San Jose and Guerrero Plaza Could Mark Triumph Over Deadly Traffic

SJG_2.jpgIntersection of Guerrero St and San Jose Ave, site of a new 9,000 sf plaza. Photo: Matthew Roth

When Mayor Gavin Newsom dedicated the first of three Pavement to Parks plazas at 17th and Market streets, he promised to push forward with the next two trial plazas in short order, including one at the intersection of Guerrero Street and San Jose Avenue, one of the more precarious corners in the city, where traffic speeds down Guerrero after exiting I-280, the footprint of the now-abandoned Mission Freeway. For community residents like Gillian Gillett, who has been fighting to make the neighborhood more pedestrian friendly and less sick with dangerous traffic for years, the news was thrilling.

"It’s a real impediment to rational urban life the way it’s existed," said Gillett, a software programmer, who explained that she first became active around traffic and transportation issues when she was pregnant with her daughter in 2001. Before she and her neighbors took a stand, she said her street was the iconic high-traffic artery as explained in Donald Appleyard’s seminal study on cars and community, a street that tore the neighborhood apart and kept neighbors from meeting each other or spending any time in public space together.

"I was really pissed off when I was pregnant and couldn’t cross the
street," said Gillett. "I was offended that the city would operate that way."

Through her community group San Jose/Guerrero Coalition to Save Our Streets, Gillett first tried to calm the intersection of Guerrero and Cesar Chavez, where the city had a triple left-turn lane configuration from westbound Cesar Chavez to southbound Guerrero, followed by three wide traffic lanes and eight unsignalized intersections, which led to rampant speeding and more than a few car-in-house crashes.

Gillian_1.jpgGillian Gillett with her daughter. Photo: MTC

"Of the 12 houses on the 1450 block of Guerrero at Cesar Chavez, 9 of them have been run into by cars, several of them repeatedly," explained Gillett. Like Appleyard’s other victims of heavy traffic, she and her neighbors always kept their windows facing Guerrero closed and lived and slept in the back of their houses, where they could find the most serenity.

Unfortunately, she related, one weekday morning at 6:30 am, one of their neighbors was stabbed 10 times on the sidewalk on Guerrero. No one could hear his screams over the noise of traffic and none of the motorists stopped or called the police. The man died there on the sidewalk, just blocks from St. Luke’s Hospital.

"I had heard so many horror stories about traffic. These are people who
didn’t let their kids out on the street because cars were crashing into
their houses," Gillett said. The SFPD didn’t understand how bad the
issue was until she demanded former Ingleside Station Captain Kevin Dillon
come down to her home with a speed gun.

"When
I was pregnant I brought Captain Dillon down here and he
dutifully brought his radar gun down and measured speeds at 62 miles
per hour. He said, ‘Oh lady, we could be out here writing tickets all
day, but it wouldn’t solve your problem. You have an engineering
problem.’"

Gillett and the coalition have applied for and received numerous grants to aid their work, including a $75,000 Transportation for Livable Cities (TLC) grant through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) for a community plan. In early 2005, the community got its first road diet when the MTA narrowed Guerrero from three lanes in each direction to two and added a bicycle lane. As a result of this and other traffic calming measures, dedicated pedestrian enforcement stings from the SFPD, and new traffic signals, Gillett explained, the collision rate for the 11 blocks on Guerrero between Cesar Chavez and Randall St. has been reduced by 53 percent since 2004.

The New Plaza

sjg_schema_1.jpgA sketch of the proposal for a plaza at the intersection of San Jose and Guerrero. One lane at the eastern edge of the plaza (bottom of picture) will receive the same pavement treatment as the plaza, but remain open to local traffic so the seven driveways belonging to residents along the street can be accessed. Copyright 2009 Shift Design Studio

Gillett and other members of the community have long had their eye on the roughly 9,000 square feet
of marginally used asphalt on the east side of the awkward intersection
of San Jose, Guerrero, and 28th Street. Using the TLC grant from 2005, they hired Project for Public Spaces (PPS) in New York City to help them envision a more humane treatment for the intersection and better use of the public realm.

With Mayor Newsom’s apparent new zest for reclaiming under-utilized streets and turning them into public space, the community vision is well on the way to realization.

"The vision of the
space is to provide more of a park-like element, provide open space for
the neighbors," said Andres Power of the Planning Department, who has been tasked with developing a plaza design and implementing the trial closure by early September so the plaza will be open on Labor Day. Like the plaza at 17th Street, the city is scouring its supply yards for extra supplies.

"The idea is to emphasize greenery and a strong
delineation between the roadway and the space," said Power, who expressed concern about the noise and disruption that heavy traffic could continue to have despite their best efforts.

Gillett is working with local property owners around the plaza to try
to attract more family-focused businesses. The one active retail use
immediately adjacent to the plaza is Cup O’ Java on the west side of
Guerrero. Mitchell’s Creamery, a destination that attracts people from
around the city and has notoriously long lines down the sidewalk, is one
block south on Guerrero. Immediately on the plaza, there is a vacant retail space that Gillett would love to see rented by a childcare facility.

Gillett said that through community surveys they commissioned with their TLC grant, they discovered that the neighborhood is home to a high proportion of software developers. Two of them who live in the "Peach House" featured in the background of the picture above have taken it upon themselves to be sure the plaza will have a strong WiFi signal.

For the plaza design, architect and landscape designer Jane Martin, founder of Plant SF and principal of Shift Design Studio, who Gillett joked is competing with her and her Greening Guerrero project to see who can de-pave San Francisco faster, is donating her time on the project (Martin on the depaving competition: "She’s got a ways to go to catch up with me"). 

"The concept that I have is to take this sea of
asphalt and make it somehow habitable," said Martin, who explained that her inspiration is based on a history she read of Golden Gate Park, where engineer William Hammond Hall was tasked with figuring out how get plants to grow out of arid sand dunes. "Hall knew If he could get the bush lupine to grow, he could get shrubs to grow,
then trees after that."

Martin said that Hall couldn’t get the lupine or anything else to grow until he observed that the barley he fed his draft horses would take root in the sand after a few days. Once he sowed the barley, lupine followed suit, then grasses, and finally the trees that are in the park to this day.

When Martin was granted access to the city’s "boneyards" to find supplies for the plaza, she discovered that many of Hall’s original trees had fallen or were being taken out and sent to the compost yard. "They
are unceremoniously being turned into mulch," she said. 

Martin has taken several of the original Golden Gate Park tree trunks and plans to hollow them out to turn them into planters that will serve as the boundary between the plaza and traffic on Guerrero. "They are a piece of
nature that can lay claim to this vast amount of asphalt." In addition, she plans to rip up the cement in the middle of the two islands that currently exist and plant them. Because there are no curb-cuts in the islands, they are already useless for persons with disabilities or parents with strollers.

With so many families in the neighborhood and scant open space, the plaza will have a special focus on children, with elements designed to evoke a playground. "I really want to pay homage to the horse,"
explained Martin, who plans to install several playground horses on
springs facing west, so they appear ready to ride to the ocean.

Assuming the plaza is successful and the city decides to make it permanent, Martin would like to name it after Hall’s horse, though she said she couldn’t find any record of the horse’s name in the Golden Gate Park history she was reading.

"I’ve got researchers looking into
finding out the name of the horse, but we haven’t found it yet," she said. "If we can’t find it, we’ll just call it "Hall’s
Horse Park."

sjg_pps_2.jpgThe PPS sketch the community developed for San Jose and Guerrero. The trial plaza will implement similar treatments for the plaza portion at the right. Gillett and the community hope it will lead to permanent pedestrian treatments, such as high-visibility crosswalks, a traffic signal, and bulb-outs. Courtesy: PPS

  • Native

    @ Big John, You tried and you seem to be the only one that realizes what really goes on in your neighborhood. The description of the wind blowing on that corner makes sense to put a park there!! Sorry, Big John, I feel your pain.

    @Neighbor & Neighbor, too, What is the length of time “Temporary Park”?

    Where the People of Color that are not fluent in English, were they even consider in wheb sending out bi lingual literature of what is proposed of your “Temporary Park”?
    Possibly because they may not be register voters or did your “Committee” even approach them?

    Another loss for the true Native of this Beautiful City….

  • Neighbor too!

    Why does everything have to be linked to race, language and legality? GET A LIFE, Native, and accept that some people want to improve their lives – why else do we immigrants come to the Grand Old US of A?

  • DavidRx

    I will be out there trying to keep the new park looking nice because it seems like a good idea and is worth giving it a chance.

  • Native

    @ Neighbor too!, because it is and you have a great day!!!!! We Natives are a dying bred, but least I can say what I want on any blog in the U S A.. That is my right and IT IS ABOUT Class, Race and Social Economics. Just Saying……..

  • Bill Murphy

    Wow! I just read this whole page of comments after finding out about this proposed project through “Nature News from Jake Sigg”. I guess I didn’t expect to see the range of issues addressed here, but I think it is a healthy dialog, for the most part.

    However, I need to say that not everyone who is white and not a native of San Francisco is economically advantaged. Although the points about class are valid, I believe that anyone who puts many volunteer hours into projects to improve the neighborhood they live in deserves accolades. Services for children, the poor, the elderly, Health Department funding, parks, greenspace, open space, street maintenance – ALL OF THESE are valuable and important. Social and economic justice issues are very complicated. Keep the dialog flowing, but please find some room to thank those who are DONATING their time in the effort to improve their neighborhood for all. If there is another project that you feel is more deserving, do you make an effort to donate YOUR time to that? Don’t be like the Republicans in Washington, always tearing down, obstructing, criticizing and demonizing.

    – from a white, educated, 50 year old, East Coast transplant, long-term renter with a low income who has donated 4,000 hours of his gay time over the past 15 years to the improvement of the Recreation and Park Department land next to the building where he lives.

  • Neighbor too!

    Well put, Bill!

  • Dan

    3400 Cesar Chavez was a parking lot with the site of a vacant paint store. The prior use of the site was residential over commercial, which the new 3400 will restore. Residential over commercial is the preferred use for that stretch of Mission St.

    A subsidized project would have been great, but money for it had not been allocated. In the current fiscal climate, who knows how many years the site would remain vacant?

    The new condos will be much cheaper than expected when the project was approved, due to the burst real estate bubble. And several of the units will be subsidized. Plus the city will get much more property tax revenue than it would have from the parking lot.

    As someone who lives on the other side of the Mission, Marc, you are unaware that many immediate neighbors supported 3400, especially as an alternative to a boarded up store with a parking lot in front.

  • Big John

    Off to a great start!

    First day, One of our fine and brilliant motorists sped by heading south and hooked a right on to San Jose north.

    First night the logs were dumped six drunken hooligans were out the quite loudly jumping from stump to stump at 11pm.

    Friday evening upon arrival home from work 11 bicyclists came whizzing by me as I got out of my vehicle faster than the cars used to. When I asked them to slow down I was told to F**K OFF!

    Today (Sunday) I arrive home to find that a hit and run had been performed on my neighbors house by someone attempting to turn around.

    All this in just the first week!

    One can only wonder what the future holds.

    Now before you go jumping on the band wagon thinking I am just a negative malcontent, I assure you I enjoy my life, Love my city, and think this project is completely half assed at best!

    Have a wonderful Day!

  • NoeValleyJim

    There is nothing wrong with this project, it doesn’t do anything stupid like block a bike lane.

    You should have stopped here.

  • Noah Abrahamson

    The little park has been in place for a year or so. Upon reflection, I think it’s been a nice addition. It’s not been life-changing, but it hasn’t been dire, either. I was ambivalent before, mostly because I thought the park was ugly. The original police barricades are gone and the asphalt is now covered with a sandy material that’s rather pleasant. I’m not a huge fan of dayglo paint and the cold, white LED streetlight is ghastly, but on balance, this little Pavement to Park experiment has been sufficiently debugged to be an improvement rather than a detriment.

  • NoeValleyJim

    This has been a great win for the neighborhood, I see people using it every day. Where is the mea culpa from the nah sayers?

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