There's a persistent buzz about what is happening with the old hothouses hidden in the middle of our neighborhood, San Francisco's Portola district. We’ve had many conversations with our friends and neighbors, and sought council from advisors close and far, and have tried to summarize these exchanges as best we can. If the following Q&A still leaves you wanting to learn more, or if you’re interested in getting more involved, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
770 Woolsey Street was purchased?
Yes. In mid July 2017, real estate developer Group I, which later renamed itself L37 Partners, acquired the University Mound Nursery at 770 Woolsey Street. Previous to this purchase, the site was owned continuously by the same family that grew roses in its 18 hothouses since 1922. L37 Partners acquired the parcel with the intention of clearing the entire site and building housing. The developer’s Preliminary Project Application (PPA) proposal to the SF Planning Department showed a dense four-story complex with 86 individual homes and a tiny percentage of public green space in the center of the block. After receiving significant neighborhood pushback, the real estate developers came back to the neighborhood with a revised proposal of 64 condos (most Portola blocks contain approximately 32 single family homes) and an extremely narrow strip of land along Woolsey Street they designated a “farm.”
What about the Portola community’s efforts to revitalize the site as a hub for urban agriculture?
The Portola community has been working for years to make our neighborhood greener and more inviting, as outlined in the city-funded Portola Green Plan. L37 Partners’ plans stand in sharp contrast with nearly a decade of community-supported and city-funded efforts to revitalize the Portola’s Garden District identity. Notably, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen played an instrumental role in funding a feasibility study investigating the development of a farm at 770 Woolsey, as well as shepherding legislation that officially recognizes the Portola as SF’s Garden District, and a resolution that urges for the creation of urban farms on the few remaining farmable parcels in our city. The vision of an active farm at 770 Woolsey Street isn't just a dream: it's a plan with a real chance of happening.
Now that a developer owns the land, is it still possible to renew University Mound Nursery's agricultural use?
Yes! In San Francisco, owning property does not entitle development and there is a well-established public process for community input about how land is used and built upon. For L37 Partners to advance their plans to build a dense housing project they need a conditional use permit (among other approvals), which will require community input and political support. We couldn't do much before the official planning process started, but now, we have a chance to raise our voices. The future of this block will be shaped by our ability to elevate the site's farming history, our community's vision for urban agriculture, concerns about parking and overcrowding, and other issues.
Is the site historically significant?
Yes, this property definitely has significant cultural and historic significance. As the last of what used to be 21 such family-run nursuries that characterized the Portola and Silver Terrace neighborhoods, this site stands as a tangible reminder of San Francisco’s agricultural heritage. It is also culturally important to the history of Italian immigrants in San Francisco. In February 2019, we submitted a petition to the SF Planning Department to officially designate 770 Woolsey a San Francisco Historic Landmark, which could help ensure 770 Woolsey's agricultural heritage isn't erased. There will be a hearing on this petition on July 17 at City Hall, Room 400, at 12:30pm. We need San Franciscans to come and voice your support for the historic designation of 770 Woolsey!
Is there anything I can do to support the agricultural vision for 770 Woolsey?
Yes. We, a group of Portola residents, asked ourselves the same question and formed a group called Friends of 770 Woolsey. After a lot of research, good advice, and late-night meetings we’ve organized a petition (please sign it!), are collecting personal letters to deliver to key city officials, and are going block-to-block speaking with our neighbors to spread the word about this critical moment for the Portola, and the urban agriculture movement in SF. We strongly encourage supporters to join our e-newsletter list for more public opportunities such as city-hall hearings and community meetings. Visit our Get Involved page to learn more.
What’s the plan for development of a community asset at the site?
The basis of our urban farm vision comes from The Greenhouse Project (TGP), a local Portola nonprofit, has been working with community members for a decade to revitalize the neighborhood's Garden District identity. As part of their work, they conducted a feasibility study including a range of design scenarios for an environmentally and financially sustainable urban farm, including community spaces, open fields for farming, as well as a number of renewed greenhouses. That study concluded that each of the proposed versions fo a working farm at 770 Woolsey would be financially self-sustaining.
Besides the existence of a public process, what reasons are there to believe that development of a community asset at 770 Woolsey is possible?
Strong Community Advocacy: The community’s interest in developing a community asset at the site is long-standing and well documented. Neighborhood residents and leaders have been consistently outspoken and proactive about their interest in developing a community asset at the site since at least 2013, as seen in press from local print and radio news sources, as well as the Portola neighborhood’s Green Plan. The developer had ample notice and opportunity to understand this context.
Feasibility Study for Farm at 770 Woolsey: A well-researched feasibility study confirms the viability of a community-based farm at the site. The study investigates site conditions, explores several different agricultural development scenarios, and establishes proof-of-concept for a renewed urban farm at the site.
Official City Support: The Portola’s elected representatives on the City’s Board of Supervisors have long supported community efforts tied to revitalizing the neighborhood’s Garden District identity – they unanimously voted in approval of a resolution officially recognizing Portola’s agricultural heritage! (see legislation)
City Policy Interest in Urban Ag: In April 2017, the City reaffirmed its longstanding commitment to urban agriculture through legislation recognizing the critical importance of land acquisition for this use and establishing criteria for identifying potential sites for acquisition. 770 Woolsey meets many or all of the criteria. (see resolution)
Partnership with San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department (RPD): RPD has expressed interest in partnering with the Portola to investigate acquisition and development of 770 Woolsey as a new community and urban agriculture asset. RPD is a natural partner given its role as the City’s lead agency for urban agriculture, its experience managing recreational spaces and community gardens, and its practice of acquiring new parcels through their open space fund. RPD has added 59 new park facilities since 1967, most recently a $4.2M acquisition for the Noe Valley Town Square and $9M for the Francisco Reservoir.
Historical Significance: 770 Woolsey is the last site representative of the important and once flourishing family-owned floriculture industry in San Francisco. This history is worthy of preserving, especially given the city’s and the neighborhood’s strong ongoing interest in the Portola’s historic identity as the Garden District. There are successful examples of preserving historic agricultural sites to draw from – including the Sakai, Oishi, and Maida nurseries in Richmond, CA and at Fremont’s historic California Nursery Company.
SF Precedents: Organized SF neighborhoods have a long track record of preserving their cherished cultural and historic spaces, even when faced with development pressure.
Noe Valley Town Square was slated for development when community leaders helped organize a purchase of the site with the city, funding from the Recreation and Parks Department’s acquisition fund, and a state urban greening grant. (SFGate article / Local Blog article)
Shriners Hospital was on the brink of development when the SF Board of Supervisors granted the site landmark status, preserving the culturally significant hospital complex. (SFGate article)
St. Brigid Church earned landmark status after years of community organizing, which ensured that its new property owner would preserve the historically relevant façade intact regardless of the building’s use. (SFGate article)