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