Noe Valley Voice April 2012

Town Square Fans Searching for ‘Heroes’

Residents Step Up Fundraising After Developer Eyes Ministry Parking Lot

By Tim Innes

Plot Ripens. Preserving the Saturday Farmers Market, with its abundant fruits and vegetables, is at the heart of the Town Square campaign to join with the city in acquiring the Noe Valley Ministry lot on 24th Street.   Photo by Pamela Gerard

Proponents of a town square in the heart of Noe Valley are looking for financial angels to help them raise $3 million by fall to keep their dream alive.

That’s the challenge faced by Residents for Noe Valley Town Square, who, in a twist on the famed Joni Mitchell song, want to turn the parking lot on 24th Street between Sanchez and Vicksburg streets into a public park. The property, acquired by the Noe Valley Ministry in 2001, spent more than 60 years as a gas station.

“Whether or not this space will be saved depends on the creativity and generosity of the people who live here,” said Town Square spokesman Chris Keene. “We are looking for a hero, or heroes, who will step forward with the key funds needed to transform this land into a permanent and fully functioning town square. This would be a remarkable legacy and defining space for our neighborhood.”

The idea for a town square emerged two summers ago after the Ministry said it needed to sell the lot, currently valued at $3.6 million, to finance an extensive renovation of its aging building on Sanchez Street. The announcement raised concerns that the lot, which hosts the Noe Valley Farmers Market on Saturdays, might be lost to development.

So a group of local residents, led by activist Todd David, devised a plan: persuade the city to buy the lot with money from the Recreation and Park Department’s Open Space Fund. That way, the Ministry could begin its remodeling and the 9,350-square-foot lot would be preserved as open space.

A winning proposition for all, right? Yes, but even if the department were to approve a grant—and indications are that it would—the grant would cover only half of the cost of acquiring the property. The community would be responsible for raising the other half, plus the cost of developing and maintaining the park—an amount totaling $3 million, maybe more.

Condos in the Offing

The community effort moved along smoothly—meetings were held, proposals were drawn up, and then-Supervisor Bevan Dufty and successor Scott Wiener enthusiastically took up the cause—until mid-March, when the landscape suddenly shifted. That’s when Town Square advocates learned that a local developer was preparing to bid on the property, where he hoped to build condos and storefronts.

Fortunately for the Town Square group, the unnamed developer is willing to give them six months to raise the money needed to buy and preserve the site as open space before closing on the deal, Keene said. Still, as he puts it, “the timetable has suddenly sped up.”

Keene, who is also a member of the Ministry’s governing body, said that because the 123-year-old Presbyterian church building is in dire need of repairs, a timely sale is imperative. That said, the Ministry is willing to give the fundraising campaign time to succeed. “The church…would love to see the space left undeveloped and become part of the community’s property,” he said.

Donor to Get Naming Rights

With help from Leslie Crawford, co-founder of the Noe Valley Farmers Market, and Karren Shorofsky, a neighborhood resident with non-profit and fundraising experience, David and Keene are working on a fundraising strategy. David said he expects the campaign to begin “in a couple of months.” 

“We need lead donors to step forward immediately and commit a significant amount of funding as soon as possible,” said Keene. “Usually, capital campaigns don’t go public right away. Instead, it raises 60 to 70 percent of the targeted amount through privately contacted lead donors. But we don’t have the luxury of waiting.”

He said proponents decided not to wait to announce the fundraising campaign so as to reach “the widest possible audience to attract potential donors. We’re hoping that through this more public campaign, we can identify someone or a group of people who are philanthropically minded, who love the neighborhood, and who can donate generously. This would be an incredible gift to our community.”

Keene said such a donor might be “someone who has lived here most of their life and wants to do everything possible to make sure Noe Valley remains the community-focused neighborhood it is today,” or perhaps “a dot-com founder or employee who works elsewhere but cherishes their home in this wonderful neighborhood.”

A key donor—or group of donors—willing to pledge $2 million will have naming rights to the square, he added.

Market Central to Square

While the square’s design remains but a gleam in a landscape architect’s eye, Keene said it must be able to accommodate the eight-year-old Farmers Market, which attracts as many as 2,000 people each Saturday. Thus, “it will not be all grass, nor is there likely to be a playground or dog run, since those already exist in the neighborhood,” he said.

Four schematics, prepared for the group by Chris Guillard of CMG Landscape Architects, show a tree-lined square with a paved area for as many as 33 tents. Amenities would include restrooms, a podium for dances and concerts, seating, and possibly a fountain. The Mona Caron murals on the east and west sides of the lot would be preserved.

“The space has tremendous potential for connecting people of all ages,” said Keene, the father of 12- and 15-year-old boys. “Right now, teens really have nowhere to hang out in Noe Valley.” Town Square president David said the schematics, which can be viewed at, are meant only to spark discussion. The final design will reflect the community’s wants and needs, as determined at community meetings and other forums, he said.

Ministry’s Dream Changes

Meanwhile, the Ministry has lined up construction loans and obtained building permits from the city and hopes to start remodeling work by mid-year. The project, expected to cost between $4 million and $5 million, includes installing an elevator; bringing electrical, plumbing, and heating systems up to code; and improving acoustics and lighting in the sanctuary at 1021 Sanchez St.

The work can’t start soon enough for the Rev. Keenan Kelsey, the Ministry’s spiritual leader. The congregation, along with some two dozen tenants, moved out last March and has been worshipping in the chapel at St. Luke’s Hospital on Valencia Street.

“We moved out a year too soon,” said Kelsey, who had expected the project to start in mid-April or early May 2011. But snags in obtaining financing and permits put the work on hold. “The design needed tweaking,” she said. “We had to regroup.”

Kelsey said that for financial reasons, the dream of the Ministry becoming a house of worship for three faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is unlikely to come to fruition.

Revival of Music Venue

While worship will remain the Ministry’s focus, the remodel will now put more emphasis on the church’s role as a performance venue and a community center. For three decades, the church hosted the popular Noe Valley Music Series.

“We hope many of our former tenants, from the Music Series to AA groups, return when the work is finished,” said Keene. “We depend on rental income to help fund our mission.”

Because Kelsey, who will mark her 14th anniversary at the Ministry in November, plans to retire at the end of the year, a new pastor will be in the pulpit when the congregation returns in mid-2014. But she has no time for wistfulness: she’s too busy preparing for Palm Sunday and Easter, the most joyous days on the Christian calendar.

A developer is proposing to build condos and retail in the 9,350-square-foot lot occupied weekly by the Noe Valley Farmers Market since late 2003 (when this photo was taken). But the group Residents for Noe Valley Town Square has other plans for the space.   Photo by Pamela Gerard