San Francisco ‘Green’ Building Greeted with Environmental Protests

Published November 1, 2004

A land-use battle currently being fought in San Francisco has exposed increasing tensions within the environmental movement nationwide.

The area around McLaren Park in southeastern San Francisco is a far cry from the cable cars, swanky restaurants, tony neighborhoods, and breathtaking vistas most people associate with the storied “City by the Bay.” This crime-infested, gang-ridden part of town is home predominantly to low-income minorities, and its gritty streets are largely devoid of the social and cultural amenities readily available elsewhere in the city.

It’s just the kind of neighborhood that stands to benefit from an infusion of something positive; something, for example, that would provide local children an inkling of the world outside their housing projects. Or at least that’s what a local nonprofit group, Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), thought when it proposed building a 1,450-square-foot “Living Classroom” in the 318-acre McLaren Park.

Funded by a $900,000 grant from the San Francisco Department of the Environment and a $400,000 donation from the California Coastal Conservancy, the Living Classroom is supposed to be a state-of-the-art education center. According to the July 22 San Francisco Examiner, the facility’s designers envision an “environmentally friendly” structure built of bales of hay with its own solar panels and sewage-treatment setup. The structure is to be surrounded by another 1,450 square feet of pathways meandering around the site.

“A Cancer on the Environment”

But the Living Classroom has run into stiff opposition from, of all sources, environmental groups.

Advocates for “open space” are pulling out all the stops to scuttle the project. Franco Mancini of Friends of McLaren Park told the Examiner the proposed site for the center is on “prime hilltop” open space. His position is shared by the 10,000-member Sierra Club San Francisco Group. Local Sierra Club official Aaron Israel was quoted in the July 25 San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “We strongly support the project in concept. … [But] we have concerns about the site. Educating inner-city youth about the environment is something we helped pioneer 30 years ago.”

Fellow Sierra Club member Pinky Kushner was less circumspect in her opposition to the facility, telling the Chronicle, “We’re opposed to creating buildings in open space. Buildings bring with them automobiles, all sorts of pollution. They tend to be a cancer on the environment.”

Opposition from Many Sources

LEJ originally wanted to locate the center at Heron’s Head Park, a restored wetland area four miles from McLaren Park. But the group determined the ground there was too unstable to support the facility, and, after considering more than two dozen other sites, decided on McLaren Park.

The nonprofit organization is under the gun to get on with the project. State officials want the issue of the center’s location resolved quickly, so that construction can get underway by September 2005. LEJ has already spent three years and more than $300,000 just trying to find a site for the project, and many political and bureaucratic hurdles remain.

Nancy Wuerfel of the city’s Park, Recreation, and Open Space Advisory Committee is one of the many roadblocks standing in the way of building the Living Classroom in McLaren Park. “They’re backing into a fight that will be unpleasant for all concerned,” she told the Chronicle. “I’m not backing down. There’s too much at stake. The park system is 3,600 acres in San Francisco, and I want to protect them all.”

Wuerfel is not alone. In the summer of 2004, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods passed a resolution urging LEJ to relocate the facility to the city’s Bayview area. Jenn Sramek of LEJ wasn’t allowed to speak at the meeting and later told the Chronicle the vote was the “most despicable travesty of democracy I have ever witnessed.”

The controversy surrounding the Living Classroom is an ironic twist to the “not-in-my-backyard” fight environmental activist groups frequently instigate against others. This particular imbroglio pits environmentalists against environmentalists over whether a facility covering 1/15th of an acre should be built on a 318-acre site.

Activist Groups Versus Minority Children

That the supposed beneficiaries of the project would be minority children adds an interesting twist to the debate. Syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell contended in a September 24 column that such actions against minorities are a manifestation of environmental extremism, regardless of whether they are “a racial thing.” Sowell wrote, “The green zealots would stop anybody from doing anything they don’t approve of. They talk grandly about ‘protecting’ this, ‘preserving’ that, or ‘saving’ something else.

“From what?,” he asks. “From other people.

“They want bans on the building of housing under ‘open space’ laws,” Sowell explains. “They want ‘historical preservation’ laws to prevent tearing down old buildings–even an old racetrack–because that could be the prelude to building homes for other people.”

Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.