The Future of the Better Streets Plan Hinges on Political Will

IMG_0905.jpgThe Mayor holds up a copy of The Better Streets Plan at a press conference yesterday: "Eat your heart out Portland." Photo by Bryan Goebel.

Standing in the glaring Mission District sun yesterday on a wide new sidewalk, before a crowd of advocates, city planners, merchants, construction crews, artists and many others celebrating the completion of the Valencia Streetscape Improvement Project, Mayor Gavin Newsom officially released a bold vision for improving the pedestrian realm in San Francisco called The
Better Streets Plan
.

Newsom spoke of leveraging the work happening at individual agencies and packaging them into a narrative for our public realm, versus scattershot, reactive decision making to appease those who yell the loudest.

"In the past, none of that really existed," Newsom said, brandishing the thick Better Streets Plan booklet. "We had communities that said enough’s enough, we need you to focus on our streets and then someone with a louder voice came to the board of Supervisors or the Mayor’s Office and said no, no, no, focus on our street."

"Now we have a deliberative, proactive plan, now we’re codifying in the General Plan of San Francisco this vision," said Newsom. "This will anchor the future of this effort for decades and decades to come."

The Better Streets Plan, now in its final draft after years of community input and planning, envisions a transformational and sustainable future that brings San Francisco more in line with how it was designed to be before the automobile strangled many of its neighborhoods. 

In the plan’s introduction, Newsom states: "The Better Streets Plan illustrates that the City and community working
together can realize actual street changes that improve San Francisco’s
streetscapes – to make our streets more useable and attractive and
universally accessible to all, to make them safer and more welcoming, to
improve their ecological functioning, and to return them to their
rightful place as the center of civic life in this wonderful city."

They are great words, but ironically, just as the Mayor was talking about how San Francisco will become the greenest city in America, news filtered out that a loud minority of Noe Valley residents, some of whom stormed a recent planning meeting in Tea Party fashion, had forced enough pressure to cause Supervisor and mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty to cave in and kill a proposed public plaza meant to convert the heart of the neighborhood into just the kind of vibrant social center Newsom talked about. 

At the Tea Party meeting, Andres Power, the Planning Department’s tireless project manager for the Pavement to Parks program, was going to present the results of the SFMTA’s traffic analysis of the trial closure of Noe Street at 24th Street, which the neighbors had requested. The anti-plaza crowd showed up early and took the front rows of seats so they could make a mockery of the meeting and disrupt the presentation.

Even this construct of focusing solely on the traffic belies the prejudice with which we view our streets, primarily for cars, secondarily for people and places.

Noe Valley is a good walking neighborhood, like most
neighborhoods in San Francisco, but its sidewalks in the central
commercial district on Noe Street don’t do justice to the dense
crowds of residents and visitors who bustle about on foot, and there
are few public amenities to accommodate those who want to sit and
take it all in. Killing the plaza to the cries of a handful of residents
who managed to collect a few hundred signatures is an affront to The
Better Streets Plan, and I fear the kind of neighborhood battles that
will ensue until our electeds muster the political will to back up all
their green talk with action.

We’ve made wonderful progress with the Pavement to Parks plazas and parklets, so why turn back now because of a vocal few? Isn’t that exactly what Newsom said The Better Streets Plan was designed to prevent? There is talk of two new parklets on 24th Street between Sanchez and Noe in lieu of the plaza but why not do all three?

It’s particularly dismaying, but not surprising, that Dufty, who indicated initial support for the plaza, buckled. If he wants to be mayor he should start touting the tenets of The Better Streets Plan and come up with his own ideas to get it done. Aspiring to make San Francisco a greater city for pedestrians, transit riders and bicyclists should not be a political liability.

It is true that if you build it they will come, and they will enjoy. The same complaints the Noe Valley few have voiced were trumpeted by neighbors on Hartford Street over the hill in the Castro, though that resistance vanished when the final product was constructed.

If our political leaders had the strength to move forward with the trial Noe Valley plaza, I suspect all of those worries would be cast aside and residents will demand more improvements over time. 

Among the ten elements that chart a course toward more livable streets, The Better Streets Plan calls for memorable neighborhoods that support diverse public life and healthy lifestyles that encourage "walking to daily and occasional destinations, minimizing pedestrian injuries and helping to decrease major chronic diseases related to air quality and pedestrian activity."

Considering our aging population, including those baby boomers and retirees who live in some of the old Victorians that make Noe Valley so charming, wouldn’t the plaza be the perfect thing to help achieve this goal? Instead, worries about disrupting private auto traffic, one of the leading contributors to chronic diseases and obesity, trump the goals of making San Francisco a healthier and more livable city.

If Newsom and Dufty and all our local electeds want to keep talking about sustainability, they should work to embolden those visionaries in the advocacy community and within the Planning Department, the SFDPW, SFMTA and the SFCTA who are so anxious to implement innovative ideas, forged from community input and best practices from around the world.

Progress on the streets really boils down to political will.

Unfortunately, many of those advocates, city planners and community leaders who do the quiet work, spend their nights at community meetings, write the speeches and press releases — and who often get little public credit — frequently watch their ideas collect dust, or get shot down in one swoop by a few doubters, regardless of what city policy demands.

We cannot and should not let that happen to The Better Streets Plan.

  • Wait, you mean politicians talk about nice sounding ideas with buzzwords to get elected, but when in office and the pressure hits, they don’t do what they said they would and cave to pressure? What a surprise.

  • I walked by this yesterday on my lunch break. I thought it was ironic how the mayor was celebrating the new wide sidewalks and vibrant streets, but there was no seating anywhere. Coming from a guy who is trying to ban sidewalks sitting, it seems like Valencia would be a good place to put benches where the street bulbs out.

  • Dufty, you lost a lot more votes then you would have gained. Your politically motivated move was in the wrong direction. And if he bends to a few grumpy old folks, I hate to see what happens when downtown businesses rear their heads.

  • Great – Mayor Newsom could start on the east side of SoMa by first ordering the SFMTA to remove the second left hand turn lane they decided to add onto Folsom Street at Main Street this past week. Seems like if they want to prioritize pedestrians at all, they would not be adding left turns in an area frequented by workers and folks living in the Rincon Hill mid-rises and high-rises who need to walk through that intersection every single day to get home. The Transbay Temporary Terminal should be set up with streets surrounding it to support alternative modes of transportation – why on earth the SFMTA insisted on adding a second left turn lane on Folsom at Main knowing full well (if they have ANY common sense) that a second turn lane would increase the likelihood of pedestrian injuries and fatalities just baffles me.

    Let’s Walk the Walk and not just Talk the Talk!! Remove that second left turn lane on FOlsom Street at Main Street before it turns one week old, por favor.

  • JD

    It’s going to be sad when Newsom leaves office, as I’m worried his replacement won’t have his same vision for taking our city back from the pollution, safety issues (both from accidents and their contribution to obesity), and noise of cars. Like most people, I still have criticism of things he has done. For example, somebody pointed out how he should have put benches on Valencia St. Agreed, but we can’t become a people who never recognize progress and always complain because things aren’t perfect (newsflash: things will *never* be perfect). What Newsom did to Valencia St — by any measure regarding livability, sustainbility, and other goals of the Better Streets plan — was a huge improvement. So be careful in being so critical, as you push even those away who are trying to make small changes, and then we end up with no change. Make sure to be critical, but also make sure to recognize, reward, and thank those who are making progress, however slight.

  • I’m sorry but South of Market keeps getting shat upon by SFMTA … the flattest part of downtown, and they still prioritize private cars over pedestrians. While I am happy for Castro, MIssion, and other parts of town that have seen improvements, SoMa continues to be treated like a garbage can where the Mayor puts all of the City’s problems.

  • “It’s going to be sad when Newsom leaves office, as I’m worried his replacement won’t have his same vision for taking our city back from the pollution, safety issues (both from accidents and their contribution to obesity), and noise of cars.”

    Have you been living in this city over the last few years? Newsom has been all-but-useless on the real issues facing this city (from MUNI reform, the budget, and sustainable development to homelessness, housing, and public schools). His only substantive accomplishments are these sorts of press releases that get thrown out the door as soon as Gavin’s ADD-addled publicity-seeking personality focuses on a new sexy topic to exploit.

    Any of the leading candidates, even Dufty, who doesn’t have a chance in hell of earning my vote, would be miles ahead of Gavin in terms of actually caring about the city that they’re ostensibly governing.

    Regarding the Noe plaza, it seems to me that the take-home lesson from this entire fiasco is one of properly informing neighbors and giving people the sense that their opinion is being taken into consideration. I know a some people in Noe Valley who feel like “downtown” just came in and decided to unilaterally impose the plaza without consulting with and including the people who live in the area and who would be most strongly impacted (positively, I believe) by the project. That’s not what happened, but it’s the impression that was given. The 17th street plaza didn’t face this kind of serious opposition – I think the biggest difference was the roll-out.

  • Fran Taylor

    Moving up restoration of half the Muni service cuts, nominating Cheryl Brinkman for SFMTA board, and now releasing the Better Streets Plan… Is someone running for office in November and trying to neutralize environmentally aware voters who can distinguish the talk from the walk? Don’t be played, folks.

  • patrick

    I agree 100% with SFResident.

  • EL

    Newsom states: “The Better Streets Plan illustrates that the City and community working together can realize actual street changes that improve San Francisco’s streetscapes – to make our streets more useable and attractive and universally accessible to all…”

    I find it ironic that such a statement is made on this newly redone portion of Valencia, where bikes now have to routinely use the regular traffic lane because the bike lane is often blocked by trucks that used to be in the median. I guess it really can’t be more useable and accessible to ALL.

  • ywhynot

    The Valencia street project is not for cyclist. It is an attempt to balance the needs of all people more than what was previously there. Before there was a median, no real bicycle lane space, a useless bus right next to a heavily used transit corridor, and the smallest sidewalk in the city this side of Chinatown. And cars. Lots of them parked and moving.

    Now there is more space both for pedestrians and for shop owners to include outdoor seating (see Frjtz, etc.). There are a lot more tress which take away from the added pedestrian space but will provide nice shade and a nice walking environment when they mature (and already do). There is a great overall pedestrian street scape.

    There is also finally a code width bike line, bike corrals at previous bus stops, and much much much much better pavement. In addition to a relatively slow moving single lane of traffic in both directions (safer) and parking with awkward yet workable parking meters (raise revenue).

    Just want to make sure folks take a step back and see this as the overall improvement that it is. It isn’t the best street in the world and it is not without its faults, but, coming from a longtime neighborhood resident, it is far better than what Valencia used to be.

  • orson

    This is a pretty document, I just hope they actually follow it. Like Jamie says, there’s been a ton of recent road and sidewalk work in SOMA and things have actually gotten a little bit worse, not better, with no bulb-outs or pedestrian improvements, and new super-smooth blacktop down Folsom so cars can go even faster. Like so much in the Newsom administration, it sure looks pretty on paper, but real action and follow-through seems tough to find.

    Hooray for the Valencia St. improvements — I second the above comment that it’s not perfect by any means, but it’s so much better now. Many of us remember when Valencia was a four-lane street like Guerrero. And the very idea of putting up posts to *encourage* posters?! It’s practically unprecedented in SF.

  • JD

    SFResident wrote: “Have you been living in this city over the last few years? Newsom has been all-but-useless on the real issues facing this city (from MUNI reform, the budget, and sustainable development to homelessness, housing, and public schools). His only substantive accomplishments are these sorts of press releases that get thrown out the door as soon as Gavin’s ADD-addled publicity-seeking personality focuses on a new sexy topic to exploit.”

    I agree that the issues you brought up are major ones that have not improved much (if at all … though MUNI has just recorded it’s best on-time performance ever). However, Newson certainly didn’t make them worse, so it’s not fair to blame him anymore than anybody else. The way I see it, on many issues he’s no better than many other mayors. But on some issues (livability, sustainability, environmental issues, etc.), he has been much better. So overall, I feel like he’s made progress, however small. But your point is taken that it shouldn’t detract from the fact that a lot of other really big problems have not been improved under Newsom.

    Regarding the Noe Valley plaza, my feeling (since I live in Noe) is the vast majority of residents want it. It is a vocal few, mostly who live right in the nearby area, who have a misguided sense that it is somehow going to completely change traffic to add this plaza. It’s won’t. It’s effect on traffic will be minimal, but it’s effect on improving the pedestrian friendliness and livability of our city in this one little neighborhood will be much bigger (everybody thought cutting two lanes out of Valencia would wreak havoc on traffic … and of course, it didn’t and the area is much better for it).

    Also, I don’t think it’s fair that those who are for cars owning *every* single damn block of this city (even in GG park!) getting in a tizzy when, god forbid, somebody actually tries to create a street where cars take a back seat. I have to say, I’ve grown tired of car drivers thinking they need to be able to drive their car on every damn square block of this city. Even if you totally neglected the fact that cars are bad for our health and environment and the livability of the city, just on the issue of cars already dominating more than their fair share, the case can be made that the Noe plaza (and many more like it) needs to go through.

  • The Valencia project undoubtedly took positive steps, but it took only half-steps, and it set them in concrete for years to come. Interim measures are all well and good when they consist of inexpensive and temporary treatments, but now that the city has spent over $6 million on these five blocks, you can bet that they are going to be stuck in this configuration for a long time unless people really speak up, and that people are going to be injured and killed on them as the street continues to become busier and busier in the mean time.

    The question after investing in a major project taking advantage of a rare opportunity to tear up the entire street shouldn’t just be whether what we ended up with is better than what was there before. We have to ask, was this project a great outcome given the magnitude of the investment and opportunity, and is it going to continue to meet the needs of the community for years to come?

    There *is* a smart way to do incremental change, such as the 17th and Castro plaza or the Market street trials (which have already had to be reconfigured several times because of the poor initial design – imagine if they had gone and spent millions of dollars pouring concrete on that original lane configuration!).

    I hope everyone goes out and supports the great Valencia businesses and tries cafe dining on the new widened sidewalks on one of these beautiful afternoons we’ve been having, but I also hope people will see what a modest return on investment livable streets got from this project and demand that the city really push the envelope with the upcoming Market street repaving

  • EL

    ywhynot – “The Valencia Street project is not for cyclist?” Are you kidding me? Valencia is 2nd only to Market Street in terms of the # of bikes. See here:

    http://www.sfmta.com/cms/rbikes/documents/City_of_San_Francisco_2009_Bicycle_Count_Report.pdf

    The simple fact is that the bikes were “sacrificed” to get as much sidewalk as possible, which you already admit that a lot of the gains are negated by the trees. A lot of the improvements such as lighting, street repaving, bike corrals, etc. could have been done anyway without screwing the bikes, and the #26 Valencia would have been gone, with or without this project.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Gavin Dufty (“my” highly principled and unfailingly courageous District 8 Supervisor) is quite the piece of work, isn’t he?

  • Nick

    This is the kind of press conference he should have had at the start of his first term as Mayor. With no funding and no follow through it is a hollow document.

  • Regards Newsom – any compliments given to him and worrying that when he leaves we will lose something disregards the probability that most likely replacements are likely to be better.

    Regarding the Noe Valley Plaza. We lost. JD says the “vast majority of residents want it”, I think that is half true. I think we had more support to begin with, with Panzer’s petition stacked with people who were badgered into signing it (I have proof) or were misled about the scope of the project. But the bigger issue is that even in a small neighborhood, a lot of the residents who would have supported it wholeheartedly still didn’t know about the project.

    There was a meeting last night regarding buying the Noe Valley Ministry Lot and putting a plaza there. This had the potential to be a very explosive meeting as Noe Street opponents would argue that this is a better solution than Noe Street. The killing of the Noe project diffused that, and we had a VERY good moderator. So the meeting turned into a kumbaya lovefest where many Noe Street opponents waxed about how much Noe Valley needed a town center, weeks after ranting about how we have plenty of parks. But there is no value whatsoever in focusing on this apparent contradiction – right now I am focused on pushing the message of open spaces. It will be fun to watch as many of the Noe/Jersey folks opposed to the Noe Street location now will be forced to reassure those living on 24th and on Jersey behind the parking lot that a plaza near THEIR house is not an imposition. Overall it was a fun and positive meeting – had the rollout of the Noe Street project started this way we would be in a better place now, that’s Gavin Newsom’s fault by the way.

    The meeting was heavily populated by people who had lived in Noe Valley for a long time. A common theme was that “we need to get the people who treat Noe Valley like a Silicon Valley bedroom community to participate”. I think this is an unfair characterization, and certainly it doesn’t count as “reaching out” – it has added underlying tones about the resentment that some longer term residents have about the “Rich yuppies”. Hopefully we can get past that.

  • @ Nate Miller, I believe this is the new model of benches Gavin is ordering for SF sidewalks:

  • What do you get when you cross Gavin Newsom with Gray Davis?

    Bevan Dufty

  • ywhynot

    @ EL: ” Are you kidding me? Valencia is 2nd only to Market Street in terms of the # of bikes. See here:

    The simple fact is that the bikes were “sacrificed” to get as much sidewalk as possible, which you already admit that a lot of the gains are negated by the trees. A lot of the improvements such as lighting, street repaving, bike corrals, etc. could have been done anyway without screwing the bikes, and the #26 Valencia would have been gone, with or without this project.”

    Careful EL. You are starting to sound like a motorist circa 1950’s. Just because it is a heavily used cycling corridor does not mean that bikes should take precedence over everything else. This project is an attempt at a workable Streetscape for all people and modes of transportation. That is the point.

    Just because the streets should not just be made for cars, does not mean they should just be made for bikes, nor should the just be made for pedestrian walk-space, nor just for tree trunks, nor just for art displays. It is the marriage between all that make a great street.

    It seems you do a lot of cycling, which is great. It gives you a very important perspective on the needs of the cycling community, however, it is sometimes easy to forget that there are other very valid and necessary perspectives that also need to be balanced especially for something as shared as a streetscape.

    Lastly, the fact the bus no longer runs along Valencia, and the bike corrals where put in based on public feedback, and the pavement is smoother (which is a much bigger deal for cyclist than it is for cars) may not have been directly associated with the construction of the Valencia Streetscape does not negate their positive aspects to the street as a whole. The city in some way has been continually responding to public comments and concerns in this corridor. That is a great thing.

    I should also add that the trees and their posts have been heavily utilized by cyclist patronizing the shops, bars, and restaurants for locking up. All of which has the bike safely off the street and out of the way of the pedestrians too. Maybe I am too positive seeing the bright side of this project, but I can tell you, there are very few places in the US that have made this kind of effort to revitalize this kind of corridor in city this large with this kind of political landscape and I, for one, am happy and proud to be apart of it.

  • EL

    @ ywhynot – I agree that bikes should not take precedence over everything else. But, they didn’t have to lose as much as they did. The bike lane was unchanged, but there’s a lot more vehicles blocking it now than before. As SteveS pointed out, is that acceptable after spending $6M?

    The ability to lock up on a wooden post (easy to cut by the way and sure to be removed when the tree matures) is a small consolation prize compared to being forced out into a traffic lane.

  • ywhynot

    @ El:

    Good point.

    Is the Better Streets Plan finalized? Since this is their first attempt at enacting the legislation in a real life setting they should allow for comments to make iterations based on real public feedback. Are there anymore public review meetings setup?

  • Shawn Allen

    I don’t really see the point in poo-pooing the Valencia project now, and I think that a lot of you are overstating its disadvantages for cyclists. Drivers parking in the bike lane is a law enforcement issue, and with the Mission station on that very stretch I see some serious potential for engagement with SFPD to demand that they ticket and fine the hell out of drivers who feel entitled to break the law. (Of course, in exchange I would also expect—and support—stricter enforcement of traffic laws toward cyclists.)

    On the other hand, though, I really don’t find cars blocking the bike lanes on Valencia to be that big of a problem. The road diet and signal retiming have together turned nearly the entire length of Valencia into a street that’s just not scary to bike on anymore. Drivers have been forced to slow down, and the uptick in pedestrian and bicycle traffic has in turn required everyone to pay more attention. Valencia is safer now than it ever has been, and as a result it’s a lot less perilous to pass a car parked in the bike lane. If you want to ride a bike in the city you’re going to have to learn to deal with the reality of entitled drivers, and there’s no place that empowers cyclists to do so than Valencia.

    Obviously I love Valencia, and I want to see the same treatment applied to streets all over the city. But in order for that to happen (at least, given the asinine process that passes for “planning” in San Francisco these days) we transit proponents and livable streets advocates are going to have to make some concessions. No project will be perfect, but the city—both its employees and its residents—needs to be able to learn from doing. New York, where I’m living for the month, has been figuring most of this stuff out as they go, and there have been some issues along the way; but in just the last couple of years this city has transformed many areas that were outwardly hostile to the idea of people using streets for anything other than driving into ones that are just totally pleasant for everyone (except drivers, in some cases). I want that in San Francisco, but I think that in order to get it we’re going to have to accept a planning process that can learn from its own mistakes rather than watering down, delaying, or giving up entirely any project that doesn’t meet the demands of every single narrow interest group.

    In other words, we have to be willing to negotiate and pick our battles. This city’s full of Rob Anderson-like sociopaths who will do whatever it takes to delay and obstruct our wishes, who have convinced themselves that a desire to make one’s city a better place is rooted in self-righteousness, and who delight in distracting and frustrating the hell out of us with absurd political rhetoric. Don’t give them that pleasure. Just as the driver who parks in the bike lane probably isn’t worth scolding, people like Rob Anderson aren’t worth arguing. The people without serious opinions (with respect to “urbanism”, or whatever) are the ones we should be courting, and we would do well to engage them in order to create a stronger base of support for our causes. Surveys show time and time again that people want public transit and bicycle infrastructure, but we do them a disservice by so angrily demanding it or nit-picking even the simplest of projects. The unfortunate reality is that some people just have to see for themselves that this stuff isn’t going to destroy their city, and that process of winning hearts and minds takes time. Public safety is a serious issue, but incremental improvements are a hell of a lot better than none at all.

    My inclination is to take what we can get and enact change slowly and deliberately. I’ve come to assume that nothing will be perfect in a 21st-century American city—in fact, I think that’s one of the under-appreciated joys of living in places like San Francisco and New York. For all their problems, these are places that we’re passionate about because we love them so much already. Our goal should be to help other people fall back in love with their city rather desperately fighting to preserve their own, outdated image of it.

  • ywhynot: This is the “final draft”, so we’re pretty much stuck with what it says. I have a couple of gripes with it that didn’t get fixed in spite of the public comments I filed (two years ago!) but for the most part it’s not too bad.

  • I also want to clarify that I don’t think the problems with the Valencia project are because of major defects in the Better Streets Plan. The plan is focused solely on the pedestrian realm, and only includes transit and bike infrastructure as they relate to that realm (e.g. bus bulbs). The plan is really full of lots of great treatments that we need to start implementing whenever the city does any road work. So the failings on parking and bikes on Valencia are not due to problems with the plan; they are out of its scope. The failings were in the lack of new design practices for the asphalt to go with our great new design practices for the sidewalk, to build truly integrated street designs!

    I couldn’t agree more with the statement that the city needs to “learn by doing.” In order for them to learn, we need to criticize! If the livable streets community does nothing but applaud Newsom’s photo op here, that will be taken as approval to learn nothing from this project and go full-speed ahead spending better streets money on building a median on Cesar Chavez!

    And in particular if we accept this treatment of Valencia as acceptable for one of the City’s top three bike paths, we have permanently written off the goal of taking biking mainstream. Yes, lots of us are fine with weaving in and out of double parkers and dodging doors to keep up with the signal timing, but please take someone new to urban cycling on a ride here and get their perspective: I’ve done this with several people and Valencia scared them to death!

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