The Hopes and Challenges for Remaking San Francisco’s Market Street

Empty_Market_Street.gifTrial traffic diversions on Market Street. Photo: sfbike
With six months of hindsight since San Francisco began trial traffic diversions and art in shuttered storefronts on Market Street, city leaders are taking stock of what has been successful and what has been less so. Within weeks, they expect to complete a scoping document and put out bids for a three-year design and transportation plan that will remake the most iconic street in San Francisco.

With repaving scheduled in late 2013 or early 2014, planners hope to maximize efficiency between the many agencies responsible for the street, the sidewalks, transit operations, and public space improvements, what could be the most important example of the city delivering on its Complete Streets policy obligations.

"I think it’s a synergy of a lot of things," said Kris Opbroek, Better Market Street project manager from the Department of Public Works (DPW). "With coordination, you get a better, more beautiful, more complete street that serves all the users, not just one, and that really is the goal."

The budget for the planning process will likely be between one and two million dollars, depending on the success of several grant applications. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA), the county congestion management agency with the power to dispense sales-tax revenue to transportation projects, has an available pool of $750,000 in Proposition K funds that the Board of Supervisors (acting as the TA's Board of Directors) could release for the project. The MTA has $200,000 of Safe Routes to Transit money that has already been awarded for Market Street planning. The city team has also applied for a $250,000 Caltrans Transit Planning Studies Grant and might seek federal EPA grants if those are applicable.

Though the scope of work for the project has yet to be finalized, planners expect to choose a consultant team to begin public outreach and planning by this summer. From there, they will work with the community and business stakeholders along the corridor to develop a vision for remaking the street. Planning is expected to take one year, followed by one-to-two years for environmental review.

While no decisions have been taken for what the finished product for Market Street will look like, several principles will guide the team of consultants that will be chosen to spearhead transportation and design changes.

Planners said they would focus on prioritizing the needs of pedestrians, transit riders, and cyclists, while allowing for necessary vehicular traffic, such as deliveries.   

"We want to increase transit performance and make bicycling comfortable for the 8 to 80 group," said Timothy Papandreou, Assistant Deputy Director for Planning and Better Market Street project manager for the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA). Papandreou's reference to the "8 to 80 group" alludes to former Mayor af Bogotá, Colombia, and livable city luminary Enrique Peñalosa's refrain that a city must design its bicycle network so an 8-year old child or an 80-year old senior would feel safe riding through it.

Though it would be premature to speculate whether cars would eventually be banned on Market Street or whether bus and transit lines would be moved to neighboring streets, Papandreou said the city team was looking at best practice examples from around the world, including Melbourne, Australia, where Swanston Street was recently re-designed as a transit and pedestrian thoroughfare without private cars or taxis. He also pointed closer to home and said they had been monitoring the success of similar experiments in Portland and Seattle.

Papandreou noted that one quarter of all transit trips in San Francisco either happen on Market Street or traverse Market Street, so the importance of the project from a transit perspective couldn't be underscored enough.

"Market Street really is the main everything," he said. "Whatever we do [there] is going to impact the whole transportation system. "

Another guiding principle will be improving the pedestrian experience and enhancing destinations along the corridor. As with the transportation trials, the public space interventions will inform the public realm changes that will be part of the long-term vision.

In addition to the Art in Storefronts initiative, the city has experimented with trial Green Pods, where tables and chairs have been set up on sidewalks surrounded by plants, and small open-air concerts Through the People in Plazas program.

"It’s not just about curb to curb," said Astrid Haryati, Mayor Newsom's Director of Greening, in reference to the repaving of the street between curbs. "We’re looking into the kind of consultant that would work with us comprehensively, not just mobility but all aspects of placemaking."

Mural_and_peds.gifArt on Market Street Mural. Photo: Matthew Roth

Addressing Systemic Challenges on Market Street

Of course, the sum total of trials won't add up to an improved street and public realm without addressing vital questions about economic development and the negative public perception of the Mid-Market portion of the street between Van Ness and 5th Street.

Haryati said the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development was talking with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency about revisiting a redevelopment plan for the area, which would allow for increased bonding to spur development. Despite the difficult history and politics of redevelopment on this portion of Market, Haryati struck an optimistic tone, referring to the street and public space changes as a complement to "impactful development in the area."

Balancing development, streetscape beautification and transportation improvement with social issues like homelessness will likely be one of the more difficult challenges the planning team faces.

Dina Hilliard, Associate District Manager of the North of Tenderloin Community Benefit District (CBD), said that while she was encouraged by the Art in Storefronts pilots and the three People in Plazas jazz concerts the CBD funded, improving the lives of homeless people was a "root issue" that would be much more difficult to address.

"It is a balance and that’s why we’re saying let’s deal with the root problems," said Hilliard. "You can’t just put up a chair and a table and the issue is fixed."

Kit Hodge, Director of the San Francisco Great Streets Project, said the city was aware of the bigger challenges and would focus on them while making infrastructure changes.

"The city recognizes that this is a street with a lot of discussion about improvements," she said. The city is focusing "on the bones of the street, to some extent the blood, but recognizing that this project can’t solve all the issues with the street."

The Promise of the Public Space and Traffic Trials

Though none of the planners said the process would be easy, they have taken heart with the general acceptance of the trial automobile diversions.

The Union Square Business Improvement District (BID), one of the groups wary of the traffic diversions last summer, was pleased that the changes hadn't hurt business.

"Our organization was concerned about what the diversion of automobiles off of Market Street might mean," said Linda Mjellum, Executive Director of the BID. Mjellum said her businesses hadn't noticed any negative impacts as a result. "We had no complaints," she said. "Zero."

Several interview subjects mentioned possible further additions to the traffic diversion trials, such as replacing the Parking Control Officers who have been directing private vehicles off the street at 10th Street with self-enforcing engineering changes that would further solidify the driving restrictions, though when that will happen is uncertain.

Mjellum noted that the merchants along Powell Street were also enthusiastic about the pilot that expanded pedestrian space, which is sorely needed, especially on weekends.

"I think the businesses on Powell Street are wide open to doing something more extensive," said Mjellum. "They would like to see the sidewalks widened on Powell, assuming we could accommodate passenger drop-offs."

Cyclists were also quite happy with the traffic diversions, which have made the experience of riding less stressful, according to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC).

"For a street as important and iconic for bicycles as Market Street we’re encouraged to see the city planning ahead for such a large project. This is the most important street in San Francisco," said SFBC community organizer Neal Patel,

In the end, the DPW will still repave Market Street in three years, regardless of the politics that help or hinder the design and implementation of the larger vision.

TA Deputy Director for Planning Tilly Chang said the weight of the decisions being made for the next few decades on San Francisco's most iconic street were not lost on anyone involved.

"We all know the expectation of the public, the advocates, the Board, the Mayor, is that we have to make the most of this opportunity," she said.