Kofi Bonner Is Remaking San Francisco, but for Whom? - OZY | A Modern Media Company


As Americans move back to cities, battles over the social and economic fabric of urban neighborhoods are playing out all over the country. Bonner is right in the middle of one of the biggest.

By Emily Cadei

Looking for a minefield of a redevelopment project? Try San Francisco’s abandoned Navy shipyard and Candlestick Park stadium at Hunters Point.

Start with a federal Superfund site that once housed radioactive materials. Mix together state and local bureaucracies with federal and military overseers. Then add a landfill with asbestos in the soil. Combine that with a historic neighborhood that suffers from the worst poverty and crime rates in a city where, for many, the “housing crisis” is middle- and upper-class people scrambling to find property under $1 million.

In other words, most developers would run the other way. But not Kofi Bonner, a regional vice president at mega-developer Lennar.

The decades-long, multibillion-dollar project is the most complicated he’s ever worked on, in this most ‘complicated and complex city.

Sitting in his glassed-in office, a rare sunny morning brightening his view of the pyramid-shaped Transamerica Pyramid, the Ghana native tells OZY that the decades-long, multibillion-dollar project is the most complicated he’s ever worked on, in this most “complicated and complex city.” The 57-year-old soccer buff and father of three is aiming to make a profit, of course, while also achieving a broader vision of community building — including accommodating the poor — that first brought him to Northern California as a young graduate student.

The first homes — sleek, low-rise apartment blocks — are just going on sale in the 800-acre, mixed-use development, which ultimately promises 12,500 new homes; 4 million-plus square feet of office, commercial and retail space; and 300 acres of open parks, trails and fields. Completing it will put to severe test Bonner’s combination of smarts, public- and private-sector experience, and political connections. 

For Bonner, the Hunters Point project is the culmination of a career spent redesigning urban spaces spanning both sides of San Francisco Bay, particularly down-on-their-luck industrial corridors. 

Along the way, he’s made friends in high places. “Many of the people I know who are in politics here, I’ve known them a long time,” Bonner notes, pointing out that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was a colleague “back in the day with Mayor Brown,” when the two worked in Brown’s office.

That background made Bonner an obvious choice to head Lennar’s Bay Area operations in 2006. His main task: overseeing every element of the prickly Hunters Point project, along with the redevelopment of another old Navy base on nearby Treasure Island — from the planning and infrastructure installation to construction and sale of the buildings.

Bayview-Hunters Point residents remember the forced relocation of African-American residents from the Fillmore district — once dubbed the ‘Harlem of the West.’

That includes a host of questions about the cleanup of the contaminated site, which has been the subject of years of back-and-forth with government authorities and the surrounding community, and has prompted lawsuits from Navy contractors and protests from local organizations.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge: The site is next to a historic, traditionally African-American neighbhorhood that has experienced decades of marginalization and social decay, particularly since the Navy shipyard closed up shop in 1974. 

Distrust of city government and corporate interests run deep in Bayview-Hunters Point. Residents remember the forced relocation of African-American residents from the Fillmore district — once dubbed the “Harlem of the West” — as part of a 1960s “urban renewal” project. The city’s most notorious housing projects, many of them abandoned and boarded up, sit perched just high enough on some of those famous San Francisco hills to take in panoramic views of the city’s gleaming skyline across the water to the north.

It’s a long way from Kumasi, the bustling city in South Ghana where Bonner was born. Bonner spent 10 years growing up in England, before returning home for high school. He attended Kumasi’s University of Science and Technology, where he became interested in architecture, drawn to the “combination of science and math and arts.” The opportunity to pursue a master’s at the University of California at Berkeley lured him to California, where he studied architecture and city planning.

“I realized that I was more interested in sort of the community development, community-building part of architecture, how buildings shape spaces for people,” Bonner says, his clipped tone betraying a lingering hint of a British accent. His particular interest was affordable development “for poor people,” he says.

His first job, working as a consultant with Oakland nonprofits on affordable housing projects, helped him learn about the “potpourri of funding mechanisms” available for real estate development, and how to manage construction contractors. He discovered the “power of the community politics to win favor and finances with the political powers.” 

For Bonner, the bottom line is to “create a sustainable economy from the pieces.”

Bonner insists Lennar is “very aware and sensitive” to the economic and cultural issues at play in the community, and has worked hard to “find a way to, perhaps, champion the change without being overbearing.”

But he doesn’t have much patience for the leftist activists, so common in San Francisco, who are leading the charge against the development. “Gadflies,” he calls them.

His plan includes targeting disadvantaged sectors of the community through funds for workforce training programs and the inclusion of affordable housing in the next phases of construction — promises some doubt Lennar will honor. While the company suggests development will bring much-needed jobs and new infrastructure, critics fear it will instead simply push out the last bastion of African-Americans from the city.

For Bonner, the bottom line is to “create a sustainable economy from the pieces.” 

Hunters Point may be the ultimate test of whether his city-building vision can be truly inclusive, or just a PC gloss for gentrification gone wild. 

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