When the 17th Street and Castro Street trial Pavement to Parks plaza was implemented in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom said at the press conference that he would expedite two more plazas immediately, and if the public used them and clamored for more, he would instruct his agencies to build them. Apparently, he wasn’t grandstanding.
The first three plaza locations were selected strategically because they had years of community planning behind them and the city expected there would be little resistance to making the changes. In fact, they hoped to see the exact results they are seeing.
"People are banging down the doors, community groups and professionals are clamoring to make more happen," said Ed Reiskin, Director of the Department of Public Works (DPW) and one of the central catalysts in moving the projects forward. "That to me is a sign of something good. That’s a good problem to have."
Reiskin pointed to the Mason Street park as an example of community groups taking advantage of a trial traffic closure to green their neighborhood. "It was just meant to be a street closure, throw up some orange plastic bollards and measure the traffic impacts. But the community rose up and in a few hours turned an otherwise undesirable space into a community space."
There is so much interest in opening up unused street space and turning it into public open space that the city agencies involved in selecting the projects told Streetsblog that they are getting lobbied at City Hall by supervisors and by the general public at community meetings around the city.
"I haven’t solicited any design input," said Andres Power, project manager from the Planning Department for the trial plazas at San Jose/Guerrero and 16th Street/8th Street in Lower Potrero. "But I have a list of 25 landscape architects willing to do the next design."
Power said that in addition to building off locations with a history and vision for public space, some key factors allow the city to move quickly. They include using materials the city already has on hand and looking for private donations for capital costs that may come up, along with robust volunteer and in-kind donations. It doesn’t hurt that the plazas are politically popular either.
"There is a coalescing from the highest levels of city government," said Power. "There is a clear and consistent message from both the mayoral and supervisorial sides of government."
Rebar Arts Collective was one of the designers who approached the city to design a plaza shortly after they heard about the imminent 17th and Castro project from colleagues at Public Architecture, according to Rebar’s John Bela. "We’ve been exploring turning street-space into public space for years. We had been following what was happening in New York and the first pavement to parks project in San Francisco and we called up Planning to see if we could help."
Rebar was chosen for the Lower Potrero project and will donate its time and labor, just as Public Architecture did for 17th and Castro and Shift Design Studio is for San Jose and Guerrero. Rebar has ambitious plans for redefining the user’s experience with these new spaces.
"You walk into the space and you recognize that it’s not a street
anymore but it’s not a park either. It’s a street park or street plaza," said Bela. "It’s a new category of spaces that is being created and we want to create a new language to explain that. One of our interests is taking the vernacular of street markings — bike lanes, turn arrows, lane markings, crosswalks — and re-mixing them into the plaza space and street surface."
"The streets represent 25 percent of the city’s land area, the biggest component of the public realm. We’re only now able to take advantage of that," added Bela. "We call this user generated urbanism, participatory urbanism. People are getting involved in space making, defining the properties of their space."
Along these lines Bela said Rebar intends to provide space in the plaza for user-generated art and sculpture, a nod to the California College of the Arts campus that sits three blocks away. The materials Rebar uses will also be more industrial to reflect the history of the neighborhood, including using old NorCal metal debris boxes as planters, which enables them to be movable should the city want to use them elsewhere.
As far as the next plaza is concerned, both Reiskin and Power indicated they were looking at Naples Green, on the south side of Geneva Avenue at Naples Street in the Excelsior. After that, Reiskin indicated that they hope to add plazas in "every corner of the city, especially those that are underserved by public space."
Reiskin added: "I see this as a spectrum of things. At one end there are full massive street changes, like we’re doing on Valencia Street. At the other end is Sunday Streets. I hope that we end up with a wide palette of what we can do. I think we’ve disproven people’s conceptions of what gets done in this city. Good things can happen quickly and at low cost."