In Search of a Better Pedestrian Realm for Broadway in Chinatown

IMG_0882_1.jpgOn Broadway near the corner of Stockton, pedestrians jostle for space on a lively but overcrowded sidewalk. Photo: Michael Rhodes
The stretch of Broadway between Columbus Avenue and the Robert C. Levy tunnel is an unheralded segment of San Francisco's Chinatown: storefront after storefront of neighborhood shops and restaurants, with far fewer tourists than Grant Avenue or Stockton Street. But its streetscape, though lively with pedestrians during the day, maintains much the same look it had when the Embarcadero Freeway still touched down several blocks to the east, funneling cars through the neighborhood via Broadway's four lanes of traffic, as pedestrians squeeze onto 12-foot-wide sidewalks.

Now, with the freeway long since torn down, the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) is hoping to remake the street as a great place for pedestrians and lift the fortunes of struggling businesses in the process, an effort dubbed the Broadway Streetscape Improvement Project (BSIP).

Demand for improvements is clear and overwhelming. In October, CCDC conducted 122 intercept surveys on Broadway to gauge the needs of the street's users. Not surprisingly, the results show that people value the convenience of shopping there, but strongly dislike the streetscape. Reflecting this, the top complaints about the street, in order, were crowded sidewalks, speeding cars, a dirty and unpleasant environment, and the heavy traffic volume. Ninety eight percent of respondents said pedestrian safety improvements are "very important."

The surveys also found that three-quarters of the street's users come by foot or transit, and the same proportion are there to shop. When they do arrive, they find packed sidewalks, inadequate lighting, and dangerous conflicts between pedestrians and traffic that zooms downhill from the tunnel.

IMG_0918.jpgMuch of the pedestrian infrastructure on Broadway in Chinatown is heavily worn and faded. Photo: Michael Rhodes

Deland Chan, a senior planner for CCDC, said the BSIP is an attempt to revitalize the corridor through both streetscape and economic development efforts. "Essentially, we hear a strong demand to tie in streetscape improvements with economic development strategies," said Chan.

"Community members often say that Broadway feels empty and unsafe in the evening hours because of the lack of family-friendly activities. As one resident said to me, 'What is the point of a beautiful street if there is no one on the street to appreciate it?'"

The project is the third phase of streetscape improvements to Broadway. When the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the neighborhoods around Broadway began a visioning process to revitalize the street as a pedestrian-friendly destination. The first two phases were completed in 2005 and 2008, with grants from the MTC, SFCTA, and DPW, and covered the blocks to the east of Columbus Avenue.

DPW crews widened portions of the sidewalks, and installed curb ramps, benches, streetlights, trees, and new traffic and pedestrian signals. The second phase also included a permanent public art installation by Brian Goggin, called Language of the Birds, as part of a new plaza at Broadway and Columbus designed to link Chinatown and North Beach.

Still, the third phase may require even bolder action: many businesses report that they're struggling to hang on in a section of Chinatown that is not a major destination for visitors from out of the neighborhood. Efforts to attract more people to the area, like merchant displays that spill onto the sidewalk and draw crowds, can prove problematic because of the limited and cluttered sidewalk space.

"The Broadway and Stockton intersection is especially problematic," said Chan. "Due to the volume of pedestrians and shoppers who tend to gather around the sidewalk merchandise display, the curb space is inadequate for pedestrians waiting to cross Broadway. We have heard and seen incidents where pedestrians have been forced to step off the curb, putting them in danger of perpendicular traffic traveling on Stockton."

"In one particularly terrible scenario, an elderly man stepped off the curb and tripped. He actually fell to the ground face down due to the uneven sloping of the corner."

Broadway1004_1.jpgDuring the day, Broadway sometimes has more street life than it has room for: here, an impromptu game of sidewalk checkers breaks out near a merchant's sidewalk display. Photo: Ben Ng
The sidewalks are so skinny and congested today, many of the CCDC survey respondents said they preferred no new benches or trees if the sidewalk stayed the same width.

On the other hand, people on the street were very enthusiastic about adding public art, Chan said, and wished to make Broadway more of a destination, especially during the evening hours, when the packed sidewalk morphs into a dark and foreboding space. With the economic development component of the Broadway plan, CCDC hopes to find ways that community-based programming can reinforce streetscape improvements.

For now, CCDC is conducting stakeholder interviews and continuing to study the street, and plans to present a report on this phase of the improvement project early next year. Asian Neighborhood Design will supply additional design support and DPW, which designed the first two phases, will continue to provide input. Once the plan is complete, CCDC will seek funding for the project, and hopes to collaborate with DPW to get it built.

Given the financial and political challenges of improving any streetscape in the city, that could still be a ways off. Broadway's residents and business owners will have plenty of time to review best practice streetscape improvements on Valencia and Divisadero Streets, as well as Oakland's Chinatown, all of which demonstrate the potential for coordinating good design with the needs of a neighborhood commercial street.

IMG_0936.jpgUnlike people, cars enjoy a wide, uncluttered pathway on Broadway. Photo: Michael Rhodes