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Shadow Play 

See who's getting money from the hotel opposed to the new City College campus in Chinatown

Wednesday, May 30 2007
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City College of San Francisco has long aspired to build a new satellite campus in Chinatown. But now that college officials have unveiled plans for a 17-story skyscraper at Kearny and Washington streets, next to Portsmouth Square, they've run into a political buzz saw.

The opposition is ostensibly being led by a group of residents and community leaders called Education Coalition for Responsible Government, which complains that the proposed academic tower would cast an unwanted shadow over the iconic square. And the Coalition has some major political muscle on its side: State Sen. Leland Yee has threatened to try and cut off state funds for the project unless City College gives up the high-rise idea.

It turns out that both the Coalition and Yee have enjoyed financial support from the biggest opponents of the high-rise, the owners of the 31-story Hilton Hotel in the San Francisco Financial District.

The tower's supporters say the Hilton's owners don't want the tower to obscure the hotel's views. "It's a total smokescreen," says City College chancellor Philip Day, noting that the hotel already casts deep shadows over the square.

Henry Der, a former state deputy director of schools, and a tower supporter, accuses the hotel of orchestrating a "campaign of confusion" and derides the Coalition group as "phony baloney opposition" organized by the hotel's owners.

The 549-room hotel is owned by Justice Investors, a limited partnership formed in 1967. Its point man is attorney Robert McCarthy, who is listed as "of counsel" for public affairs firm GCA Strategies. GCA's vice president, Frank Noto, played a key role in helping to organize the Coalition, sources say. The hotel group also has enlisted the help of public affairs firm Singer Associates.

Indeed, an SF Weekly phone call to McCarthy was returned by someone at Singer, who in turn referred a reporter to Frances Hsieh, the Coalition's self-proclaimed lead organizer, who, when pressed, admitted she was a paid consultant and not just an interested citizen.

Meanwhile, as chief political torch-bearer against the high-rise, Yee is no stranger to those on the hotel side. Records show that since 2000 he has received at least $19,000 in campaign contributions from parties connected with the hotel's interests. They include $3,300 from Justice Investors; $6,200 from GCA Strategies; $4,750 from McCarthy and/or his wife; $3,450 from Noto, and $1,500 from Debra Stein, GCA's president.

Yee spokesman Adam Keigwin insists his boss supports a Chinatown campus for City College, "but believes the community deserves something better than a 17-story monstrosity."

Just what will happen next isn't clear. The college wants to break ground next year. A newly released environmental report suggests that the college may be willing to consider lowering the tower to 14 stories. But few people believe that's likely to appease Yee and the hotel owners.

About The Author

Ron Russell

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