Castro Community Benefit District Marks 10 Years

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Saturday March 12, 2016
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Ten years ago this July a majority of property owners in the Castro and Upper Market corridors voted to assess themselves a parcel-based fee to fund the creation of a special use district that would provide extra cleaning services and other support to the city's gay district.

With 65 percent of property owners backing the proposal, which stretches from 19th Street along Castro to Market Street and down to Octavia Boulevard, the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District was established. By January 2006 a nonprofit and volunteer board had formed to begin implementation of the district, which had an initial budget of $350,000 a year.

It was one of five CBDs created that year, bringing the total then in the city to six. While backed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and gay former District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, the Castro CBD was no slam-dunk. Many at the time questioned why the city shouldn't pay for services such as graffiti removal and sidewalk cleaning.

"It is a long way from when I was driving from business to business and going to the homes of property owners to get to the magic number. It was just hard," recalled Dufty this week about his pitching the value of a CBD to those unsure of the concept. "It was like a ground battle to reach out to business owners and try to explain it. I have very vivid memories of pleading the case with people and a lot of business owners came through."

A decade on, Dufty said he remains grateful to those who supported the CBD's creation.

"I want to thank them," he told the Bay Area Reporter this week. "They had a bigger view of what the neighborhood could be."

The CBD is celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend with a sold out party in the Castro at the long vacant Patio Cafe restaurant space. Property owner Les Natali is providing complimentary wine and soft drinks, while seven Castro restaurants will be dishing up samples from their menus.

While the event itself is free, it is aiming to raise money for Castro Cares, a CBD-led program that provides enhanced homeless outreach services to people living on the streets of the Castro as well as increased police patrols of the neighborhood. As of Tuesday, the CBD was about $11,300 shy of its goal to raise $50,000 for the program.

"What it is all about is getting people help," said Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who was hired in the spring of 2007 to do grant writing for the CBD and is now its full-time executive director. "We can't stop people from coming to the Castro. But what we are doing through Castro Cares is at least providing consistent outreach to folks and opportunities they can take when they are ready to make improvements in their lives."

It is one of several initiatives the CBD has spearheaded over the last decade to varying levels of success. Its main purpose has been to provide extra cleaning within its coverage area and employs people seven days a week to do so from 5:30 a.m. till 6 p.m. The CBD crews pick up about 11,800 pounds of trash a month.

"We are out there cleaning the neighborhood all the time," said Aiello. "People forget what it could look like if the CBD wasn't there."

One of its more popular programs has been to recruit and train residents to be neighborhood ambassadors who assist with tourists during the busy summer months.

It also stepped in two years ago to pay for installing rainbow crosswalks at the intersection of 18th and Castro streets and etching neighborhood history facts into the cement on the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street as part of a city-funded sidewalk-widening project. It is now looking to color in the wording of the factoids so they are more visible to passersby.

"The rainbow crosswalks are the most popular beautification improvement we have made," said Aiello. "Thousands of pictures of them have been taken and shared all over the world."

One of its more controversial projects has been its management of Jane Warner Plaza, a pedestrian plaza the city created out of a portion of 17th Street at Castro and Market. It has struggled to find ways to activate the area so that is does not become used just by homeless individuals. Across the way at Harvey Milk Plaza, benches the CBD paid for were subsequently removed after they became a magnet for the homeless.

The CBD was also part of the vocal outcry that demanded city officials deal with a growing group of nudists who had taken over the plaza, which led to the controversial nudity ban on city streets the gay current District 8 Supervisor, Scott Wiener, pushed through City Hall in 2012.

"I still believe there is tremendous potential at Jane Warner Plaza to do good for the neighborhood. What disappoints me is the city really failed to keep its commitment," said Aiello. "When it was created in 2009 the supervisor and mayor at the time promised it wouldn't become a homeless encampment. They promised to take care of it and said it would be the jewel in their cap. It didn't happen."

Dufty said the Castro is not the only neighborhood that has struggled with keeping its public open spaces as amenities for everyone. He credited the CBD "for trying" to come up with solutions at the plaza, such as hosting various concerts and activities.

"They recognize just pushing people out is not the solution," he said.

The CBD is currently looking to hire an artist to create an LED lighting installation for the plaza. It also recently received word that $150,000 Wiener had allocated for the plaza will be disbursed to it by late March. The funding will pay for two young adults from Larkin Street Youth Services to work 50 hours a week combined as plaza stewards, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

"They will be based there in the plaza and have a uniform so they will be official," said Aiello. "They will manage the furniture, keep it clean, and welcome people off the F-Line into the neighborhood."

The CBD also recently learned it had won a $25,000 grant from the mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development to begin implementing a Castro Retail Strategy it helped pay for and adopted last summer. It plans to use the funding to help fill the vacant storefronts near the intersection of Church and Market streets.

Today, the CBD has an annual budget of roughly $560,000 derived from property assessments, city funding, and other sources. For the 2014-2015 Fiscal Year, it had to use roughly $78,000 in its reserves to cover its operating expenses.

Its charter will need to be re-ratified come 2020 and there is already talk of expanding the CBD's coverage area, such as including a segment of Hartford Street, lengthening its boundary on 18th Street, and including more adjacent blocks all along Market Street.

"I get requests from surrounding property owners or tenants who want us to clean their streets," said Aiello, who earns $94,002 a year. "But there is no way for us to do it. We can't expand the boundaries of the CBD without going back to the property owners."

To learn more about the CBD and its public meetings, visit