After almost 30 years of community advocacy to renovate and repurpose the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, neighborhood activist Dan Weaver once again saw movement in the hub that once powered San Francisco’s streetcars.
On March 19, Weaver and nearly 90 residents and city officials flooded the powerhouse to celebrate the groundbreaking ceremony of its restoration in the first part of a two-phase project. Across the street from the Balboa Park BART Station, the 1901-built structure is set to become District 11’s premiere recreational center by early 2019.
“When this project is completed, it will be the centerpiece of the community, offering a place where our youth and families can congregate in a healthy, productive and positive way,” Mayor Mark Farrell stated in a press release.
The powerhouse will provide arts classes to 2,400 community members and youth every year, Performing Arts Workshop Executive Director Emily Garvie said. “The light and power that is generated by our youth engaged in the arts is going to radiate past these gorgeously renovated walls out into the community.”
The non-profit PAW, which will be in charge of the powerhouse’s programming, will offer the community youth classes in dance, theater, music, spoken word and more. It will also rent out the facility to the community for performances, exhibitions, events, meetings, rehearsals and arts classes for adults.
Led by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, city officials at all levels collaborated to fund the $14 million project. Former District 11 Supervisor John Avalos and sitting District 11 supervisor Ahsha Safai secured funds; Assemblyman Phil Ting allocated $3.5 million in state funding; and the 2012 Parks Bond provided $3 million.
However, renovating the powerhouse is only the first part of the two-phase project; the much larger car barn is yet to be funded.
“The message of this message is phase one — great as it is — provides only 3,000 square feet in one room,” Weaver said. “We also need phase two, which is that side over there, which has [13,000] square feet — many rooms and spaces with different sizes to multiply the number of events and activities we can have here at one time.”
When it opened, the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse served San Francisco’s first electric railway — the car barn was an office building, and the powerhouse powered the city’s first electric railway system.
Muni bought the complex in 1944 and made it the main hub for streetcar operations in San Francisco until the Loma Prieta earthquake put it out of commission in 1989.
A decade later, Muni moved to demolish the building when a report stated that falling bricks could injure passersby. But neighborhood advocates convinced Mayor Willie Brown to stop the building from being razed, saying that the bricks could be repaired.
“We had nothing out here to say, ‘What is historical about this neighborhood?’ And we wanted to hold onto its existence,” said Edna James, the president of the Ocean View-Merced Heights-Ingleside Community Action Organization.
Brown directed Muni to work with neighbors to convert the two-building complex into a community center. In 2002, the project’s advocates founded the Friends of the Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse nonprofit to restore the buildings for use as a youth center.
“This is a neighborhood of families and children — many of whom are immigrants, many of whom live in a home where their first language is not English,” Weaver said. “Those are the children and youth who would thrive with extra education — an after-school school program, summer program.”
Their first steps were to have Muni sell the buildings to RPD and then seismically stabilize the office building, which is known as the “Car Barn.” In 2004, Muni sold the buildings to the RPD for one dollar.
After that, things got difficult, Weaver said.
Although the Powerhouse’s restoration process is now underway, it took 19 years to begin phase one of the project since Brown first sent a letter to Muni directing the agency to work with neighbors and create a community center.
“There’s something missing in the city’s ability to do things, or the willingness to do this project,” Weaver said. “At the same time, I’ve got to give credit to the team that’s in place now. At some point, they joined in with other city agencies and decided they were going to make this work at least for phase one — and they made it work, and that is praiseworthy.”
For more information about the proejct, visit the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s website at www.sfrecpark.org. For more information about the Friends of the Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse, visit www.genevacarbarn.org.
This article first appeared in the Ingleside-Excelsior Light’s April print edition.