Community Discusses Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse As Future Arts Center

Photograph courtesy of District 11 Supervisor John Avalos

Ideas for how the community should use the historic Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse once it has been renovated was the center of a well-attended meeting in December.

District 11 Supervisor John Avalos’ office hosted approximately 50 neighbors, nonprofit employees and city officials with help from the Recreation and Parks Department and the Friends of the Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse at the Muslim Community Center in the Excelsior on Dec. 12.

The informative meeting was designed to broaden community support and develop principles and values for guiding the planning process for the project.

The joined buildings have sat derelict at the corner of Geneva and San Jose avenues since the 1989 earthquake damaged them to the point they could no longer serve as the headquarters for Muni’s historic streetcar operations. The first phase of the renovation project is slated to break ground in 2017.

Community activists have worked to refurbish the complex, which sits across from one of the Bay Area’s busiest transit hubs—the Balboa Park BART station—and nearby City College of San Francisco’s flagship campus. Their goal since 2002 is to turn the abandoned buildings into a neighborhood arts center with a concentration on serving youth programming.

“This neighborhood has the highest concentration of youth and lowest percentage of youth services,” said Nicole Avril, who manages the project for RPD.

The attendees formed groups to discuss their ideas for the space and re-convened to identify key needs. They focused on accessibility, services for seniors, ESL classes, affordable programming for local children and streetscape improvements.

There seemed to be a unanimous desire for a multicultural, multigenerational space with a multilingual staff that would truly serve the area’s diverse population.

“This is one of the last real neighborhoods in San Francisco,” said Aaron Yen, who works at the OMI/Excelsior Beacon Center. “The true elements of the city are here.”

Friends of the Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse founder and president Dan Weaver gave a brief history of the building. The grand brick office building and its accompanying cement powerhouse building opened in 1901 and 1904 respectively for the San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway Company. In 1944, it was taken over by Muni. Residents who remember buying Muni passes there affectionately call it the “Carbarn”.

It was set to be demolished in 1999. Concerned residents organized to stop it. In 2004, the building was transferred to RPD and, in 2007, then-Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval funded staff and programming for youth.

Through grants, city funds, the efforts of FGOB and Supervisor Avalos, most of the $6.8 million needed for renovating the powerhouse, the first phase of the project, have been secured and construction is set to begin in the summer of 2017. The office building will cost an estimated $22 million to renovate.

Avril’s presentation detailed the improvements for the powerhouse. It requires a new roof, seismic stabilization, floors with radiant heating, windows repairs to suit the building’s historic status and disposal of hazardous materials in the basement.

“We’ve had a lot of support from a lot of different places,” said Avril. She introduced Joaquin Torres and “project brainchild” Amy Cohen, both with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, who helped galvanize and secure funding to advance the project.

There are many issues to be addressed, particularly management of the facility. For instance, RPD could run it or work with one or more nonprofit tenants or partners could.

“So many communities have buildings like this that have great potential,” Torres said.

Lily Wong of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, Tiffany Ng of the Chinese Progressive Association and Charlie Sciammas of People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights facilitated the meeting with Avalos’ aide Beth Rubenstein.

Funding Request

Supervisor Avalos has put in a supplementary budget request of $5 million to support the Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse development and the Alemany Hospital buildings.

“These publicly owned buildings are key neighborhood assets and have languished too long: the Onondaga buildings have been vacant for five years and the Geneva Carbarn and Powerhouse has been vacant since 1989 (over 25 years!),” Avalos wrote in the request. “Sadly, both sites have been blights on our neighborhood, despite community support for their renovation. We believe it is time for the City to invest in these buildings and ensure their rehabilitation and future community use.”

Avalos’ proposal will go before the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee on Feb. 24. If they do not agree to supply the funds, he said, he will ask the projects to be included in the mayor’s budget.

This article appeared in the February 2016 edition. It has been updated.

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