Finding Unused Pavement for Parks and Plazas in Lower Potrero

Axis_2.jpgAxis Cafe and Wolfe's Lunch across 8th Street, which could be closed for a pilot pedestrian plaza. Photo: Matthew Roth

When Mayor Gavin Newsom dedicated the trial pedestrian plaza at 17th Street and Castro last week, he took a significant stride toward improving his record on livable streets issues. He demonstrated engagement with local community groups and advocates by taking symbolic and institutional steps that incrementally nibble away at the paradigm of streets that gives primacy to the movement of cars.

When he announced that the city was considering three other underutilized intersections that could receive similar treatments, transforming excess street space into pedestrian sanctuaries, he signaled that the 17th Street plaza was merely the beginning of a process that could continue throughout the city over the next few years. While it's still very early in the game, at least two of the three new plaza locations have strong stakeholder support and could happen in very short order, should the transportation and engineering conditions pass muster.

Astrid Haryati, the Mayor's Director of Greening, should feel good about the speed with which they were able to design and install the plaza at 17th Street, which was one of her most visible tests since moving to San Francisco from Mayor Daly's administration in Chicago. The subsequent trial plazas will reflect her work and will need to be well organized for success.

At 8th and 16th Streets in lower Potrero Hill, the first of the three new projects Mayor Newsom announced, most of the pieces are in position to make the plaza a triumph, said Tony Kelly, President of the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association, assuming the community is brought to the table at subsequent steps of the planning process.

"Since 2001 people have been talking about that site," he said, explaining that they have held community workshops and have developed a general trajectory through the Easter Neighborhoods Plan process to identify street space that can be converted into parks and plazas.

More than 80 percent of [District 10] has been rezoned and there are about 90,000 more people coming in. The discussion has to be how we're going to make this growth more sustainable. How are you going to find a few more acres of open space in an area that's owned? If you can't do it in lots, you move to the streets, make streets more livable.

Haryati at the Mayor's office said that these next three projects are "commitment funded" and said that they are currently in the process of analyzing traffic impacts. "There will be multi-agency coordination, but we need to make sure all technical challenges are resolved before moving forward," she said.

David Alumbaugh, Director of the City Design Group at the Planning Department, said, "Pavement to Parks projects are meant to be quick, cheap, light-hearted installations to demonstrate how excess street space can become positive community space. If successful, if loved, these playful spaces might galvanize community support to create permanent space. If not, they are easily removed."

He also said that his office was coordinating a number of meetings with local stakeholders, including the Potrero Boosters, the California College of the Arts (CCA), Wolfe's Lunch, and Axis Cafe. Both of the restaurants would be essential to help manage the new plaza, much like the Castro/Upper Market CBD and Orphan Andy's are at 17th Street.

Axis cafe, which already serves as a community destination, was very excited to be a part of the plaza. Nita Orozco, Axis Cafe designer and Director of Christian City Church, didn't blink when I suggested the parking spaces in front of the cafe would be removed.

"The vision of Axis Cafe is that we're a place for the community to hang out, that it's like the urban living room," she said. "We want to be a place that the community uses, loves, hangs out--that it's really an extension of one's house.  We have meeting groups, moms with their toddlers... business groups, that meet here.  I think we're probably really well poised to do something like [the plaza].  We're not just a traditional business."

CCA Director of Planning David Meckel laughed as he referred to the current street conditions as "our beloved football field of asphalt out there," and said he hoped CCA, whose Graduate Program of Design is two blocks away, would be an active partner in planning and maintaining the space. He suggested that if timing were appropriate, he would be interested in bringing his students into the fold through a design studio to help with the scope of the plaza.

"I think it would definitely be popular because there is not much open space. It would definitely be a hang out space and be energized by students," he said. "We don't even have complete sidewalks in some places."