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New legislation aims to halt gentrification in San Francisco enclaves

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Bill would help preserve neighborhood identities but also invoke zoning restrictions

San Francisco’s Mission District.
San Francisco’s Mission District.
Photo by Alfred Sonsalla/Shutterstock

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced new legislation this week that would make it easier to establish specially protected cultural districts in the city. The bill’s sponsors hope it will help slow the tide of gentrification in traditional ethnic enclaves.

In an emailed statement Tuesday morning, District Nine’s Hillary Ronen (whose jurisdiction includes the Mission District) said, “Everyone agrees that gentrification is killing the very thing that makes us special. If we lose these neighborhoods for good, then we lose San Francisco.”

The cultural district label recognizes a neighborhood as having particular historic significance for a demographic. Sometimes the city employs special zoning and entitlement rules in an effort to preserve a cultural district’s history.

For example, earlier this year Supervisor Ronen introduced a bill that makes it harder for new restaurants to open in the Calle 24 Latino district in the Mission, a response to concerns that it was becoming too hard for retail businesses to keep a foothold in the corridor.

San Francisco’s Chinatown.
San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Photo by Patricia Chang

The city also designates Japantown, Chinatown, and traditionally Filipino neighborhoods in SoMa as special cultural districts. The Castro is an LGBTQ district, and parts of the Tenderloin fall within a transgender district.

But the definition of what makes a cultural district has been somewhat vague until now, based largely on community lobbying and a broad “you know it when you see it” standard.

The new bill more strictly defines a cultural district as a neighborhood that:

“Embodies a unique cultural heritage because it contains a concentration of cultural and historic assets or culturally significant enterprise, arts, services, or businesses, or because a significant portion of its residents or people who spend time in the area or location are members of a specific cultural, community, or ethnic group."

City Hall would have the power to appoint citizen advisory boards for districts and possibly establish additional zoning rules that will protect the character of the neighborhood but also probably make new development more difficult.

The bill, which District Ten’s Malia Cohen also sponsored, now goes to committee for debate.