This Woman Is Fighting To Preserve San Francisco’s Chinatown By Giving It A Sustainable Makeover

Cindy Wu is working to green Chinatown’s buildings while keeping its culture and protecting its low-income residents from tech-fueled gentrification.

This Woman Is Fighting To Preserve San Francisco’s Chinatown By Giving It A Sustainable Makeover
Photo: Flickr user Paul Miller

The Washington Bakery & Restaurant in San Francisco is a place where you can get a steaming hot wonton soup or a nice piece of cake and a cup of tea.


With a few older Chinese neighbors chatting in Cantonese and reading the paper at small Formica tables, you won’t find your typical San Francisco cold filtered locally roasted fair trade coffee here. And you won’t ever, if Cindy Wu has her way. (She simply orders the hot water with lemon.)

“This place is very Hong Kong,” Wu says. Wu herself may look more at home at Blue Bottle than Washington Bakery: She tucks her skinny jeans in her tall boots and walks up the hill to work every day from her trendy SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood, where she and her partner live with their cat. But she has spent the last six years fiercely defending Chinatown’s residents and many small businesses from people like herself.

Flickr user FHKE

Constituting about 20 to 30 very dense city blocks, housing more than 15,000 Chinese immigrants and surrounded by the Financial District and the wealthy neighborhoods of Knob Hill and Russian Hill, it’s almost a miracle that Chinatown has so far been able to preserve itself as a historic cultural place in San Francisco’s real estate wars. “The pressure on this neighborhood is incredible,” Wu says.

As much as she wants to keep it the same, Wu also feels some things need to change. Most of the buildings in the neighborhood were built following the 1906 earthquake and are energy inefficient and uncomfortable–if not in total disrepair. “These buildings require retrofits to improve energy performance, conserve water, reduce operating costs, improve public health, and preserve scarce affordable housing,” reports the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), where Wu is deputy director and where she is leading an effort the city has named Sustainable Chinatown.

Flickr user Davidlohr Bueso

CCDC is basically a developer, but a nonprofit one with a community advocacy mission. When San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee decided in 2013 that all public housing in the city should be run by community-based nonprofit organizations rather than government agencies, the city appointed CCDC to manage Chinatown’s Ping Yuen Public Housing Buildings.


The “Pings,” as people in Chinatown call them, will be the starting place for Chinatown’s sustainability efforts. The four buildings house almost 1,000 residents and are more than 50 years old. “The Pings need substantial renovations. The Housing Authority did a terrible job maintaining them,” Wu says.

Chinatown is one of three pilot neighborhoods the city is rehabbing under a program called “San Francisco eco-districts” or “sustainability districts.” (There is an unrelated federal EcoDistrict protocol and certification.) San Francisco did receive some coaching from the EcoDistrict organization, but has its own definition. The city eco-district program is a loosely defined work-in-progress in which the city’s planning department creates a framework for developers to set goals that will help them develop in such a way as to reduce environmental impacts.

The city sustainability initiatives are meant to help the neighborhoods (the others are in the Central SoMa district and one along the Bay at Pier 70 being constructed by developer Forest City) be more resilient, and conserve water and energy on a district scale rather than building-by-building.

Flickr user Jim Killock

Unlike the other eco-district neighborhoods, which involve new construction, Chinatown is doing very little new development, so the challenge is to bring sustainability to existing buildings. CCDC started the process by trying to find out, from PG&E and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), how much energy and water the neighborhood currently uses. Cities are strangely unaccustomed to thinking about energy and water on a neighborhood scale and the process, according to Wu, “took forever.” She hopes to make the data public and transparent over time so others can track and compare energy and water savings, making Chinatown a model for other neighborhoods pursuing sustainability objectives on a local scale.

For Wu, Chinatown is different than the other eco-district neighborhoods in another huge way. While green development often means rich and trendy, 40% of Chinatown’s housing units are small, 80-120 square foot, single room occupancy (SRO) dwellings for severely low-income residents, many of them elderly.


Despite paying lip service to affordability, sustaining a community for low-income immigrants has never really been part of green development. “Of course it’s about water and energy, but how do we layer in equitability?” Wu asks. “The neighborhood, the buildings the physical place is important. But so are the people.”

As developers capitalize on the booming tech sector’s demand for housing, Wu wants a way to improve and preserve Chinatown’s residences for the existing community of low-income immigrants who will never be able to pay what tech workers are forking over. “SROs we never thought would be desirable–with a shared bath and kitchen, 8×10 in size–are now going for $1,800 a month,” she explains.

“Across the country, we’re seeing the challenges of cities coming back. Meanwhile low-income people of color have built their enclaves and they are facing possibilities of displacement,” she says. “What we learn here will be applicable in other cities.”

At 34 years old, Wu is the youngest person ever to be appointed to San Francisco’s Planning Commission. Now serving her fourth year there, she has been at Chinatown Community Development Corporation since 2007. (She recuses herself when the commission considers planning matters that affect CCDC’s jurisdiction and interests.)

An architect turned planner, Wu went to MIT for graduate school and traveled to India, Brazil and South Africa to study rapidly developing cities and slums. Even before heading to Cambridge, she was a defender of San Francisco’s downtrodden. She worked at San Francisco’s nonprofit Glide, part church, part homeless shelter that, like CCDC, has gone into the business of developing and running affordable housing projects for people in need.


CCDC’s construction upgrades on the Pings will address energy and comfort through new windows, insulation, fixtures, and LEDs. The buildings will heat water for the units with rooftop solar. Capturing, treating and recycling water from sinks baths and household laundries for landscaping and non-potable uses at the Pings would make this one of the first graywater projects in public housing in the country.

“We picked a tough project with the Pings because it’s a HUD project, ”she says. HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) comes with layers of regulations and, more importantly, HUD won’t finance the project because of its outdated regulations around graywater. Faced with the question of how to finance the upgrades, Wu’s idea is to model the future savings from reducing energy and water use and ask private for-profit developers to participate in developing the public housing retrofits. The idea is that money that would normally go to utility bills can pay for energy efficiency upgrades if the upgrade results in the reduction or elimination of that utility bill.

Sustainable Chinatown will also include private sector buildings and will leverage existing plans for updating public spaces. CCDC is starting a campaign this year to get four or five of the typical brick three-story buildings from the early 1900s that make up the majority of the building stock in Chinatown to do comprehensive green audits. The buildings have retail or restaurants on the street level and SROs on the upper floors. They’re mostly owned by Family Associations—membership organizations originally formed in the 1800s by Chinese immigrants with a common name to help the new immigrants connect and adapt socially and economically. Wu wants to offer free or reduced costs to association owners for the upgrades. In return, they would have to agree to stabilize rent for low-income residents.

The PUC has one retrofit of a public space in Chinatown already underway in Spofford Alley, one of the neighborhoods many small streets. Full of small storefronts, galleries, street musicians and pedestrians, cars tend to avoid the tight spaces. “We thought of putting in permeable pavers on sidewalks in but Chinatown is full of subterranean basements,” Wu comments. But the PUC plans bamboo stands and rain gardens to capture water for reuse and to help keep the storm drains from overflowing in the likely event of strong storms in the future.

Around the corner from Washington Bakery, Wu walks me through Portsmouth Square, “probably the most used public space in Chinatown and maybe in the whole city of San Francisco.” It’s part of the city’s long-term plan to rehab this site. We see a half a dozen card games in progress that seem to have some high stakes and a group of women sitting on hard concrete walls and tiny stools throw down mahjong tiles.


Flickr user Tony Webster

When people live in small, crowded spaces, the public square becomes an important place to socialize. More plants and softer surfaces might be nicer for people playing seated games, but also might help with storm water runoff.

Wu points out the buildings that overlook the square. It’s not just for tourists that red lanterns hang over the streets and many of the buildings are clad in decorative facades resembling traditional Chinese architecture. As the city rebuilt the neighborhood after the 1906 earthquake, the encroaching business district wanted to claim the prime real estate and move Chinatown to the outskirts of town. The immigrants use traditional Chinese vernacular as a deliberate effort for Chinatown to claim itself while rebuilding.

“I love this as a way to think about land use—claiming the neighborhood,” Wu says. Wu’s parents are immigrants from Taiwan and she grew up in Orange County speaking only Mandarin until she went to school. “But, LA is sprawl,” she says. “LA doesn’t have a Chinatown. And you go to D.C. Chinatown and it’ s just Subway Sandwiches with Chinese characters above it. There’s something special here.”

Yet change here feels inevitable. Recently, a co-working space moved into Chinatown. Wu promptly turned the business into the city for being in violation of Chinatown’s strict zoning laws that only allow retail and residential uses. The zoning, which was put in place in the 80s to protect Chinatown from encroachment from the expansion of the Financial district, keeps tech out of the neighborhood as well.


“I don’t mean to pick on tech, but as soon as there’s a new tech person renting an SRO that needs a co-working space, you’ve lost the battle,” she explains. “This community doesn’t need to rent a desk for their startup.”

The co-working space, called 1920C, changed its primary use to institutional use, housing a nonprofit, and skirted the zoning law.

But there are other signs Chinatown could start changing. We stop by 41 Ross, a “pop up” art gallery. The gallery sticks to its roots and part of the current exhibit features laundry hanging from clotheslines over the street. But not far away, Wu points to a recently closed old classic Chinese restaurant called the Four Seas. A renowned chef, Brandon Jew, who is third-generation Chinese American but hails from a high-end restaurant in SoMa, will open an expensive modern Chinese restaurant here called Mister Jiu.

Wu tells me the Chronicle interviewed Jew about bringing in modern cuisine to a traditional place. “He said Chinatown is dead.” (His actual quote: “I went to all these different Chinatowns — Vancouver, L.A. — and you come back to San Francisco, and this is crazy bumping. People are all over the place. It’s thriving. It’s bustling. A lot of Chinatowns in other parts of the world are just dead. To me, this is the perfect time, because I think Chinatown is in need of change, but it needs someone that really wants to help.”)

Flickr user Thomas Angermann

Another big classic old Chinese restaurant, Empress of China, has also recently closed and the fate of that real estate is up for grabs.


“I hope he appreciates what’s here,” she says of Jew as we spill out on to Stockton, a thriving street packed with open markets, fish swimming in tubs on the sidewalks and fresh produce piled high in dozens of small storefronts. “This is a very sustainable neighborhood already, due to density,” she says, explaining that people buy fresh food every day because they don’t have large refrigerators. They may not have a refrigerator at all. “They never waste anything. They recycle or reuse. They don’t drive.”

To Wu, this street shows equity and sustainability, together. She believes a green and resilient neighborhood also preserves the home of its most vulnerable. “It literally makes the neighborhood stronger. If the tech bubble bursts, this neighborhood won’t suffer as much as SoMa,” she says. And perhaps this is the true definition of sustainability. She steps aside for a bustle of shoppers picking out produce on the crowded sidewalk and says, “Don’t tell me Chinatown is dead.”