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Emily Garvie of Performing Arts Workshop and Nicole Avril of SF Recreation & Parks discuss renovation of the Geneva Car Barn.

Of all of the Supervisorial districts in San Francisco, District 11 has the most children under the age of 18. At the same time, it's one of the most underserved areas of town, particularly with regards to children and youth services.

The corner of Geneva and San Jose Avenues, next to the Balboa Park BART station, is a hub for the district and one of the busiest intersections in the City. It's also the site of the historic Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, now the focus of a project that will not only bring a historic site back to life, but also become the seat for an ambitious initiative to bring children and art services back to the district. The project has been a long time coming, and bringing it to reality required not only almost 2 decades of diligent community activism, but also the willingness to seek out new solutions in policy and finance.

The project has the potential to jumpstart the revitalization of the whole Balboa Station transit hub area, providing important amenities to the over 2000 students attending school within four blocks of the site, greatly increasing access to preschool and other early childhood services, and a source of support for working artists in the district. It also comes at a time when the area will see an increase in housing, being close to the site of the upcoming Balboa Reservoir project.

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Artist's rendering of renovation of the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse.

Built between 1901 and 1903, the building was originally the headquarters of the privately owned San Francisco Electric Railway, until it was turned over to Muni during World War II. Muni operated the site up until the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, when it suffered severe damage. For the next decade, the building was derelict, until Muni slated it for demolition and conversion to a parking lot.

But many District 11 residents have a real connection to this building. Their family members worked for the Railway on or near the site, and it was one of the early magnets for homes being built in the area. It's also one of the few buildings remaining that have historical significance in the district. And so neighborhood activists, led by resident Daniel Weaver, lobbied then Mayor Willie Brown for its preservation and set up a nonprofit, Friends of the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, to help preserve and revitalize the space. They saved the building, but now a new struggle began – to develop the right kind of project that could be housed there, and how to pay for it.

From the beginning, the District 11 community made it clear to the City that they wanted to see the site used for supporting the neighborhood’s schools and children. Elizabeth Goldstein, then Executive Director of San Francisco Recreation and Parks, saw the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts in Chicago as a model for the project.

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Artist's rendering of classroom space

Eventually, pilot programs working with nonprofit partners were launched out of different sites to measure demand and results. Meanwhile, the search for funding faced a number of obstacles. Because the building was on government property, the project was initially barred from some sources of tax credit financing. The building’s status as both a national and local landmark, while ensuring that any restoration work would be done to a high standard, also made it more expensive. 

The 2008 recession also jeopardized funding. District 11's three elected supervisors, Gerardo Sandoval, John Avalos, and Ahsha Safai, all worked overtime to secure funding for the project, from the general fund, and from the Recreation and Parks budget - specific general obligation bond funds, as well as tax credit funds. State Assemblymember Phil Ting secured further funds for the project as part of a State funding package for San Francisco parks.

Much of the work securing funding was also done behind the scenes at the Recreation and Park Department. Nicole Avril, who came to work for the department in 2009 as Executive Director of the Geneva Car Barn Project and is now Project Director for the Geneva Car Barn project and Indian Basin Park project, worked to find ways around a number of funding barriers.

One result is a public-private partnership with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, a nonprofit which partners with the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, along with the Northern California Community Loan Fund and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation to acquire sites for the express purpose of sustaining arts in San Francisco neighborhoods. In addition to contributing $1 million, they became the partner that enabled the project to qualify for tax credit funds.

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While tax credits had been used in the past on projects which are now City-owned, like the Ferry Building, those projects had to be developed by private or nonprofit entities to qualify. The Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, on the other hand, will be the first where the development and construction is overseen by the City and County of San Francisco.

"This is a really exciting opportunity, because it's the first time not only for the car barn, but for other historic buildings, and what it took was this innovative partnership with CAST, which is also contributing money to the project. They're creating the entity that will receive the tax credits on the city's behalf and then providing the funds through that entity," says Avril. It's her hope that this funding model can provide a blueprint for similar projects in the future.

Finally, a partner had to be found to actually implement the programs inside the project. Earlier this month, the Performing Arts Workshop was selected to be the occupant and primary program provider. The nonprofit has been working in and around District 11 for 40 years providing arts education to youth at 70 different sites across the city. Founded by dancer and labor activist Gloria Unti, the workshop and the Car Barn have a shared Labor heritage.

"We not only serve kids in D11 and have a history and D11, we also have artists that live in D11, so we're excited about the ability to support working artists in the district as well as the youth who live here," says Performing Arts Workshop Executive Director Emily Garvie. "There have been so many people wishing for this for so long, that you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief that this is finally happening -  that people have been holding their breath on this for a long time." 

 

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