Interview

Chris Corgas: The Community Benefit District Whisperer

Chris Corgas manages all of the community benefit districts and business improvement districts in San Francisco.

In 2015, City Hall’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development hired Excelsior native Chris Corgas to work with the Invest In Neighborhood team overseeing the Community Benefit District program. Since then, he has ushered in many new CBDs, nonprofit organizations that do maintenance and improvement work on commercial corridors, and helped existing CBDs grow.

Question: What’s your background and what brought you to managing the special assessment districts?

Answer: I grew up in San Francisco and attended St. John’s for elementary school and Archbishop Riordan for high school. After high school I attended two years of community college earning an A.S. in the Administration of Justice and C.S. in Communication as well as completing all my general education requirements, I then transferred down to the University of California, San Diego. 

In 2016, I completed my M.P.A and was officially named as the program manager of the CBD program. I am truly blessed to work with such an amazing team and to have the opportunity to give back to my hometown.

Q. Why are CBDs important to City Hall and the neighborhoods they serve?

A. CBDs offer supplemental services that typically focus on cleaning, beautification, greening, safety improvements, and neighborhood marketing. The services help keep CBD areas clean for everyone and help maintain improvements after they are installed or implemented. Improving safety, for CBDs, can mean increased lighting, pedestrian safety, and a more holistic approach to safety. These services are important to policymakers because they have positive impacts on the day-to-day lives of San Francisco residents, visitors and merchants. 

Another reason CBDs are important to the City and the neighborhoods they serve is that they have been awarded numerous competitive grants to provide real tangible services to their communities. Additionally, these districts often have incredibly positive relationships with community stakeholders which helps facilitate the implementation of a wide variety of grant projects   

Q. What’s the range of impacts they can have? Please describe notable cases.

A. CBDs have a large impact across a variety of areas. Each year, per state law, they are required to go before the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee where the Office of Economic and Workforce Development reports on their financial metrics for the year and the respective CBD would report on their successes of the year. I am constantly impressed with how much of an impact each CBD has on their respective commercial corridor or mixed-use neighborhood. For example, program-wide, these were some of the accomplishments from FY 16-17: 1,919,885 pounds of trash and 12,768 hazardous needles removed from the public right of way; 21,899 instances of biohazard clean up, this includes feces; 48,787 instances of graffiti and illegal sticker removal; 92,511 pieces of information or directions given to visitors, merchants, and residents 

Additionally, CBDs are required to raise a certain portion of their budget from sources other than assessment dollars. This can be raised via competitive grants, donations, income earned, or other non-assessment related revenue (such as quantifiable in-kind donations). 

For instance, the Castro CBD implements the effective Castro Cares program aimed to assist the street population and also activates Jane Warner Plaza with through performances and public art. The Ocean Avenue CBD also does a good job of utilizing non-assessment dollars to enhance their service area. They were instrumental in ensuring the mural and greenspace at the intersection of Geneva-Ocean-Phelan were completed and activating the corridor and Unity Plaza through events like Second Sundays. 

Q. A few months ago, there was a controversy over a UC Berkeley study. Can you explain what happened?

A. The report paints an inaccurate picture of San Francisco’s CBD program as one that was created to exclude individuals living on the street from the public space. San Francisco’s 14 neighborhood-based districts are comprised of local residents and businesses that vote to self-assess themselves to fund services and programs in their neighborhoods. Through a grassroots approach, districts help keep their streets clean, connect homeless residents to social services, organize neighborhood events and foster a valuable sense of community.

Comprehensive outreach to all who live, work and do business, including unhoused residents, is critical to the mission and goals of the districts. For example, the Yerba Buena and Lower Polk districts employ individuals specifically tasked with aiding vulnerable populations, focusing on helping them utilize social assistance programs. Oftentimes, this means accompanying or providing transportation to an individual to a service appointment so they can receive the help they need. 

In addition to specialized outreach workers, most districts employ individuals known as Community Ambassadors. Community Ambassadors provide directions and recommendations for visitors, interact with local merchants, and engage the chronically homeless to provide basic toiletries and food and help them enroll in City-provided services. Building a trusting relationship with local homeless populations can be a lengthy and challenging process, sometimes requiring many interactions. Even so, these critical partnerships help de-escalate potential issues between the public, merchants, and the street population by working to build community.

In fact, this strategy has helped many individuals get off the streets and into a more stable environment.  San Francisco CBDs continue to work with anyone who wants to come to the table and focus on solutions-based approaches and services, as evidenced by their partnerships with organization like the Downtown Streets Team, Larkin Street Youth and Lava Mae.

Q. In Ingleside, there’s the Ocean Avenue Association and there have been attempts to launch a CBD in the Excelsior. What’s the vision for a CBD in the Excelsior now? Are outer neighborhood CBDs different in any respects?

A. In general, outer neighborhood CBDs do not differ from their sister CBDs in the City’s downtown core. The general services tend to be similar. The main difference may be the CBD’s operating budget. Assessments for each CBD is based on a formula which includes property characteristics (building square footage, linear frontage, use, parcel square footage, etc.); therefore, downtown districts tend to have a much larger operating budget than CBDs in the outer neighborhoods. 

CBDs are an exercise in democracy and often take on many of the values and characteristics of the neighborhoods that form them. The process remains the same regardless of neighborhood, but how each formation steering committee may approach it is different.

Currently, there is no active steering committee seeking to form a CBD in the Excelsior. As for a potential vision for one, that is up to the neighborhood to decide. Each CBD is the product of a robust stakeholder engagement process which may culminate in a CBD that is customized around the needs of a very specific commercial corridor or mixed-use neighborhood. 

Disclosure: Alexander Mullaney is chair of the Ocean Avenue Association.

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