Dreaming of Pedestrian Heaven on San Francisco’s Oldest Street

IMG_1981.jpgEnjoying a car-free Grant Avenue at Noodle Fest. Photo: Michael Rhodes

Could San Francisco’s first and oldest thoroughfare become the city’s first true pedestrianized street?

Since the day in 1835 when William Richardson drew the first map of Yerba Buena that included just one street, called "Calle de la fundacion" — Foundation Street, which ran along the lines of present-day Grant Avenue, the city’s oldest street has gone through several transformations. First, it was renamed Dupont Street, in 1847, then Grant Avenue, in 1886. But the coup de grâce to the old Calle de la fundacion was the 1906 earthquake, which leveled everything but the hills.

On a bright afternoon last Sunday, less than a block from where Richardson first made his home in 1835 near Grant and Washington Street, there were signs Grant might be ready for another transformation. This time, the center of the transformation was not fire or renaming, but noodles.

Thousands of people packed into a few blocks of Grant Avenue where it intersects Broadway, the traditional boundary between Chinatown and North Beach. Noodle Fest 2010, put on by the Chinatown Community Development Center and the North Beach Merchants Association, sought to bridge two neighborhoods that four lanes of traffic on Broadway have long kept apart.

Merchants reaped the benefits of a lot of extra exposure, while everyone got a tantalizing look at what a pedestrianized Grant Avenue could look like.

"For the merchants who participated in Noodle Fest, they were extremely happy to see all the attention their restaurant received by so many people who hardly venture into either neighborhood," said CCDC’s Vivian Chang, who helped organize the event.

chinatown_finished.jpgClick to enlarge: An artist’s rendering of what a car-free Grant Avenue could look like. Image: Urban Ecology

Grant Avenue is a frequent site for street festivals, including the Autumn Moon Festival and the North Beach Festival. Even on regular days, the narrow street is packed with pedestrians on its skinny sidewalks. Chang said Sunday’s event highlighted the potential for a permanent closure to vehicles.

"The transformation of upper Grant [Sunday] was an exciting sight to behold, which brought so many pedestrians to Chinatown and North Beach. I would venture to say that a permanent closure is now closer than ever before, since surrounding businesses themselves saw an increase in their revenue within [Sunday’s] event."

It wasn’t hard to find people on the street that felt the same way.

"It’s hard to go a step without bumping into someone else" on Grant Avenue, said David Yao, who works near Chinatown and was visiting Noodle Fest. Closing part or all of Grant to traffic would make it easier to just have "a nice stroll on a Sunday afternoon," he added.

Michael Reilly, a researcher at the Association of Bay Area Governments and a former urban economics lecturer at Stanford and UC Berkeley, was also out enjoying Noodle Fest. To Reilly, Grant Avenue is the best candidate in the city for pedestrianizing.

"Recently, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about Grant as the best street to close in San Francisco," said Reilly. "If you were going to pick one to close to traffic, this might be the very best one in a practical sense, because Market is not busy enough. There’s really not enough pedestrian traffic, especially after 6 o’clock."

"There’s a lot of potential, and it links really nicely with Yerba Buena [Center for the Arts]."

AAB_3864.jpgGrant Avenue’s narrow right-of-way has always lent itself to intimate street festivals. This one occurred in 1885. Image: San Francisco Public Library

There are other signs of pedestrian-oriented streets gaining steam in Chinatown and North Beach, including plans for a pedestrian plaza on Vallejo between Grant and Columbus, survey results showing strong demand for more open space, pedestrianized alleys across Chinatown, and even some enticing drawings by Urban Ecology of what a pedestrianized Grant could look like, on both sides of Broadway.

CCDC’s Chang said pedestrianizing Grant Avenue is still a dream at this point, but could be worth working towards.

"It is definitely going to take a lot of effort to continue these types of street closures to acclimate merchants to this idea, but in this economy, perhaps it is time to think of pedestrianizing streets like Grant Avenue as a means to jumpstart the local businesses," she said.

Sunday Streets is also helping merchants and neighbors get used to the idea of street closures, but as Chang notes, pedestrian-oriented street fairs make a very explicit connection between economic development and pedestrian traffic.

Hksycss.jpgSai Yeung Choi Street, a car-free shopping street in Hong Kong. Image: Wikipedia

The best model for opening Grant Avenue entirely to pedestrians could come from another seaside city with plenty of Cantonese speakers: Hong Kong. There, streets like Sai Yeung Choi Street are pedestrian refuges and shopping hot spots.

But when Noodle Fest ended, things went back to normal on Grant Avenue — tons of people crowded onto narrow sidewalks, while two lanes of traffic and a parking lane hogged most the narrow corridor between the street’s buildings.

Transbay Blog’s Eric Chase wasn’t sure how hopeful he felt about the prospects for pedestrianizing Grant. "This is San Francisco, after all!" he pointed out. But like many of the other people at Noodle Fest, he couldn’t help but think it would be nice.

  • Michael, thank you! We need this. It’s not just a want, it is a need for the neighborhood. Like I’ve been saying, the car status quo isn’t working for anyone. You can’t walk down Upper Grant (or any part) without running to people or parking meters. You look at the street and you can tell pedestrians aren’t welcome. This city will soon learn that people shop, not cars.

  • Another note, still upset North Beach doesn’t have a Sunday Streets this year. Densest neighborhood west of Manhattan and we got the short end of the stick. Powers that be might be a little too afraid of how popular it would be.

  • Droool pedestrian porn. This is an idea that should have happened years ago.

    Mikesonn, agreed. I’m very disappointed no North Beach Sunday Streets this year. What up with that?

  • YES. People rediscovering our pedestrian roots.

  • @mikesonn: still???? That’s too bad – I bet a NB Sunday Streets would be a lot of fun. Too bad that some NIMBYs there ruin any innovation or anything creative over there.

  • Noodlefest was a great event, even not having a ticket! I suspect that this event could be held much more often than once a year without its popularity diminishing.

    The “weakest link” was that it was basically two separated street fairs going on at the same time, split in half by car zones on Broadway and Columbus. Navigating as a pedestrian in that area is a bit of a zig-zag on any day, but the distance between the two halves of Grant was especially emphasized that day.

    Re: pedestrianizing Grant, I agree that it ranks as one of the most natural places in the city to open up to humans and close off to cars. In an ideal world, both Grant and Stockton’s distinct issues would be addressed. In our world, neither has been addressed. If forced to choose (and this is part of what was underlying my comment to Michael), I believe that the dysfunction of current Stockton Street surface management is the greater of the two issues — and it’s a problem that doesn’t simply vanish just because you build a subway.

  • transbay, @Stockton. Truer words have never been spoken. Stockton is a mess that needs immediate solutions. We can’t wait 10-15 years for the subway (which won’t solve anything anyway).

  • James Figone

    I agree with transbay. Both Grant and Stockton should be closed to cars but the situation on Stockton is completely out of hand and desperately needs attention. Too bad Nat Ford tells us that Stockton problems will be handled by parking control officers only with no other traffic mitigation planned.

  • Eric Fischer recently posted a Market Street design plan from 1967 that showed a pedestrianized Grant and Powell, connected by Union Square and Maiden Lane to form a nice pedestrian corridor:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/4468474849/

  • Absolutely the best idea. And it will save those idiotic driver to make this mistake from driving into Grant St and get stuck among the stream of pesdestrians.

    Chinese American are slow to embrace the idea of pedestrianization. They fervantly oppose the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway. This will be first viewed as a negation (i.e. ban car). A lot of outreach and education are needed to overcome this judgement. The picture of street paved in red brick is an excellent for giving the a good impression on what to come. And to change the framing from negation to investment to the neighborhood.

    And its good that you bring up Sai Yeung Choi Street. I used to live 5 minute from there before it was closed to traffic. Notice how the crowd filled the street in the picture. Imagine if you have to fit this crowd into the narrow sidewalk! It is practical more than beautiful. Adjacent to Sai Yeung Choi Street is the “Women’s Street”, an open air market on the street that has started decades ago. It is a great place to experience the city if you happen to travel there. Note that the streets are open to traffic in the morning.

  • JohnB

    While I think that the Sunday Streets thing is an irrelvancy, I do believe that Grant and Stockton count as the two streets in SF that I least like to drive down.

    So even this ardent defender of drivers’ rights would argue that there is a case to close these streets to cars (but obviously not delivery trucks since they are lined with businesses).

    As long as reasonable alternates to those routes are upheld and promoted.

  • patrick

    JohnB, why do you say Sunday Streets is irrelevant? It’s grown every year, tens of thousands of people enjoy it, and neighborhoods that don’t have it want to be added.

  • @patrick because streets are for cars silly!

  • JohnB

    Patrick

    Because closing a street for one day a year is a sop to car haters like JohnM. It may placate him but it does nothing for the other 364 days of a year.

    If you want to convert some streets to car-free zones, which I have no objection to if done thoughtfully, then do it. But do not instead delude yourself that having a one-day street fair is achieving your goals. It isn’t. It’s simply a Gavinesque gesture.

  • I think it goes without saying that any changes would come with a huge study on traffic impacts. I think a greater argument could be made to make Grant thru Chinatown pedestrian only while leaving Upper Grant single lane with one side parking with expanded sidewalks. I think Telegraph Hill offers fewer options for side street travel.

    But in that same breath, like I said in the headlines – Columbus has to change also. It is a main pedestrian street through the heart of the city and it has 6 lanes for cars and only 10 ft for pedestrians (some up that taken up by cafe seating).

    But if you touch Stockton, you’d have to switch Kearny back to two way – which it should be anyway. Montgomery could then be brought back to two way and we can rid ourselves of 3-4 lane thoroughfares through our downtown.

  • patrick

    JohnB, I happen to believe things happen gradually, over time, and that everything we take for granted today, was once a small undertaking that was done very infrequently.

    Sunday Streets is just one part of an overall trend. You consider it irrelevant, I consider it a sign of great things to come.

  • noah

    it’s frustrating that this article doesn’t specify precisely what parts of grant people want to “pedestrianize.” It’s impossible to seriously evaluate this proposal without knowing exactly what blocks people want to close.

  • Noah. Upper Grant = north of Columbus/Broadway to Filbert. The other part of Grant is through Chinatown, Bush north to Broadway.

  • James Figone

    @all: Let it be known that JohnB is ok with closing Grant & Stockton assuming that it is done responsibly allowing for essential commercial and safety services. I would say this is a significant sign to such a change may not trigger the resistance we think.

  • @mikesonn, I love it. You change one street, and all the other necessary changes fall into place naturally. Pedestrianize Grant, make Stockton transit-preferential, then convert Kearny and Montgomery to two-way.

    Btw, wouldn’t a transit-only (or transit-preferential) Stockton be superior in virtually every way to the central subway? You’d avoid the deep stations and you could take advantage of the Stockton tunnel, which was originally designed for streetcars. Not to mention saving an order of magnitude in costs. Motorist wouldn’t see much impact either, as nobody in their right mind would use Stockton as a through-street.

  • “Btw, wouldn’t a transit-only (or transit-preferential) Stockton be superior in virtually every way to the central subway? You’d avoid the deep stations and you could take advantage of the Stockton tunnel, which was originally designed for streetcars. Not to mention saving an order of magnitude in costs. Motorist wouldn’t see much impact either, as nobody in their right mind would use Stockton as a through-street.”

    I think you misspelled “three orders of magnitude in costs”.

    The only way it would not be superior is that there would not be a big ribbon cutting.

  • James Figone

    @mikesonn: If you make kearny two way, I’m assuming that you will make 3rd two way also. Taking that a bit further, would you extend the T-third line on 4th on the surface to Fishermans wharf or leave it as is and use the existing bus lines? Of course you would have the 30 bus run both ways on Stockton/4th instead of having it do the weird routing on third/kearny/sutter as it does now.

  • James, it sounds like a beautiful thing right? Kearny goes two way, so does 3rd. Stockton goes two ways, prioritized for transit (with business deliveries in the morning/evening) and then 4th street falls in as two way. Now you have two main one-way highways running through downtown changed back to much more manageable two-way streets. Now these streets serve the neighborhood and aren’t used to shoot people through SOMA at 40-50 mph.

    I’d argue there is no need to take the T-third line past where it is. Keep the 30/45 running that part of the route and have them use 4th street bidirectionally. I hear often that people long for the days of the 15 bus and I’d hate to see the 30/45 corridor suffer the same fate. You have to keep in mind that the 30/45 lines serve areas well beyond Stockton street. On that note, the subway is going to crush bus service to Russian Hill, Marina, and Pac Heights.

    I think a lot of people are nervous that traffic would be crushing if anything is done to shake up the status quo, but it will adjust. If people find that Kearny to Columbus isn’t a 40+ mph shot thru North Beach, they’ll take other routes. Most of the traffic clogging our streets are people trying to cut through our neighborhood. Make it hard to do so, and they’ll stop using it as a short cut. And John C, people are out of their mind – I’d say a huge portion of the traffic on Stockton is people using it as a thru-street.

  • CBrinkman

    I think Sunday Streets has helped people realize what our streets can be like when not dominated by cars 24/7. It has helped the merchants realize that more people means more business and people re-discover parts of the city they rarely visit, and helped people get on their bikes, or back on their bikes.

    And, perhaps most importantly, it has helped City Hall realize how popular car free streets are, temporary or permanent.

    Sure it’s just one day here and there, and not in every neighborhood that wants it, but irrelevant? I think not.

  • Side note, I think our discussion on the E-Embarcadero would help curtail any argument for a Caltrain-to-Wharf T-third discussion and would better serve the tourist segment of that ridership.

    Of course that would mean fixing 4th/King, but so does having the T-line go north through that intersection.

  • ZA

    Any word on Chinatown/Grant Ave merchants who want to keep parking spots for their own cars?

    I think it’s a no-brainer to turn Grant Ave from Columbus Ave to Bush Street into a pedestrian zone. It might even be worth considering extending that all the way to Market Street. I particularly like the car-reducing implications that would have for Pacific, Jackson, and Washington Streets…resurrecting an intense pedestrian zone along the old Barbary Coast.

    Stockton is a tough nut to crack. Clearly the sidewalks need to be widened to accommodate all the people, and if it were turned into a bus-only route, it could move many more people through the area quickly and efficiently.

  • ZA, I think merchants wanting to park their own car is the biggest hurdle to even extending parking meter hours, let alone removing parking spaces. I see so many shop owners and workers (mostly wait staff because they stick out in a crowd) feed the meter throughout the day on Columbus it is unreal.

    If the city really wanted to help small business, they would offer an easier way to offer discounted MUNI passes to their employees. That would open parking up in front of their stories and maybe they wouldn’t fight so hard to keep that parking.

  • mikesonn, Employees feeding the meter for their own car !! OMG 🙂

    Many employees don’t live in SF. I don’t know if a MUNI pass would really help. I know of some are from SSF or the East bay. And BART is somewhat far to walk from Chinatown.

  • But right in front of the business? There is plenty of side street parking, even in North Beach. OMG!

  • What a thrill to read … hope it comes to fruition!!

  • w.r.t alternative plans for Stockton, I think extending the T-line via surface street all the way up to the wharf makes a lot of sense. The 30 and 45 buses are already crush-loaded even with vehicles arriving every few minutes. A 2-car LRV has significantly more capacity and allows quick boarding and unboarding via all 8 doors (vs 2 or 3 on a bus). This would re-create the original F-stockton line that ran from Market up Stockton, Columbus, and North Point.

  • John C, I completely understand and agree to an extent. However, if you bring the T-line up Stockton, above grade or below, it will severely cut bus service to those neighborhoods slightly to the west. And our current LRVs leave much to be desired. However, I’m with you that if the T-line must come up Stockton, it is much if it is done on the surface in dedicated lanes with signal priority.

  • This is a great idea! I hope that it is actually a pedestrian & bicycle street, with some thought given to how the two modes might interact best in such an environment… including attention to whether bicycles might get separate pavement treatment or just move very slowly through the chaos, as well as the best place to put bicycle parking so that it’s out of the way…

  • Even sophisticated world travelers take great streets for granted. We instinctively appreciate great urban realms that evolve over time and incubate a rich complexity. Easily comprehendible, pedestrian streets nestle into strategic nodes with stimulating pathways—and can be replicated.
    Copenhagen’s Srøget pedestrian zone extends 1 mile to Nyhavn canal’s restaurants. Munich’s cobblestoned Neuhauser/ Kaufinger Strasse is 1 mile long. The stroll from Venice’s Train Station across the Rialto Bridge to Piazza San Marco is 1.5 miles. Hong Kong’s Temple Street Night Market and Ladies Market meander for 1.5 miles. Shanghai’s pedestrian Nanjing Road stretches 1.5 miles to the Bund and the Huangpu River.
    San Francisco’s Downtown/ Market St. are only 1.5 miles from Fisherman’s Wharf. Chinatown’s Grant Ave. is 3/4 mile long. Columbus Avenue is 1.2 miles long.
    Rather than allowing San Francisco’s Municipal Railway to collapse, the Central Subway’s existing $384 million in State/ Local funds could save public transit now and create life-enhancing pedestrian streets.

  • PeoplePerson

    This conversation needs to continue. I’ve not heard anything about this idea in a while but it’s still a no-brainer. Who’s interested in talking?

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