Sunday, July 03, 2005

District 5 Diary Interview: Eliza Hemenway

Eliza Hemenway worked at the UC Extension on Laguna St. for six years. She is making a documentary on the events leading up to UC’s decision to abandon the site to turn it into a for-profit housing development. Her website address:

Question: It would be useful for me to see your footage.
Hemenway: I have almost 100 hours of it!

Question: I don’t want to see 100 hours of footage, frankly [laughter].

Hemenway: [laughter] That’s what I’ve been working on, going through it all.

Question: But the most pertinent parts, the closing process and UC’s motives for doing it…

Hemenway: Where I’m coming from is the film hasn’t gone out yet, so I want this interview to be something that serves to raise people’s interest in the subject.

Question: And serve a positive political purpose

Hemenway: Yes. I’ve invested a lot in this film. If the interview could be used to help generate interest, it could have that dual purpose.

Question: Last night [June 20 Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association meeting on UC proposal] was kind of annoying, because it was over-“facilitated,” I think, and it’s kind of irrelevant to put a whole bunch of stuff up on the board---what kind of housing, what kind of retail, etc.---when there’s already a proposal on the table. What we need to do first is defeat the UC proposal.

Hemenway: Well, first of all it felt like a waste of time. Second, why is one neighborhood association deciding what’s going to happen to almost six acres of land that belongs to the whole city? There’s the whole rest of the city that might want to have a say in this and aren’t being brought into it. The other thing was that, in my group[at the meeting], there were some really fantastic ideas, but a lot of people said, “Keep the public zoning and keep it as is.” But when the facilitator went around and said his spiel, he got so excited about the ideas that he neglected to say that many people had said, “Keep it as it is.”

Question: Last year there was an HVNA membership vote at a meeting, and the vote was 24-4 against the UC proposal.

Hemenway: The issue has been amazingly untouched by the media. Initially, one of my motivations for doing the documentary was that I was calling all the newspapers and media outlets, and nobody wanted to touch the story. They didn’t even return my phone calls. They just were completely uninterested. That was part of my motivation: “Wow, nobody’s covering this and it’s huge.” So I decided to cover it myself.

Question: The site straddles two Districts, Bevan Dufty’s District 7 and Ross Mirkarimi’s District 5. Mirkarimi was there last night.

Hemenway: I talked to him briefly. Is Dufty opposed or for the proposal?

Question: Dufty hasn’t said a damn thing about it. He’s been very unhelpful. Mirkarimi’s the one who has been out front in his opposition. Mirkarimi has said he’s not going to vote for the zoning change, which may mean that the UC proposal is dead. Usually the other supervisors defer to the supervisor in whose district a project is located. Dufty has been AWOL on the issue, which is really kind of baffling, because most of the parcel is in his district, and the project will heavily impact the Castro and that whole area.

Hemenway: Well, it is in the center of the city. And then there’s the whole educational issue, which is that it’s a community space.

Question: It’s zoned Public Use.

Hemenway: I worked for UC Extension at that site for over six years, and up to 15,000 students a year from the Bay Area used that space.

Question: Well, Public Use means it’s tax-free, too. UC has had the property tax-free since 1958, and now they want to cash in their chips, which I think is unconscionable.

Hemenway: I agree. That’s the thrust of the project I’ve been working on, which is to talk about community resources going into the private domain. I worked at the Extension in the film and photography program for over six years. Part of the job was to take classes, and I did take a lot of classes there. I also went to art school at Tufts University and to New College for graduate school. My background is in media and art and documentary film, but I have always been passionate about education.

Question: So you worked at the Extension for more than six years? Which years?

Hemenway: 1997 to the closing in 2003.

Question: What do you think your film footage shows?

Hemenway: My footage illustrates the process of the place closing down, the last three months that it was open as UC Berkeley Extension. It shows what’s being lost. It shows the vibrancy that was once there. And the suddenness, the secrecy, and the lack of communication internally that took place as it was shut down.

Question: You talk about maintenance issues?

Hemenway: Well, the film itself isn’t about maintenance issues, but I have footage about maintenance issues. Where that will fit into the film, I’m not sure. But there is a red flag around the way the buildings have not been maintained for the past 50 years. I have footage of one of the supervisors---who supervised 13 people in the facility operations---and he says he repeatedly over the years brought it to the attention of UC’s management that the place was not being maintained. But the only result was that the person who was in charge of maintaining the buildings was repeatedly promoted. He was promoted to Senior Superintendent. It was his job to maintain the buildings. This is reiterated by other people who worked in operations and maintenance. Another maintenance issue is that the dean is saying that the reasons we are shutting it down are ADA requirements, the boiler, etc. I have footage of a man who has worked there for 10 years saying, “I run this boiler, I work with this boiler, I came here 10 years ago, and I thought it was on its way out then, but it’s been running great for 50 years.” So there’s a real contradiction. Again, I don’t know whether this footage will ultimately be in the final film, but this footage exists of those people talking about these issues.

Question: At the first HVNA meeting on the UC issue, Jeff Bond, a planner with UC---their point man on this issue---said, “Well, you know, we have to do this housing thing because we can’t afford to bring it up to code---there are seismic issues, asbestos issues, the ADA, the computer system needs modernization, the roofs are leaking, the retaining wall is falling apart, the landscaping is going to seed.” He said it would cost $3-4 million just to bring it up to code. In retrospect, it looks like they did that deliberately.

Hemenway: There’s another side to that---and I have footage of this, though how it fits into the overall structure of my film, I don’t know---and I know first-hand from working there that enormous amounts of money were put into cosmetic renovations.

Question: Like what?

Hemenway: Like new carpeting. They renovated the interior of Woods Hall, which has affected its historic status. They lowered all the ceilings, they painted everything, changed the lighting. They renovated cosmetically. I have this great quote from an employee, saying that it’s like having a car and putting fuzzy dice inside and painting it and having this old engine. I don’t know the exact amount of money---but it was a huge amount---into the cosmetics of this building, while they completely neglected the infrastructure. Again, it was brought to the attention of the person who was responsible for that by employees, who were saying, “Wow, what’s going on here? This is really a problem. This is being mismanaged, this isn’t being properly maintained, the resources aren’t going in the right place.”

Question: One of the HVNA meetings on the UC issue was about the buildings and the trees and stuff on the site. There was a presentation by experts who said that the more you alter a building, cosmetically or structurally, it degrades its eligibility to be registered as a historic building. They said that Woods Hall now has “moderate” integrity because of the changes that have been made.

Hemenway: Again, that was an internal decision to not put the resources into the structure of the building but into cosmetic things. The French-American School used that building for years. It was a perfectly adequate facility for an expensive private school for children. Parents who are paying a lot of money for a private school are going to want a nice facility. As soon as UC took it back, they tore it apart. And Richardson Hall---I don’t know if they altered its historic significance---but they did put a lot of cosmetic work into it as well.

Question: The experts say that Richardson Hall now has “moderate to low” integrity.

Hemenway: I just can’t believe that the people who run UC Berkeley don’t have experts---I mean, they have a whole architectural design department, there’s a certificate program in that---who could have been consulted as to what would have decreased the historical value of the property.

Question: Experts on their own staff?

Hemenway: Yeah, within the Extension faculty, never mind UC Berkeley.

Question: According to the UC proposal, half of Richardson Hall is going to be demolished, and Middle Hall is going to be demolished entirely.

Hemenway: But there are historical murals in Richardson Hall.

Question: Middle Hall is mostly the gym?

Hemenway: Well, that’s another thing: They spent around $100,000 on the dance floor of that, they pulled out all this beautiful old wood and threw it in the garbage and completely replaced it. Then it turned out that they had done it wrong, so they had to go back and fix it. Everybody who worked there was like, “Oh, the $100,000 dance floor!” That’s’ just one example of how the property was handled. I mean, $100,000 for a dance floor when there’s a beautiful old gymnasium. What could have been done structurally for $100,000? Surely that could have gone into fixing roofs.

Question: Well, there are also the ADA and the asbestos issues.

Hemenway: Yeah, instead they put it into the dance floor. And they didn’t even do it properly, after all that money was spent. There’s a woman, a photographer who used to work there, who documented the whole thing on a photographic project, and she talks about what a tragedy it was as she looked at all these beautiful old pieces of wood thrown in the garbage. I mean, a dance floor is a wonderful idea, but if your roof is leaking…

Question: So this kind of thing was going on as long as you were working there?

Hemenway: There were huge mismanagement issues going on while I was working there on all levels, not just on structural levels, but on programming levels as well. It was just a joke about the “welfare checks,” that people in charge of big programs would just not show up for their jobs and get paid big salaries. And people were whistle-blowing. It was such an extreme situation that people were going to department chairs and saying, “There are big problems here.” These were the people responsible for programming. So when they talk about reduced enrollment, there was also this big internal management problem. This wasn’t uncommon; this was the way it was operated. People were going over their boss’s heads saying, “There is mismanagement, and it’s really affecting the stability of this organization.” When someone isn’t doing their job, it affects thousands of dollars in revenue. I have almost a hundred hours of footage, so I don’t know which quotes are going to make it into the film, but I have several people saying that it was heading toward disaster just by the way it was being run.

Question: But were they still making money? The property was tax-free, that’s one of the things that Public Use means.

Hemenway: They were making a lot of money, but the organization was just terrible. And during the big boom, they really over-expanded, and they were paying huge amounts of rent on all these other facilities, instead of putting the money back into this facility that they had as a tax gift.

Question: Yeah, I think I’m the only one who has pointed out that they are paying $1.26 million a year to lease two floors at 425 Market St. and another $846,000 a year to lease two more floors at 95 Third St. to house the Extension program right now.

Hemenway: And that doesn’t include all the other centers that they are paying rent on, the Redwood City center, the Menlo Park center...

Question: Those are UC extension centers?

Hemenway: Yes. But there’s a really key issue here, which is beyond the actual physical structures, and that is the mission of UC Berkeley and UC Berkeley Extension. It’s not just the last 50 years of not paying taxes on that site, but its last 200 years of the entire state’s tax dollars going into UC Berkeley and the very real requirement that was set up over 200 years ago---this was called the land grant---where UC Berkeley is required to extend its programs into the community. It’s really supposed to be for the community, not a bunch of classes that make a lot of money geared toward business people. It’s supposed to be community education, and San Francisco is part of their service area. They owe the City of San Francisco because of what they’ve received over the past 200 years. They owe the Bay Area community public education at affordable prices. I see that as incredibly important, because taking the space that was dedicated to that and privatizing it is really opposed to that mission that we as California citizens have put 200 years of investment into.

Question: I suggested to Supervisor Mirkarimi that he talk to the City Attorney and ask him to research a legal strategy to take that property away from UC, since they allowed it to fall into disrepair---deliberately, possibly---for the city, since the city has given them tax-free use of the property since 1958.

Hemenway: And there are other issues, too, in terms of funds. They had three brand new computer labs---state-of-the-art computer labs---in those buildings. They had an entire darkroom with 24 brand new enlargers. Who knows where all those enlargers went. It’s just empty space now.

Question: Is it? Have you been in there?

Hemenway: I was in there just after they closed down, but I haven’t been in there recently. I know that they cleared it out. I worked in the photo department, and they packed up all the enlargers and sent them off to storage. We bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of film and video equipment---gone. It went to storage. That’s a lot of resources available for public use, beyond just the buildings.

Question: There have been other problems with UC. You probably saw the stories in the paper about the City of Berkeley’s struggle with UC, where they sprung this huge expansion plan on Berkeley. And here in San Francisco several years ago they tried to basically buy up that whole neighborhood in the UC Medical Center area to expand. The city shot them down on that one. They’re just like another mega-institution, like the Pentagon or something, and their actual education mission seems secondary.

Hemenway: I think that that’s something that the community may want to home in on, because that’s a resource that belongs to us, and that’s a really valuable resource. The buildings are valuable, but also that mission is our legacy and a legacy for our children to have access to public education that’s not corporate education.

Question: What do you think of the New College proposal?

Hemenway: I think New College is a great school; I went to New College. But it’s a private institution, and the tuition is well over $10,000 a year. While it would be an education use, it’s not a public school, and it doesn’t benefit the public. It’s a private, expensive use. I think it’s a better use than the proposed housing development. I’d prefer that to the UC proposal, because it serves the community more than that. But we had an educational facility that served up to 15,000 Bay Area residents every year in education. And anyone who’s ever talked about education and democracy has put them hand-in-hand. It’s really an important thing for the community to have access to education. And New College is not public education, so the city would still be losing out on something that by right belongs to them, which is access to public education.

Question: UC is public education, but it’s not cheap.

Hemenway: No, it’s not cheap. But what was unique about the Extension was that they had continuing education classes. This is really key to the land grant and what they are required to do: They have to provide education to the community, and it’s supposed to be something anybody can access. So there’s a real difference between being able to take a class for $300 or $500, and being a full-time student and paying $6,000 a semester. So the whole idea is that anybody can come and take a class. If you’re a high school student, you can come and take a class. If you’re a PHD and you’re 75, you can come and take a class. That’s a really different idea than a private college. New College is obviously a better alternative, but again it’s the loss of that public educational space…

Question: It’s going to be hard to force UC to go back in there and bring it up to code and operate. That’s why I think it would be a good idea for the city to try to reclaim the parcel and maybe get SF State or somebody else in there. And New College would then be a plan of last resort to at least keep it community-oriented and as an educational use.

Hemenway: Nobody anywhere is going to look at the educational state of the city, the state, or the country and say that its resources are being---there’s clearly a huge lack of resources for education, and here was this tremendous resource for education. I can’t believe there isn’t an educational use for the site that would serve the public.

Question: The key issue here is, Did they deliberately allow the property to deteriorate? How much of that was deliberate and how much was just bad management and incompetence? Do you think they had a long-range plan to get out of the education business on that site and get into the housing business? Is there a smoking gun here?

Hemenway: Well, all I can say is what the steps were, and the steps seemed pretty questionable, of not maintaining the buildings. Everybody knows that you need to work on your engine before putting the fuzzy dice in your car. There were some red flags that the buildings weren’t maintained, that the people who were responsible for maintaining the buildings were promoted, even though it was being brought to their attention that there was improper maintenance. When you have a huge bureaucracy, there is a level of incompetence that happens. It was just curious that by degrees the place was emptied out. There was this thriving English language program---English as a second language---that filled the buildings up during the day. People came from all over the world and used that facility, and they just pulled that and moved it to Berkeley very suddenly. Six months later they hired this dean, and almost immediately he announced plans for the closure. I can’t say that this was a deliberate plan, but it all felt very underhanded. There was no communication with staff. There were people who worked there for 30 years in management and programming, and they weren’t consulted. There was a huge lack of consultation with the people who ran the place. It all came very suddenly, and there was very little resistance to this plan from the deans office. I’m in a position as a story-teller to say, “This is what it looks like; you’ve got to make up your own mind.”

Question: What do the representatives of UC have to say about all of this?

Hemenway: I have a lot of footage and interviews from inside Extension, from the Dean on down, but I would like to include the perspective of the main campus as well. I’ve been emailing the Chancellor’s office trying to set-up an interview. So far they have responded to my emails but have not yet agreed to an on-camera interview.

Question: How can people find out more about your film, and when will it be released?

Hemenway: I want to get it out there as soon as possible, as the film could have an impact on what happens with the site. I’m working on editing and, like all independent productions, fundraising. My hope is that it will be ready for release within the next six months, but there is still a lot of work to be done. My website address is, and if people are interested they can sign-up on my email list for updates and screening information.