17th Street Closure Will Be First NYC-style Plaza in San Francisco

17th_5.jpgThe future site of a pedestrian plaza at 17th and Market Streets

Don’t look now, but NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s magic
may have rubbed off on DPW Director Ed Reiskin, to San Francisco’s
benefit.  Reiskin has been leading a multi-agency effort to close a
small portion of 17th Street where it meets Market Street to vehicle
traffic and convert the space into a trial pedestrian plaza, which
he hopes to see operational by May. 

The historic trolley
that loads at the proposed location will still operate in the area, but
the DPW will put out planters and other moderately heavy stone elements
that will serve as seating and tables, much like Gansevoort Plaza in
New York City

"As we’ve seen what folks in New York City have done in
terms of taking excess asphalt and returning it to people, to more
diverse uses, we’re inspired," said Reiskin.  "The approach we’re
taking here is to try it.  If it’s great, it will be great.  If
not, we’ll take it out."

Reiskin has been coordinating the effort with the MTA, the Planning Department, Supervisor Bevan Dufty,
the Castro Street Community Betterment District (CBD), and the
Mayor’s Director of Greening, Astrid Haryati.  Public Architecture, a
private firm, is working pro bono to create the design
for the new public space. 

MTA Executive Director Nat Ford was very upbeat.  "We’re really excited about this. We’ve been trying to identify locations
around the city to make these quick improvements that help us to green
the city and make it more pleasurable for pedestrians or workers who
want to have their lunch outside in public space."

17th_6.jpgThe boarding island for historic trolleys on 17th

Ford
acknowledged the trial
nature of the project, without burdensome planning and sometimes
lengthy delays, was unusual for the collaborating agencies, but said it would provide San Francisco with a testable scenario that
planning and modeling alone could not.

"I think the
citizens of the city want to see these improvements and going through
the lengthy process of planning doesn’t always get the
project in the ground," said Ford.  "What we’re seeing from other
municipalities like NYC is very successful and we want to do similar
trials here."

David Alumbaugh, acting Director of Citywide Planning at the Planning Department, was hopeful it would enliven the public realm.  "While cities all over the country and the world are
re-imagining their neglected public realms, for some reason doing so has been hard for San
Francisco. This exciting temporary installation in the heart of the Castro will inexpensively and quickly
demonstrate one small way San Francisco might begin to rethink its public realm."

Reiskin stressed several times the project is temporary, that they are using
using salvaged, recycled, or re-purposed materials from city salvage
yards, and that it will be easily reversible if it doesn’t succeed at
activating the space and providing a valued community amenity. 

Acknowledging the impact of meeting Sadik-Khan last November at
a luncheon held for various agency directors, Reiskin called her a
personal hero.  "She’s a rockstar to me in this realm of effectively
and quickly accomplishing things."

John
Peterson, founder of Public Architecture, said there
were significant obstacles to success in the trial plaza and that they would need
to adjust their effort in a fluid and ongoing way when those problems arise. 
"Part of the reason this is an interesting project is that we expect to
remain active as we see how people will use it.  The challenge is to
knit something together that is cohesive, a proper outdoor space and
not a collection of bits and pieces.  New York City is doing a great
work, but we’re trying to one-up the expectations on what is
possible for this type of urban space."

Peterson
said they are searching for a partner to help draft a "deep evaluation"
of the success of the trial.  "We expect this kind of thing to be
useful not just for this project but for many other urban projects."

Castro
Street CBD Executive Director Andrea Aiello said they had been
discussing ways to improve the public space there for nearly
a decade and that it was part of both the Castro Street CBD strategic
planning and the Upper Market Area Plan done by the Planning Department
at Superviser Dufty’s behest. She added the CBD was working on
ways to create dynamic programming for the space, including music and
other types of performances.

"The
CBD is very conscious of the need to keep this active so that it
doesn’t fail.  We’re very excited to work with the agencies to create
this very cool
gathering space for the neighborhood.  It has been a great
collaborative relationship with DPW, the Planning Departent and
Supervisor
Dufty.  It really feels like all the different agencies have come
together to make this experience work."

Two businesses on the street have been particularly involved with the planning, the 24-hour restaurant Orphan Andy’s and the Chevron gas station.  Orphan Andy’s anticipates setting out tables and movable seating, which it would maintain, possibly in conjunction with the CBD.  Chevron agreed to have one of its curb cuts removed and Peterson believes they will be important partners in the late-night hours, when the plaza might not be otherwise active.

For
his part, Supervisor Dufty was hopeful that a trial would be a great
success.  "Temporarily closing 17th and Market will allow us to test a
number of streetscape improvements while monitoring the changes to
traffic flow," he said.  "This is a major step towards creating a new
Castro public realm."

"I appreciate the ingenuity and leadership
of DPW Director Ed Reiskin, the Castro Community Benefit District and
Planning Department.  I’m excited to begin this process," he added.

Peterson said the leadership from Reiskin and other agencies is refreshing. The only reluctance he’s heard has been from community stakeholders who are worried about the homeless and vagrants making the plaza less desirable.  

Some people are very skeptical and people don’t want to see change.  We’re talking to people who are dedicated to urban life and there is real reluctance to even try it. They are talking about homelessness.  There’s the idea that we don’t want nicer things in our public realm because people may misuse it.  That shouldn’t stop us from having a healthy street life and public realm.  If that’s the case in San Francisco, then we’re done.” 

Though the 17th Street trial will be temporary pending its success, the DPW and MTA are already looking for other areas that might be ripe for pilots (in case they’re reading, we’d like to offer up this short film about a street in North Beach).

"The Mayor is interested in doing more than this one, but this one was
teed up," Reiskin said.  "We’ve seen it work elsewhere and it’s consistent
with many themes the Mayor has put forward as goals."

Said Ford: "We’re making very quick improvements and making them reversible…. and if [the process] works, we’ll try it in other areas.  We have a short list of other areas that we’d like to try, so stay tuned, there are more out there."

Castro_detail.jpgA planning department rendering of the pilot plaza

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