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Back to <-- DotComs and the Information Revolution

Dot-com invasion ignites protest
Fair Use Statement

Source: SJ Mercury News

Published Friday, September 8, 2000,
in the San Jose Mercury News

Dot-com invasion ignites protest

S.F. complex: Mission Armory development hearing dissolves into near-riot.

Mercury News

Protesters vowed an escalation in public opposition to dot-com development after a confrontation at City Hall on Thursday drew some 30 police officers and sheriff's deputies -- the first serious clash in an ongoing neighborhood battle against a development boom that is frightening tenants and defenders of San Francisco's character.

Law enforcement officers, some wielding batons, rushed to a quell a potential riot at a public hearing after a speaker from the Mission district was wrestled to the ground by a sheriff's deputy.

More than 100 protesters were on hand as the planning commission was set to vote on a proposed conversion of the 85-year-old Mission Armory into a massive office complex for multimedia firms. The project has become the latest battleground over gentrification in a neighborhood that many minorities, working class people and artists call home.

Thursday's incident underscored how visceral an issue the threat of rising rents and displacement has become for many San Franciscans. Some protesters said it will only invigorate their fight against developments they say are turning the city into a habitat for only the wealthy.

``This is really gonna fire people up,'' said Luis Vasquez, who works with youth in the Mission. ``These demonstrations are going to escalate.''

And Supervisor Tom Ammiano, the activists' closest ally on the board of supervisors, said, ``I think you could see more non-violent civil disobedience after this.''

The city has tried repeatedly to find a community use for the building, even setting $1 million aside for residents to forge a plan, but nothing resulted. Mayor Willie Brown, who appoints the planning commissioners, strongly favors the project.

`I'm just delighted someone has come along . . . to make this a productive part of the community,'' Brown said in July.

But residents fear that the building will attract hundreds of high-tech workers who will drive up surrounding rents, exacerbating the problem of gentrification.

Not all neighborhoods are opposed to dot-com or other development, and some dot-com workers are trying to preserve the character of their neighborhood. Builders say that if the huge demand for office space is not accommodated, rents will only continue to increase.

Resistance has centered in the Mission and South of Market districts, where development pressure is strongest. In what has become almost a biweekly ritual, about 100 people -- many from the those neighborhoods -- marched on the steps of City Hall for a 1 p.m. rally. Afterward, they took the protest inside to the planning commission hearing room.

The meeting started calmly. But soon protesters began to heckle Planning Commission President Anita Theoharis, and she responded by threatening to have them removed from the room.

Emotions escalated when Jonathan Youtt, a member of the San Francisco Artist Alliance, stepped to the microphone. In a taunting tone, he told Theoharis and other commissioners to ``look me in the eye'' and complained that they weren't paying attention as he spoke about problems artists are facing in the Mission.

After the three minutes he was given to speak expired, Youtt asked to finish his statement. Theoharis said no. He continued to speak, and the commission president summoned sheriff's Deputy Fitzgerald Fields to remove Youtt from the hearing room.

Fields grabbed Youtt's left wrist. When the activist didn't move, the deputy pulled Youtt's arm behind his back and appeared to force him face down into the floor. Some witnesses said that Youtt went limp and fell down himself, which he denied.

Within seconds, about 100 protesters outside the hearing room roared ``Shut it down, shut it down.'' Sheriff's deputies shoved people away from the hearing room entrance, and threatened to use batons to pry people from door handles that many were clinging to in an attempt to disrupt the meeting.

Law enforcement officers responded and the atmosphere calmed some. About 15 officers formed a wall outside the hearing room and spent the rest of the afternoon patroling the meeting. People weren't allowed inside unless they were next in line to speak on a specific issue.

But the activists got what they wanted Thursday: After halting the meeting for more than an hour, the commission agreed to postpone a vote on the Mission Armory project a week, until 5:30 p.m. Thursday. And they promised to reserve the largest room available in City Hall to accommodate throngs of opponents expected to show up in opposition.

The activists say they are upset not only about the type of developments sprouting up in the Mission and other older neighborhoods -- including large-scale offices for high-tech start-ups, and live-work lofts -- but by the routine way in which they say the planning commission approves them. Their voices aren't being heard and frustration is mounting, they say.

``I can't even convey the level of disrespect we felt this afternoon,'' said Antonio Diaz of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition.

Sheriff's department chief of staff Eileen Hirst said the department is investigating whether Fields used excessive force. Witnesses, she said, are offering conflicting accounts. The deputy declined to comment.

``I certainly didn't go limp,'' Youtt, 31, said. ``So as not to dislocate my shoulder, I went in the direction I was pulled. This was excessive force for speaking'' too long.

Theoharis, for her part, defended her decision to summon a sheriff's deputy.

``It's very unfortunate we have a group of people who won't respect our hearing process,'' she said. Before the meeting reconvened, she urged law enforcement officers -- who had several police vans outside and were prepared to make scores of arrests -- not to overreact.

Youtt said he likely will file a formal complaint against Fields.

With supervisor elections approaching and a growing number of artists and residents being evicted from their work places and residences, planning commissioners will be on the hot seat next week when they meet to vote on the Mission Armory project. Dallas-based Eikon Investments wants to spend $50 million to renovate the long-abandoned structure at Mission and 14th streets into a 300,000-square-foot office complex for multimedia companies.

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