Poof! San Francisco’s Mason Street Has Become a Temporary Park

surface5small.jpgCross sections of tree stumps for seating on Mason Street. Photo: SurfaceWork
A coalition of community volunteers, pro-bono landscape architects and personnel from several city agencies this weekend swooped in to North Beach to transform the roadway of Mason Street between Columbus Avenue and Lombard Street into a temporary park in conjunction with the two-month street closure for a traffic study. The resulting open space combines elements from various city agency supply yards to bring trees, plants, and picnic tables into an area that just last week was exclusively used by cars.

The Mason Street trial closure is meant to test in real time what the traffic models and transportation engineers predict will result in minimal traffic disruptions should the city decide to close the street permanently. The traffic studies are required for environmental review of the expansion plans of the North Beach Branch Library, with one of the build options compelling the removal of the roadway to transform it into park space.

"Everyone thought there would be a real advantage from moving away from computer models and theories," said Julie Christensen of the Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground, a public playground that abuts Mason Street here. "We said if you are going to have this road closure for two months, and there is so little public space in the area, why not create a new public space?"

"I think we had three weeks to prepare once they decided on the closure date," said Christensen. "What do you do with a tight deadline, you look to your strengths. Rec and Park and DPW bent over backwards to put their staff at our disposal to get this done."

When city traffic managers settled on closing the street for the trial from August 1st to September 28th, they called on Rebar Art Collective to help them with the design. Rebar is probably best known for starting Park(ing) Day and coordinating the construction of the Civic Center Victory Garden, among other projects.

"I just have to say how enormously grateful we were for Rebar's involvement," Christensen added. "Their familiarity with urban scale, and their understanding of the materials and their ability to assess the assets at their disposal were so important to make this happen."

surface1small.jpgJohn Bela of Rebar (left) oversees construction of the plaza on Saturday, August 1. Photo:SurfaceWork

Rebar's John Bela said this was an "opportunity to make a new public space and use it to demonstrate what a permanent space could look and feel like." He also said that the turnaround for the project was remarkably fast, with Rebar's design concept presented to the city agencies only four days before implementation.

"There were 20-30 volunteers with DPW and Rec and Park, all there working together, busting ass and pitching in to make this thing happen," said Bela.

And just as quickly as the plaza went in, it is expected to be taken out by the end of the trial.

"Everything on that street is begged or borrowed," said Christiansen. The rice straw wattle used to contain the saw dust beds will be used on a soil erosion project in October; the plants from Rec and Park will be dispersed at various parks; the trees will go back to the Rec and Park nursery in Golden Gate Park; and the planters demarcating the street boundary will be used by DPW in future Pavement to Parks projects.

Andres Power of the Planning Department said the only way the trial could remain beyond the deadline is if the community asked loudly enough for it. "If the community comes around and asks for it to stay, we can go back to ISCOTT and ask for an extension, but right now the permit terminates at the end of September."

Christensen said there would be light programming, such as musicians and library-sponsored crafts days. The local Gino and Carlo Bar planned to hold its weekly Bocce tournament in the space for several Sundays in August.

"We were standing out there yesterday and the world was not coming to an end. North Beach was not hopelessly snarled in traffic," said Christensen. "People have these Christmas faces on, like it's Christmas day and this present has been dropped on them."

She sounded hopeful that there might be an extension, but said she was thrilled just to see the reactions from the neighborhood no matter how long the trial lasts:

It's not just turning pavement into parks, it's a nexus that creates a place for people to be, to run into each other. It was causing neighbors to talk to each other, and not just between like-minded people. It was the little Chinese kid playing, the homeless guy, the families with kids, the crotchety old neighbors. It caused them to be happy, to be open to each other. It's what the placemaking people tell us will happen when you open up the street this way.

jb8small_1.jpgRice straw wattle used for planters. Photo Rebar Art Collective
surface2small.jpgMaple trees from Rec and Park in planters. Board of Supervisors' Prez David Chiu with work gloves and a shovel. Photo: SurfaceWork
jb6small.jpgMoving saw dust into the beds. Photo: Rebar Art Collective
jb7small.jpgVolunteers and agency staff getting face time with BoS Prez Chiu. Photo Rebar Art Collective