Noe Valley Voice May 2008

Neighbors Celebrate Two Decades of Watching Out for Upper Noe

By Lorraine Sanders

What do squealing Muni trains, trees along Church Street, homeless gay teens, and the height limits on certain Noe Valley buildings have in common? In any other neighborhood, the answer would be: not much. But here, their common bond is the Upper Noe Neighbors.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the community advocacy group has long addressed quality-of-life issues raised by residents of Noe Valley and adjacent neighborhoods. From writing letters and making calls to city officials to speaking before the San Francisco Planning Commission, the group aims to give neighbors a cohesive voice.

"It doesn't always solve your problems, but it does get you heard," says Vicki Rosen, 60, who has served as the group's president since it began naming officers and charging dues ($20/year) in 2000.

In 1988, neighborhood residents Sue Bowie and Janice Gendreau founded the UNN at a time when many elderly residents were being replaced by young couples and families.

"When I moved here, it was called the Widows' Block," Rosen says of the stretch of Valley Street where she lives with her husband, Randy Zielinski, and cat, Elmo.

A neighborhood resident since 1972, Rosen became an active member in the group, eventually becoming the UNN's third co-chair. She remained group chair after Bowie and Gendreau retired between 1998 and 2000.

Heading the group has been a natural fit for Rosen, whose energetic nature and ability to interact with others has led her from rock 'n' roll-filled teenage years in St. Louis, Mo. (where she was lucky enough to meet the Beatles and the Rolling Stones) to a 17-year career as a journalist, and on to her current work with the Environmental Protection Agency, where she has spent the last 18 years as a community involvement coordinator.

Rosen defines "Upper Noe" as the area bounded by Cesar Chavez Street, 30th Street, Guerrero/San Jose Avenue, and Diamond Heights, but she is quick to point out that the group does not confine its interests to those borders.

Recently, for example, one of the UNN's chief issues has been St. Luke's Hospital and the California Pacific Medical Center's controversial proposal to close certain units of the facility, located at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Valencia streets.

"We want it to remain a full-service hospital and continue acute care," Rosen says, explaining the current UNN stance regarding St. Luke's. "You can't make people go across town and increase the demand on other hospitals that are not anywhere near here."

While the fate of St. Luke's is one of the newest issues to capture the UNN's attention, others--from crime to Muni timetables--have been hot-button topics among group members for over a decade. Another of those cornerstone issues is residential development.

"When buildings get too big, they diminish open space that's part of our back yards. [These buildings] take away greenery, and they diminish light and air that's part of a livable neighborhood," says Rosen.

Beginning in 2001, the UNN strongly opposed plans to replace a 1920s-era building housing Reilly Mortuary at the corner of 29th and Dolores streets with a new four-story development of townhouses and condominium units. Along with providing adequate off-street parking and below-market housing, the UNN pushed the developer to downsize the plans to three stories in order to remain consistent with the height of other nearby neighborhood buildings.

In the end, the UNN lost the lion's share of the battle. The developers did agree to include a below-market rate unit and additional parking spaces, but if you drive by the corner today, you will find a cluster of four-story buildings where the mortuary once stood. Still, UNN board member Marianne Hampton says the group is well aware of the notoriously slow march of progress.

"One thing I learned from Vicki is that these things take years, and you have to take little incremental successes where we can," says Hampton, who got involved with the UNN about nine years ago after becoming alarmed at rampant speeding and a number of accidents at the intersection of Dolores and 30th streets, near her home.

Thanks in part to UNN efforts, traffic-calming measures were eventually imposed at the intersection. More recently, the UNN has also worked with city agencies to quiet screeching sounds many neighbors reported hearing as the J-Church light-rail turned the corner at 30th and Church streets.

While proposals to calm traffic and curb noise are unlikely to spark residential outrage, other issues before the UNN have been much more controversial. In 1999, when the Golden Gate Metropolitan Community Church proposed opening a temporary shelter for gay, homeless youth at 27th and Church streets, the UNN carefully considered the plan and its potential impact on residents.

"After hearing both sides, we decided we should not oppose it. We thought it wouldn't have a negative impact on the neighborhood. People really came out of the woodwork on that one. They were really angry with us," Rosen recalls.

The proposal moved forward. Rosen says that during the six-months it operated, she didn't hear any negative comments about the "really low-key, very controlled" shelter.

"We were proud that we stood up for that in the face of a lot of neighborhood opposition," she says.

Today, top issues of concern to the UNN are the future of St. Luke's, addressing rising street crime in Noe Valley, and supporting other local groups, including the Friends of Noe Valley Recreation Center, Friends of Noe Valley, Friends of 30th Street, the San Jose/Guerrero group's Greening Guerrero project, the Noe Valley Merchants Association, Church Street Business, and neighborhood groups in Glen Park and Bernal Heights.

"[The UNN] brings people together, and we can talk about what's going on in the neighborhood and nearby, and people don't feel like they're operating in a vacuum," says UNN board member and Duncan Street resident Eileen Bermingham.

She concludes, "A lot of neighborhoods don't have that, and they definitely don't have 20 years of doing that."

The next meeting of the Upper Noe Neighbors will take place on May 29 at 7:30 p.m. at the 30th Street Senior Center, 225 30th Street.