Strange saga of Visitacion Valley center leaves community in the dark 

click to enlarge Despite the building being foreclosed on by Wells Fargo and sold at auction last year, several Asian senior citizens still go to the closed Visitacion Valley Community Center to play mahjong. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.f. Examiner
  • Despite the building being foreclosed on by Wells Fargo and sold at auction last year, several Asian senior citizens still go to the closed Visitacion Valley Community Center to play mahjong.

Most every day, Mary Chow is at the Visitacion Valley Senior Center on Raymond Avenue playing mahjong with other Cantonese-speaking locals.

The smack of the game tiles is as regular as the sun rising for Chow, 78, and friends including Situ Genxing, 66, and Chik Kwong, 79. And these days, their games are timed with the sun -- ever since PG&E shut off power to the distinctive wooden building about a year ago.

Neither the slow death of the center, its nonprofit operator the Visitacion Valley Community Center nor the sale of the building that housed the senior center for almost 100 years stopped the mahjong game. When San Francisco shut off the water for unpaid bills this year, a few months after the power was disconnected, Chow and her fellow players brought jugs and buckets of water to operate the toilets.

The water is back on, but the situation is still murky.

Financial mismanagement coupled with possible predatory lending doomed offerings like the community center's English and computer classes, leaving only a weekly food bank on Fridays in addition to the mahjong games (and the latter only because someone among Chow's coterie happened to have a key to the now-otherwise abandoned building).

The kitchen has had all equipment removed to an unknown location, and boxes from the food bank have been stacked in what used to be a basketball court and performance space.

A few steps past the bathroom doors, a stack of unopened mail near a locked office includes past-due water and power bills and neglected tax forms.


A foreclosure specialist bought the building at auction a year ago. Now The City may be close to buying it and handing over operations to the Department of Children, Youth and their Families, said Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the area.

Still unclear is how this situation arose -- including how a $200,000 loan taken out in 2000 went into default in 2013 -- and why seniors like Chow were only informed of what happened via a note taped to the front door one day.

"This is supposed to be a wealthy city," said longtime community advocate Marlene Tran, who is running for supervisor against Cohen. "How can they be living in abandonment?"

Former Visitacion Valley Community Center board members and executive directors could not be reached for comment.

What is clear from city and court records is that San Francisco pulled its funding, once in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, after reports of mismanagement and impropriety -- allegations that also saw several former executive directors removed by the nonprofit's board.

As staff and programming were cut, the Community Center was sued for unpaid bills by former employees and a cleaning company. Also unpaid was the $200,000 loan. It was that loan that was foreclosed upon last year while The City was simultaneously negotiating with Wells Fargo to buy the property.

The Department of Real Estate was close to finalizing a deal with the bank to take over the property last October when, unbeknownst to The City or to Cohen, the bank entered a notice of foreclosure.

A Wells Fargo spokesman said that the bank agreed to "consider" postponing the foreclosure sale if The City was serious about buying the building. However, The City did not provide Wells Fargo certain "documentation" in time, spokesman Ruben Pulido said Wednesday, and the foreclosure proceeded.

In a twist, the bank appears to have dual-tracked the mortgage. That means it continues with foreclosure on the owner while at the same time considering the owner's loan-modification application.

"This is a classic example of Wells Fargo bank" behavior, said Cohen, who herself lost a condominium near Candlestick Park when Wells Fargo foreclosed on her in 2010.

The property was sold at auction Oct. 22 for $222,504, according to records. The buyer was Sausalito real estate investor Joe Giruardo, who has purchased foreclosed homes and evicted residents elsewhere in The City, records show.

It's not clear why Giruardo's company, Bridgeway Vista II LP, declined to secure the property or do anything with it following the sale. The building is zoned for residential, which means it could in theory be converted to housing.

Giraurdo did not respond to requests for comment.


The seniors were offered other spaces, such as the one in a Mercy Housing building five blocks away and another on Bayshore Boulevard. Both are inadequate, they say.

There is hope that Giruardo can be persuaded to give up the building free of charge to The City, or at least at cost. Mayor Ed Lee on Tuesday said he personally placed a call to Giruardo to see if he would sell.

If Giruardo does, Lee said he envisions a community space similar to the nonprofit-operated, city-funded youth center next door at 50 Raymond Ave.

That would be welcome news for Chow and her friends, who have been waiting anxiously for a year.

Speaking in Cantonese on Monday, she said of the mayor that "we all voted for him. Why didn't he listen to our pleas?"

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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