fillmore.

“Black Bark BBQ” and “1300 on Fillmore,” two of the few black-owned businesses in the lower Fillmore, closed their doors temporarily within the last year. Black Bark is looking to relocate to upper Fillmore, while 1300 on Fillmore is taking a hiatus. A lack of foot traffic — attributed in part to the vacant Fillmore Heritage Center not attracting people to the area — affected business for both restaurants, according to Eater San Francisco.

The NCLF organized two rallies — one in November of last year and in January of this year — to ensure that community benefits remain a focal point in any advancement of the Heritage Center. And, the group also frequently hosts community events for residents in the area.

District 5 supervisor Vallie Brown’s office told SFBay in an email that the supervisor had scheduled a “meeting with members of the community who hope to activate the Fillmore Heritage Center.”

BAPAC’s Johnson told SFBay at the most recent community meeting:

“The importance is, [the Fillmore Heritage Center is] the last element of the “Harlem of the West. [This is] the last, large venue that we can do some things [with and] bring back that pride in the community. It’s really crucial that the building is activated.”

In early 2017, Dishon Levexier, 24, a Fillmore native and artist, hosted a Hip-Hop event in the Heritage Center. He said when he was younger, he saw more of his “own” in the Fillmore:

“Now that I’m getting older, and I’m around here, I’m starting to see less community. [African Americans]/[Blacks are] starting to get driven out by gentrification [more], and by the expensiveness of this place and just the vibes.”

Levexier, the youngest community member at the last meeting, said he joined the activists’ efforts because of their structure and the things, he believes, the community needs:

“I see it as a community thing … We’re all coming through and in order to run this successfully. We have to start from [the] ground up, and we have to do things that are going to benefit the community, the babies, the moms, everything. So, it turns into a thing that starts here, but it’s going to branch out into all of the community.”

David Hardiman Sr., director and leader of the “San Francisco All Star Big Band & Combos,” and retired professor of City College of San Francisco, who has also been attending the weekly meetings, told SFBay:

“It’s important to me because it’s a place where we as a group of people — African Americans — in the Fillmore District have fantastic history and heritage, and if we don’t keep that going, then some of it is going to be lost if not all …”

Hardiman continued:

“So I want to see everything be salvaged but also improved and moving forward so that there is something that we can be proud of and be able to help our future generations.”

Frazier, who has seen the Fillmore in its heyday, and has been an activist in The City for many years, added:

“It’s been an ongoing war, and every generation has done its part. It’s a continuous war since even during slavery there were heroes during the slavery time, all through history there have been those who stood up and been role models and beacons of hope — and we feel now that we’re ready to make our mark.”

Bay City News contributed information to this report.

Brian Neumann

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