A Tale of Two Plazas
While public reaction to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's Pavement to Parks plazas and parklets has been generally positive and the city is about to make the Castro trial more permanent, the proposal to close a Noe Valley street to cars and open it to pedestrians for a pilot plaza is generating quite the controversy.
Though the Mayor's Office and the San Francisco Planning Department had scouted the 24th Street business corridor with Supervisor Bevan Dufty and the Noe Valley Association, the Community Benefit District that represents merchants in the area, many residents found out their neighborhood was being considered for a plaza when they read about it in the newspaper.
"A lot of the neighbors were taken by surprise," said Matthew Fulvio, a resident living near the proposed plaza. Project opponents promptly mobilized by collecting petition signatures and making opposition signs that neighbors hung in their windows.
As a result of the opposition, Fulvio said he and his neighbors got a meeting with the city ahead of the first official public meeting this Thursday. At that meeting in early March, Fulvio and other neighbors spoke with Noe Valley Association's Deborah Nieman and the Planning Department's Pavement to Parks project manager Andres Power, to outline their concerns.
Fulvio said that the closure of the street to traffic was a worry, but not nearly as big an issue as the impact the plaza would have on deliveries, the impact on trash collection, general sanitation, and the noise generated by those using the plaza.
"The key point here is Starbucks and Toast, " said Fulvio, explaining that those two businesses front the proposed plaza and have "garbage and noise issues" that neighbors have tried to address. "We have ongoing discussions with those merchants about abating and being good neighbors," and they don't want the issues to be exacerbated, he said.
Proponents of the plaza, however, argue that the same concerns were voiced by a vocal minority living near the 17th Street and Castro Pavement to Parks plaza, but their fears never materialized.
Noe Valley resident John Murphy, who maintains the Yes Noe Valley blog in support of the project, said the plaza would be a fully reversible if it wasn't successful.
"It's a trial project; in a few months we will know what the impacts will be," said Murphy.
Rather than base fears on speculation, Murphy said they should put in the plaza and test the noise, sanitation and traffic impacts in real time.
"I think traffic will adjust," said Murphy, noting that Noe and 24th Street is already a four-way stop with high pedestrian volumes, which makes it an undesirable traffic route, whereas the intersection of Castro and 24th has traffic lights and makes driving easier there.
"If we have a problem with homeless people sleeping in the plaza at night, that's what we have the SFPD for," added Murphy. "We can take care of it."
Reacting to the backlash from the neighbors near the proposed plaza, Supervisor Bevan Dufty has publicly voiced his skepticism about the feasibility of the project and the Planning Department has put forward an alternative proposal that wouldn't close the street.
Planning's Power said the department would consider removing several parking spaces in the area and installing parklets like the trial extensions at Mojo Café on Divisadero Street. Power said the Noe Valley Association has been awarded $38,000 from the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development (MOEWD) for public space improvements and he would move forward with the project that generates the most neighborhood support.
"The idea is to do something people want. If the consensus here is that they don't want a closure, then it won't go forward," said Power. "The purpose of the meeting is to gauge the feeling of the community."
The public meeting will be held at St Phillips Church on Thursday, April 8th, at 6:30 pm.
Nearly a year after Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the first trial street closure in his Pavement to Parks initiative, the Department of Public Works will be out this week preparing the plaza space for construction that could begin as early as this weekend and will be the first step toward making the plaza permanent.
City planners used feedback from neighbors and merchants and plan to provide much more greenery and fixed seating, two of the highest demands registered over the past year by those who used the space.
"The goal is to take us from where we are now, which is cardboard, to something that will look good from now until we identify funding for a permanent plaza," said Planning's Power. The plaza received a $56,000 grant from the MOEWD, recently cleared environmental review, and now the MTA board is moving forward with legislation for permanent closure.
Power explained that the materials they would use for the upgrade would be more permanent, but would not be the final design for the plaza. He estimated the city would need to identify between two and three million dollars make it permanent.
Despite this, Power said the process over the past year for the trial street closures was very rewarding. After initial outcry from neighbors on Hartford Street who didn't want to lose their convenient access or who feared that vagrants would overrun the space, nearly everyone now embraces the plaza.
"It's as close to unanimously supported as you can get in San Francisco," said Power. "There are people in the space pretty much all day, every day. Everyone seems to be rallying around this as a new and important civic space at the gateway to the Castro."