Youth eco-center to sprout on Earth Day 

A long-embattled, $1.5 million environmental education center will break ground in Hunters Point on Earth Day — seven years after it was proposed as the first off-the-grid building in The City.

Bayview-Hunters Point residents split over the project when leaders with nonprofit Literacy for Environmental Justice proposed building it in McLaren Park. Now it’s destined for Heron’s Head Park, a wetlands area the nonprofit has restored on former brown fields in the shadow of the Pacific Gas & Electric power plant, project manager Laurie Schoeman said.

"Since then, the project has acted to heal and unify the community," said Jared Blumenfeld, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, which donated $900,000 in grants to build the center. "The product will be something we can all be proud of."

The nonprofit’s center will be the first in San Francisco to do its own wastewater recycling, in addition to featuring a rooftop garden and enough solar panels to power the 1,400-square-foot building, Schoeman said.

Although it will provide classroom and community space for everything from cooking classes to yoga, the building itself will be a teaching tool.

"When the lights go out, and there’s no energy from the sun, we’ll need to be mindful that we don’t have unlimited amounts of energy," Schoeman said. "And we’re going to showcase to kids that, when you flush the toilet, it goes somewhere."

The Literacy for Environmental Justice works with roughly 1,200 youths per year, who have helped restore the wetlands at Heron’s Head and who have taken tours of former toxic sites near the shipyard and power plant, said Pam Calvert, LEJ’s deputy director.

Those tours can become powerful lessons, particularly for neighborhood students, said Jim McGarry, a religious studies teacher at Mercy High School.

"I’ve brought out kids who have asthma, and even had one girl who was dealing with lymphoma, and that’s one of the conjectures, that it’s caused by the PCBs in the transformers," McGarry said. "There’s a certain degree of rage [from kids on the tours]."

LEJ’s challenges will pave the way for future projects, such as the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s plan to build a bigger off-the-grid building, Blumenfeld said.

The center is expected to open in the fall.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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