Streetfilms: A Proposed Urban Park in Historic North Beach

"What destroys the poetry of a city? Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry."
–Lawrence Ferlinghetti

One of San Francisco’s cherished literary icons — poet, painter and City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti — is celebrating his 90th birthday today, and I thought it would be fitting to bring you his vision for transforming a small block of Vallejo Street in historic North Beach into what would be called the Piazza Saint Francis. 

Ferlinghetti founded the Piazza Saint Francis Foundation and is working with the Planning Department’s City Design Group, Caffe Trieste and many others, including attorney and former supervisor Angela Alioto and film director Francis Ford Coppola (who worked on "The Godfather" screenplay at Trieste), to create an Italian-style piazza, with inscriptions on the paving stones from up to 30 or 40 authors, mostly poets.

North Beach is an ideal place to do this, not just because of its Italian flare. The neighborhood consistently shows some of the highest pedestrian counts in the city, yet lacks a lot of usable public space. It does feature Grant Street, though, one of San Francisco’s most pedestrian-friendly streets, which runs through the heart of Chinatown, across Columbus, and into North Beach alongside Trieste, and Washington Square Park.

The biggest obstacle to realizing the project is the estimated $3.5 million price tag. The city can’t afford to do it, so private funds will need to be raised to make it happen. "We urgently need money to make it go forward," said Ferlinghetti.

The Mayor’s office is working with the foundation to identify traditional and non-traditional sources of funding. Because it’s not a city-funded project, though, there’s been more flexibility with the design. 

"This is a project that came from the community and has been led by the community," said Andres Power, an urban designer at the Planning Department.  "They had more liberty to think a little bit outside of the box and be more creative about how the space would be used, the materials that would be used."

Power noted the project has already gone through two rounds at DPW and the PUC so most of the "big picture issues have been resolved." Ferlinghetti described it as shovel-ready and said he hopes the city might consider diverting some stimulus funds their way.

The project does have its opponents, though, as a recent story in the SF Weekly noted:

Caffe Trieste has been one of the few constants in North Beach, and
its regular customers fiercely guard it as though it were an extension
of their own homes. Any mention of change, and they can experience
acute anxiety and begin to form opposition committees.

Some fear it will take away the character of Caffe Trieste, attracting more tourists, and creating a Disneyland-like atmosphere. However, Power said those concerns have been taken into account in the design. And Ferlinghetti said most of the regulars, and many in North Beach, support it.

"Some of the old Trieste inhabitants are afraid it’ll become too upscale. As long as Papa Gianni is alive, the original founder, it won’t change," said Ferlinghetti.

Power said a community meeting will be held soon and the design will likely undergo a few changes. In the meantime, the Mayor, who supports it, can take the lead on this if he wants to, and speed it forward, by helping to identify funds.

"It’s a simple conception and I thought it wouldn’t be so hard to realize but it’s been three years. Everything moves very slowly ," said Ferlinghetti.

  • mcas

    “…attracting more tourists…” It’s North Beach, people. I’d bet the majority of customers at Trieste (and in many other locations around there) are tourists.

    “…afraid it’ll become too upscale…” Triest charges $3 for an Americano.

    These reservations sound NIMBY-contrived reasons to oppose any change, good or bad. It’s a city– a living organism, things change.

  • I think it is a great idea. I fully support it and hope to see it implemented sooner then later (but I’m sure it’ll be a 10 year project). I wish Lawrence the best of luck in completing this.

    Side note, I sit on the North Beach Neighbor’s Planning and Zoning Committee and we support this in concept. I personally will provide as much support as I can.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    I think it’s a swell idea. I got the weird feeling from the video though that there are no women involved in the public street life of North Beach 😉

  • I almost forgot, Happy Birthday Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

  • It is not a very good design (see it at 2:50).

    There are just a couple of low walls to sit on. They look uncomfortable because you can’t lean back. And they divide the sidewalk from the plaza.

    There should be lots of benches or cafe tables out in the plaza, that you can lean back in.

    There should not be walls dividing the plaza from the sidewalk. There should be sidewalk tables next to the cafe that spill out into the plaze.

  • Great film!

    I don’t see any reason why it should take $3 million to get a Piazza version 1.0 up and running on this street. Why can’t Mayor Newsom, transportation officials and community groups simply do this as a pilot project using temporary materials to test out the idea? That’s a fast and inexpensive way to create a piazza. We’ve been doing all over the place in New York City. Here are two recent examples of fast, cheap public space reclamation projects that have done very well:

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2007/09/27/gansevoort-plaza-is-open-for-business/

    http://www.streetfilms.org/archives/paint-a-parking-lot-put-up-a-paradise/

    And if even that is too much to ask of the City’s bureaucracy then how about simply shooting for a series of car-free weekends to get the ball rolling and see how it might work? Kind of like this:

    http://www.streetfilms.org/archives/williamsburg-walks/

    This idea that you can’t get started because there’s not enough money is just ridiculous. As Enrique Penalosa says, it’s mainly a question of political will.

    Pilot projects — in NYC, at least — are not subject to lengthy environmental review processes either.

  • Aaron makes a good point. Start off by just putting up some bollards to close the street to cars and putting tables and chairs out in the streets.

    Note that those quick and cheap plazas in New York are actually livelier and more attractive than the proposed design for this plaza in SF, because they are filled with tables and chairs. That is what is needed in North Beach, where it is easy to buy an Italian pastry but hard to find a place to sit and eat it.

  • It will cost that much because they have to do a bunch of drainage work, etc.

    I agree, a quick start would be to just close it off and claim the road. No need for an all or nothing approach.

  • Hah, I was just about to write up exactly what Aaron did. Get the city to spend 10K or 20K on some fancy planters and tables and chairs. Shut the block down now. Then people will see the possibilities.

    Then whether or not people totally agree with the plans they will see the space activated and the possibilities. Then they could work with the plan, adopt it as planned and raise the $$$, scrap it and do something cheaper and faster, or do a combo of both.

    It’d be a great 90th birthday present just to get started. Other places in SF will see the possibilities. After all that is what is happening in NYC.

  • tony gantner

    The issue of Caffe Trieste is a red herring–that is a family matter which some who cannot respect the privacy of internal family matters, although they would fiercly defend their own — would get involved—to those who would try to create dissension within a family not their own–many of whom do not own autos or dislike the impact of cars on our culture— and who would understandably take great umbrage at outsiders meddling in their own family–leave the family alone–the Piazza is an independent matter. Take your divisive meddling elsewhere. Among other things, this is about a permanent street closure, and as the first SF Poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti has said, rolling back the destructive effects of the automobile—bringing livability back to one San Francisco neighborhood.

  • Paul Praha

    I think closing Vallejo between Grant and Columbus is a great idea. But looking at the design of the plaza it looks to be an expensive tile job with no usable space. The city needs outdoor space where people can do things. Buy food, meet people,etc. This looks to be an expensive ($3.5 millon!) shrine. And while SF seems to have closed out the important historical contributions of poetry in North Beach, there is no reason to close out the rest of city by having newly created public space limited in its uses.

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