By Lauren Tyler
“These are tears of joy coming down from heaven,” said board of trustees President Lawrence Wong about the rain that did not dampen the spirits of the crowd at the Chinatown / North Beach Campus groundbreaking on Nov. 1.
The lot at the corner of Kearny and Washington Streets was filled with a diverse group celebrating something “we have been waiting over 35 years [for],” said Joanne Low, the dean of Chinatown / North Beach campus. In attendance were CIty College’s board of trustees, Mayor Gavin Newsom, Assemblyman Mark Leno and the People’s Republic of China Consulate General, among others.
The 14-story high-rise and an additional four-story building down the block on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Montgomery Street are designs that were highly contested and debated many times over the years.
Trustee Rodel Rodis said “the design was ratified and went through incredible hoops to make sure it conformed” to building regulations.
Trustee Wong told the audience to “never underestimate the power of the people,” referring to the conflict over City College’s attempt to consolidate the scattered campuses around Chinatown and North beach.
The conflict began with the original idea to build solely a 16-story building on the corner of Washington and Kearny which according to a story in the Aug. 22, 2007 issue of The Guardsman “divided the community”. The Hilton Hotel, located across the street, strongly opposed the 244-foot tower. The hotel’s Web site states it “soars 27 stories over ‘the city by the bay’, according to the Aug. 22 article.
The hotel stood to lose views from some rooms if City College went forward with the design, the article said.
The hotel also criticized the consultants who were contracted by City College to do an environmental impact report.
In addition, because City College is a state institution, the board of trustees were able to exempt the proposed buildings from conforming to city planning codes, which would have limited the height of the buildings to no more than 65 feet in height.
The board then changed their building proposal at the end of 2007 going from a 16-story building to a 14-story building and constructing an additional four-story building around the corner.
This proposal was met with much dispute, specifically from the Montgomery-Washington Homeowners Association, and the Neighbors for Preservation, Land Use and Community Education. This group filed a civil suit to try to cease all construction and planning.
According a story in the Dec. 5, 2007 issue of The Guardsman, “as part of a state agency, City College is allowed to exempt itself from city laws.”
Though, according to the Dec. 5 article, the lawsuit alleges “the district’s environmental review process was ‘inadequate’ and says the board of trustees acted illegally when it voted to exempt the district from local planning laws.”
The design for lot 5 was officially approved on July 10, and lots 9 and 10 were approved on June 26, despite the original civil suit.
The neighborhood group filed an injunction in an attempt to postpone the groundbreaking of the campus. According to the Oct. 17, 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article “Bid to block building Chinatown campus denied”, the groups claimed the buildings would “be out of scale for the neighborhood and detract from some of its historic buildings.”
Though, as the headline indicated, the neighborhood groups were unsuccessful. According to Trustee Rodis, City College would have lost an estimated $49 million from bond measures if the injunction had been successful.
According to the Chronicle article, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Paul Alvarado realized the “college would lose millions of dollars if he granted the injunction.”
City College will have to return to court in December and again in April to face continuing legal challenges to the construction of the new campus.
Regardless of the legal challenges facing the new campus, more than 200 people were in attendance of the long anticipated groundbreaking.
The rain was only lightly falling as the trustees and other prominent guest gathered around the plot of dirt surrounded by concrete. The empty lot is now “the site of 808 Kearny,” said Low.
In the crowd, former San Francisco Superior Court Judge Julie Tang said 808 is a good number. “in Chinese that means prosperity.”
The Yau Kung Moon dance and music ensemble paraded through the crowd as the adorned dragons floated above the audience to the tempo of drums and tambourines.
Ten members with the college surrounded the mound of dirt with shovels in hand, preparing to break ground for the new campus. Trustee Ramos prompted the groundbreaking counting down with audience. As the members thrust their shovels into the ground, a huge gust of wind came as though celebrating as well.
An older member of Yau Kung Moon lit firecrackers in between inhalations with his cigarette as the dragons danced behind the diggers.
The wind picked up as the brightly multi-colored procession returned to the stage which was covered in flowers and ferns. Mayor Newsom stood behind the podium on stage as the crowd waited for a temporary PA system. The one expected to be used had broken down.
Once the PA did reach the stage, Interim Chancellor Griffin began by saying “this groundbreaking is symbolic … and despite all the obstacles, we have a campus for this community!” The crowd cheered loudly in response to Griffin’s opening words.
Interim Chancellor Griffin also alluded to trustee Wong’s contribution calling him “the guiding light behind this project.”
Mayor Newsom followed by thanking the crowd, the board and the “faith and belief from Lawrence [Wong].”
“People came together … people that recognized the value of education … [and to give to] a community that deserves a community college.”
He also said he would support the college to ensure the campus was built despite the opposition. Wong said a “beacon will rise up,” as the campus is built.