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Fighting Neighborhood Displacement, One Sewer Plant at a Time

A San Francisco infrastructure project shows the potential for creating good jobs that can preserve and strengthen a marginalized community.

Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco
(Shutterstock)
Bayview-Hunters Point, a low-lying, four-square-mile pitch of southeast San Francisco, has seen its fair share of transition, and even drama. Occupied by the Ohlone people before the arrival of the Spanish, it once hosted slaughterhouses that fed the city's growing population. To support the wars of the 20th century, the Navy made dramatic investments in the shipbuilding industry there. And in 1982, long before Candlestick Park was turned into dust, Dwight Clark made a miraculous endzone catch to bring home a championship to a city that badly needed some good news.

During the Great Migration, blacks came to the region on the promise of good blue-collar jobs at the shipyards, and "the Bayview," as the community is known to locals, became a bastion of black home ownership. Even today, as the community continues to reckon with crime and poverty, the area's majority of black and Asian-American residents forge strong and diverse social networks bound by churches, neighborhood groups, youth organizations and community gardens.

Now the Bayview is undergoing yet another transition. Massive real estate projects on the sites of the decommissioned Navy shipyard and Candlestick Park are bringing thousands of new homes and associated commercial activity, signaled by the appearance of craft breweries, coffeehouses and rising real-estate prices that are displacing long-time residents. This is happening even as the realities of environmental injustice continue to burden the community. Only recently were its gas-fired power plants shut off, and questions around remediation of a former Navy radiation lab remind everyone of the public-health risks the community has long grappled with.

And yet there are things poised to happen in the Bayview that could provide an opportunity for San Francisco -- and for other cities whose own disadvantaged neighborhoods face similar issues -- to tackle the intertwined problems of racial and environmental injustice, residential displacement, and the need for the kinds of jobs that support strong communities.

The Bayview is not just vacant industrial lots and brownfields. It's also the location of San Francisco's Southeast Treatment Plant, which handles 80 percent of the city's sewage flows. The plant was built in the 1950s and, like many of the country's aging water facilities, is in desperate need of modernization. A $7 billion upgrade plan is on deck for the city's entire 100-year-old sewer system, including transforming the antiquated Southeast plant into a cutting-edge facility incorporating state-of-the art operational efficiencies, seismic retrofits and technologies to reduce odor and other environmental nuisances.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the agency that owns and operates the plant, is taking a deliberate approach to ensure that those upgrade dollars are maximized for community benefit. Practices like project labor agreements and local contract-assistance programs are complemented by a robust suite of apprenticeships and internships coordinated with the school district and community-based organizations.

The SFPUC's focus is not simply about being a good neighbor. It is essential that it compliment shorter-term construction and contractor jobs with permanent, long-term careers. This is in due in part to the fact that the agency is staring at 50 percent retirement eligibility for it's nearly 3,000-person workforce over the next decade. It's a challenge faced by other large infrastructure and utility entities across the country: It's estimated that one in three water-utility workers will retire in the next 10 years. These well-paying jobs -- including mechanics, machinists, electricians and facility operators -- cover all aspects of the work and provide a path toward management and executive opportunities.

The SFPUC is partnering with other regional water agencies in a consortium called Baywork to identify and develop career pipeline programs for these positions. This type of assessment is a necessary step to ensure that the agencies are planning strategically and bringing in the relevant educational and training partners -- be they high schools, community colleges or for-profit entities -- as they identify a new generation of "green collar" jobs that can offer at-risk youth and other residents career professions in the neighborhoods where they grew up.

Much of the opportunity that water infrastructure presents for stemming residential displacement and supporting surrounding communities results from the simple reality that it cannot move. Water infrastructure is anchored firmly, typically in places that are racially diverse, historically marginalized, burdened with environmental harm and hit by loss of industry, but now also on the precipice of gentrification. Yet they are neighborhoods where minority home ownership and social networks hold on in the face of speculative development agendas. With a growing interest in anti-displacement policy, focused on housing preservation via land trusts, inclusionary zoning and other means, it's also essential to elevate the place-based job creation ladders and retention strategies that can ensure that these communities will be able to leverage the economic opportunities before them.

An independent consultant and writer on environmental policy, social justice and urban sustainability
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