San Francisco’s Latest Pavement to Parks Project Brought to You by Audi

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The conceptual design for the Powell Street Promenade. The final design will be determined by the city. Image: RHAA

Mayor Gavin Newsom has announced the city’s latest Pavement to Parks project, a two-block pedestrian promenade [pdf] on Powell Street between Ellis and Geary near Union Square that will provide sorely needed public space for one of San Francisco’s most crowded commercial districts. In a heavy dose of irony, the car-free space will be financed by an automobile company, Audi of America, who approached the city about six weeks ago.

“Through an innovative public-private partnership, we are creating a vibrant, new green public space in the heart of our city, despite limited resources and a difficult economic climate,” Mayor Newsom said in a statement. “I applaud Audi for their generous financial support and for partnering with the City and the Union Square BID.”

The promenade was billed as the marquee of P2P projects in 2011 with “other smaller projects being planned for neighborhoods throughout the city.” It will cost about $750,000 — all paid for by Audi — and is expected to be completed in April. The money will be paid to the Union Square Business Improvement District, which will oversee and maintain the space.

“The Union Square BID is excited to be the project sponsor. With construction for the Central Subway on Stockton Street right around the corner, Audi’s gift couldn’t have come at a better time.  We are anxious to begin work and committed to the on-going maintenance of the new promenade,” James C. Flood, the president of the Union Square BID, said in the press release.

Image: RHAA
Image: RHAA

The agreement with Audi was carefully handled, according to sources, and there will be no advertising. The only mention of the auto company will be on the promenade’s plaque. Audi approached the city and said it was looking to finance public space projects in San Francisco, New York and Chicago. Other P2P projects have mostly been financed through in-kind and capital donations, although some city grants were tapped.

“I can guarantee you this would not have happened without them (Audi) stepping up to the plate,” said Linda Mjellem of the Union Square BID.

The congested sidewalks on the section of Powell Street where the promenade will be installed are packed with upwards of 100,000 pedestrians on an average weekend. The area has some of the highest pedestrian volumes in the country, comparable to sections of Broadway in New York. A study conducted by the transportation design firm, Fehr and Peers, showed that 85 percent of all trips that pass through the intersection of Powell and Ellis Street are on foot.

The city conducted a three-day pilot last year, removing parking spaces that are mostly used for loading, allowing pedestrians to experience more walking space on the street. City officials admitted that pilot, which was conducted on a rainy weekend using only barricades, was not really a good example of re-purposing the street but it turned out to be a success nonetheless. Merchants became supportive of the idea and the pilot showed reduced travel times for cable cars along the popular Powell-Mason line because there were no cars or trucks pulling in and out of parking spaces.

Andres Power, the Pavement to Parks manager, told Streetsblog commercial loading will be shifted to Ellis Street, and deliveries will be hand-carted to their destinations. He said several community meetings were held on the conceptual design, which was done pro-bono by the firm Royston, Hanamoto, Alley and Abey (RHAA) and BAR Architects.

“We worked very closely with all the businesses to determine what their needs for drop-off, unloading and loading were,” Manuala King, a landscape architect at RHAA, explained. “That’s why the walkway is not continuous. It’s broken into segments with a central loading zone in each block.”

According to the press release: “The Powell Street Promenade will provide extra space for people to walk, sit at a table or on a bench, chat with a friend, or just watch as thousands of people pass by. Wood, stone, and metal trim will provide a rich visual quality to the space, softened by landscaping and pedestrian-scale lighting.”

Power said all the elements that clutter the existing sidewalk — tables, chairs, parking meters — would be removed to make them function better with an improved through capacity.

A spokesperson for Audi, Loren Angelo, called the company’s interest in the project “creative capitalism,” acknowledging the irony of an automobile manufacturer sponsoring a project that reduces vehicular traffic. He said it was a way for Audi to “give back to the community” and “reduce the level of automobile traffic” by featuring a project that demonstrates Audi’s “leading-edge design.”

Make no mistake, though, Audi’s interest in the project extends beyond philanthropy.

“We want people to understand what the product stands for, and doing something like this, making a progressive, bold statement in that market, helps gain that recognition for a broader group of consumers rather than just the design class that has tended to be attracted to the brand in the past,” he said.

Power said the city will ultimately determine the final design of the promenade. He said the community has been talking for years about extending the plaza-like treatment on Powell Street between Market (where the cable car turn around is) and Ellis all the way up to Geary Street and he hopes this P2P project will further that idea.

“In my mind, this project starts to advance that discussion and will allow people to evaluate that in a lot of ways, to really make Powell Street more of a destination in itself as opposed to a place that you just walk through.”

  • Brian

    Why on earth would cars still be allowed on these two blocks?

    What is the point? There will be nowhere to park on the street.

    Peds and cable cars should share this entire street.

  • Couldn’t agree more, Brian. I asked that question to the folks I interviewed and the feeling was, you know, “one step at a time.”

  • gb52

    This is a great concept that should be repeated in other areas where pedestrian volumes necessitate improvements (even at the perceived expense of cars). There are far greater benefits to the quality of the area giving pedestrians more space, additional amenities, and enhanced landscaping. AND while markedly improving the atmosphere, it gets people to stay longer and shop more. Like how the F-Streetcar helped to revitalize the waterfront, focused projects like this also have significant effects that even merchants will agree with after seeing that it’s not the cars that bring business.

  • Evan

    This will be a fantastic addition. I live a few blocks away, and often walk up this stretch on my way back from Powell BART. It’s absolutely PACKED with people (which I love), but it makes for a tough walk because the sidewalks are so narrow (which I don’t love). I’ll definitely frequent this area more when this happens.

  • Okay, I will say it: Thank you Audi for paying for this. And can you use your cutting edge design skills to get the mileage on your fleet of cars over 50 MPG as soon as possible? And make your cars smaller, quieter and less smelly, too. Thanks, much.

    I agree that Powell should be pedestrian/cable car only from Market to Union Square. It would be fabulous for the businesses along those blocks because people on foot would say, “Ah, this area is designed for me!” And what shopper isn’t on foot there?

    If people want to drive their car to shop downtown, they should take Bush to the Bush Street garage, Post to the Union Square garage or Folsom to the Fifth and Mission garage. But Muni is by far the best way to get to the Powell/Union Square/Westfield mall/Metreon area. Though I go to this area probably once a month, I haven’t driven downtown in three years.

    I also wish this area had secure bicycle parking. My husband had his bicycle seat stolen in the bicycle parking area of the Fifth and Mission garage last month. (No fun to have to ride home without a seat.)

  • I’d like to see the design extend to the intersection and widen the crosswalk…

    Maybe the City is starting to get the idea that tourists don’t come to San Francisco to drive – anything but.

  • tim

    As a frequent driver (of an Audi) downtown, I have little issue here. I think it’s a great idea. I love the Union Sq area, dislike how crowded sidewalks are with slow-walking tourists from far away lands. Don’t have a problem with the tourists, have a problem with not enough space to walk around them as they read books on translation, maps, and the such. Solid move by a beautiful city and a great, innovative car company.

  • @Tim. Sorry, but I have to say it.

    Gag me.

  • George

    A large ad for Audi!

    Privatization sucks!

  • Saying that there is no advertising here is an absolute lie. It’s like a fundamentalist Creationist saying that when everything does not have God’s name on it that there is no advertising for God in everything.

  • @Justin: I cringed at that ad, just as much as I cringed when I saw the press release that Audi was sponsoring this space. While I don’t think the final design will be anything like this: http://www.streetsblog.org/2010/04/02/ad-nauseam-nissan-goes-car-free-for-nyc-promo/ I’d like to reserve my opinion until it is complete. I was relieved to find out Pavement to Parks has the final say on the design, even though it won’t prevent Audi from using it to sell cars in their ads.

  • @Bryan. You’re right, and my ‘gag me’ response was more about Tim’s apparent pleasure and interest in driving his fine driving machine around downtown ‘frequntly’ and the suggestion that this practice was compatible with reclaiming street space for pedestrians downtown.

  • I think that ‘tim’ is part of audi’s advertising agency. If you look at Bryan’s link to an NYC story, you see a person called ‘subsidize me’ make a comment about all the great tax incentives that you will get from buying the car, followed by some other guy saying essentially, ‘thanks for the tip, I am convinced.’ They read exactly like a commercial, but disguise themselves as people like you and me.

    At least, I hope that people like ‘tim’ are mere advertisements, rather than an actual person riding the dick of a car company on a livable streets blog.

  • James Figone

    Why do the planters gradually widen, taking up valuable sidewalk space? It would have been better just to extend the sidewalk with very little or no street furniture allowing the maximum increase in sidewalk space.

    Why is it that in NYC, they can create acres of car-free space, not just extend sidewalks while we in SF “take one step at time” with our car company sponsored spaces?

  • goodscarrier

    “We want people to understand what the product stands for, and doing something like this, making a progressive, bold statement in that market, helps gain that recognition for a broader group of consumers rather than just the design class that has tended to be attracted to the brand in the past,” he said.

    LOL!!

    Audis suck!!

    And now that I know they want to force an idea into my mind with some STUPID gimmick Audi can know I’ll buy from another brand of car that’s less into weird mind manipulation.

    Porsche would never do something so low brow, so mundane and crude.

  • EL

    Brian wrote: “Why on earth would cars still be allowed on these two blocks? What is the point? There will be nowhere to park on the street. Peds and cable cars should share this entire street.”

    Maybe so more traffic doesn’t get dumped onto Stockton Street?

    James Figone wrote: “Why do the planters gradually widen, taking up valuable sidewalk space? It would have been better just to extend the sidewalk with very little or no street furniture allowing the maximum increase in sidewalk space.”

    Maybe because of the fire hydrants at the corners?

  • Scott

    I’m against this. There is not enough parking there now. I often drive in that area in the evening and have parked there many times so that I can shop or eat in the area. If I can’t park, I just spend my money somewhere else. It’s time for San Francisco to stop being so unfriendly to cars

  • Can I cue up the laugh track now, Scott? Yes, SF is so *unfriendly* to cars. I’m really not sure how any major American city could become *more* friendly to cars than they already are today. What do you want Scott? Do you want congestion-free off-ramps directly to every store you might want to visit? Maybe magical, always-available free parking lifts that materialize on sidewalks when demand is high enough. Your claim that the city is unfriendly to cars is disingenuous and you know it.

    Justin

  • David

    This is an interesting project, but like others, I see some room for further improvement. Specially:

    1. Car traffic should not be permitted on the block between Ellis and O’Farrell; Cyril Magnin is a sufficient alternative. It would be nice to close off the block from O’Farrell to Geary to cars too, but that would cause some traffic flow problems that surrounding streets cannot handle (at least not without redesigns).

    2. The sidewalk extensions need to extend all the way to the intersections. While the curb returns may have to be slightly larger to accommodate vehicle turns, this would be preferred over crosswalk distances that are not reduced at all.

    Overall, this will be a plus for the City assuming advertising is prohibited or minimized. Let’s hope the City can pull through.

  • Scott, there is more than enough parking. They are called garages and they keep your car safe and warm. You just don’t want to pay for them.

    How about you stop sucking off the social teet and pay to store your private property?

    I wonder if you complain when walmart moves your favorite soda from the end of the aisle to the middle. How dare they.

  • The only reason Audi has a sudden interest in sponsoring this project is that BMW sponsors the America’s Cup and their logo will be all over the waterfront for years now that the 34th cup is officially here. Audi ain’t dumb, this location gives them lots of eyeballs at a destination most tourists to the city will visit. Nice of them to do? Yes. Altruistic? Hardly.

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