Tensions Roiling over Milpas Plan

Cops Called During Protest Against Business Improvement District

<b>GROUND ZERO:</b> Santos Guzman’s El Bajio restaurant has emerged as a fl ash point in the festering debate on whether Milpas Street needs a business improvement district.
Paul Wellman

About the only safe, simple, and irrefutable fact about the Eastside Business Improvement District (EBID) proposed for Milpas Street is the complete and total communication failure that’s surrounded its inception. In the past week, that failure went from bad to much worse.

A public venting by supporters and detractors of the proposed district drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Neighborhood Advisory Council meeting last Wednesday at the Franklin Community Center. Coursing through the debate was an unmistakable undercurrent of ethnic tension. Sunday afternoon, things got tenser still when a group of 15 activists associated with PODER, a Latino rights organization, picketed the El Bajio taqueria on Milpas Street because the owner, Santos Guzman, is a strong supporter of the EBID. Police were called twice. No arrests took place. But bad blood ensued.

Afterward, Guzman called the protestors “bullies.” He claimed they chanted he was “a sellout and a bastard” and that they told his customers they’d get sick if they ate there. One customer claims he was told there was “spit” in the burritos. Gaby Hernandez of PODER denied the allegations, insisting that she and two other PODER representatives met with Guzman and characterized their conversations about the business district ​— ​which they contend will accelerate the process of gentrification taking place on Milpas Street ​— ​as “quiet and polite.”

Hernandez countered that one EBID supporter showed up during the picket, sat outside staring at the protestors, and threatened to assault them if they didn’t leave in 40 minutes. Hernandez said she told a police officer about the threat but has not filed a complaint. Tuesday night, EBID supporters responded by rallying and eating at Guzman’s restaurant, vowing not to be shouted down by the other side.

Milpas Street has been abuzz about the proposed EBID since it was unveiled before the City Council in November. As proposed, the district would encompass 601 businesses, which would be assessed $250 a year on average to generate an annual budget of $165,000 for cleanup efforts and special events. Currently, the Milpas Community Association (MCA) does much of this work but has had to rely on a relatively small number of donor businesses to get the job done.

Aside from concerns about gentrification, the most glaring problem articulated at last Wednesday’s meeting was lack of prior outreach. By the time most businesses ever heard about the proposed EBID, Sharon Byrne and the MCA had already hired a private consultant and had written up the draft plan. That lack of before-the-fact engagement has put many business owners’ noses out of joint. That many of these businesses happen to be small, Latino-owned establishments with long histories on Milpas Street has heightened the sense of distrust.

Byrne explained she wanted to do outreach first but said she’d been given specific instructions by City Hall to wait until a finalized plan was in place before reaching out. At City Hall, the recollection is different. Nina Johnson, assistant city administrator, said City Hall insisted that a business plan be in place before Byrne and the MCA began circulating petitions among the 600 affected businesses to secure their needed approval. “There’s a difference between circulating petitions and doing outreach,” Johnson said. “Outreach you can do at any time.”

Maybe. But maybe not anymore. EBID supporters ​— ​even those who are Spanish-speaking Latinos ​— ​claimed they’ve been accused of “harassing” and “intimidating” business owners when they thought they’d been having cordial conversations on the merits of the plan. Conversely, some business owners opposed to the EBID claim one MCA boardmember ripped anti-EBID flyers off their walls. Others expressed concern about economic retaliation.

Members of the Neighborhood Advisory Council want to know how Byrne and the MCA planned to restore a sense of trust for those who felt excluded. One councilmember asked whether Byrne had a “restorative strategy” or if she were going to “bull-in-a-china-shop it” instead. Most agreed outreach had been a serious problem even if the ultimate goals ​— ​a clean, safe, and healthy neighborhood ​— ​were commonly shared. Byrne took exception. “I wouldn’t say it qualifies as a disaster,” she said. “There are a lot of businesses who are not here tonight,” adding that 80 percent of the businesses approached support the plan.


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