The San Francisco Board of Supervisors made it clear Tuesday that it no longer wants the plaza at the foot of Market Street to be named for Justin Herman, the city’s longtime redevelopment chief who is widely blamed for bulldozing the Western Addition.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin sponsored the resolution to rename Justin Herman Plaza, which sits on the Embarcadero across from the Ferry Building. Although the board has no legal authority to change the name, every supervisor co-signed the resolution, which passed unanimously.
It’s now up to the city’s Recreation and Park Commission to decide if it wants to strip Herman’s name from the public space. Peskin suggested that it be known simply as Embarcadero Plaza for the time being.
Herman, who died in 1971, served as executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency under three mayors — George Christopher, John Shelley and Joseph Alioto. He was the architect of an urban renewal program that displaced thousands of mostly African American and Japanese American residents from the Western Addition and destroyed blocks of Victorians and other buildings. In retrospect, it is seen as one of the most shameful periods in San Francisco history.
But the push to rename Justin Herman Plaza isn’t just about villainizing the man, Peskin said at Tuesday’s board meeting. He described Herman as a nuanced and complicated person whose policies reflected the political ethos of his time.
“It’s not just about Justin Herman. It was about a misguided policy known as urban renewal that decimated communities not just here in San Francisco, but throughout America,” Peskin said.
He also noted that Herman’s ideas didn’t always lead to mass displacement. When Herman was put in charge of developing Diamond Heights in the late 1950s, he insisted on a mix of housing types, including homes for low-income tenants.
A lot has changed, locally and nationally, since Justin Herman Plaza opened in 1972. It has become a hangout for skateboarders and a starting point for protest marches, and it was a campground for the Occupy movement in 2011.
The Rec and Park Commission has never formally discussed the fraught symbolism of the name, but its members will debate the matter next month.
“I’m anxious to hear from people who have a horse in this race — what their motives are and why they want to do it,” commission President Mark Buell said.
Notably, Buell has a personal history with Herman, having worked in his office in the late 1960s and in 1970. With the disclaimer that it was difficult for him to look back at Herman’s place in San Francisco’s history “in an unbiased way,” Buell said he agrees with critics of Herman’s policies in the Western Addition.
“I’m very much sympathetic to those who argue that this was the wrong approach. I myself think it was. It uprooted the community,” he said.
Yet Herman had many positive attributes that shouldn’t be overlooked, said Buell, who characterized the former redevelopment czar as “an immensely decent human being.”
“I wouldn’t want him demonized for being a very good bureaucrat,” Buell said.
It’s unclear whether San Francisco residents feel as strongly as the supervisors about the name Justin Herman. Only a handful of people showed up to speak when the issue went before the board’s Land Use and Transportation Committee earlier this month, and they had varying opinions on whether renaming the plaza was a good idea.
Mayor Ed Lee has not spoken publicly about the plaza’s name, but he supports “a community process to rename Justin Herman Plaza,” said his spokeswoman Ellen Canale.
Late Tuesday afternoon Peskin said he received an unsolicited text from developer Boston Properties, offering to pay the estimated $5,400 cost of a new plaque in the plaza, bearing a new name.
The supervisors also voted 6-2 to approve an ordinance allowing telecom companies to pay a fee instead of sprucing up their big sidewalk utility boxes with trees and artwork. The fee would be either $2,000 or $48 multiplied by the square footage in the box’s surface area, whichever is greater.