City Moves Forward on a More Pedestrian-Friendly Castro Street

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San Francisco’s world-famous commercial strip on Castro Street, which gained a popular pedestrian plaza in 2009, is poised to become a more inviting destination as the SF Planning Department develops plans to widen the sidewalks and install other improvements from 17th Street to 19th Street.

The sidewalks on Castro, currently 12 feet wide, could reach widths up to 22 feet, according to Nick Perry, project manager for the Planning Department. That real estate would be created by narrowing traffic lanes, which would calm motor traffic and may reduce the rampant double parking that often delays Muni buses on the 24-Divisadero line.

The new Castro Street, as envisioned by the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District.

“Right now, it’s a little bit like the Wild West,” said Perry. “Because the travel lanes are so wide, cars and trucks feel free to double-park or speed down the street because there’s the room to do it. And once we are able to make these improvements, it will function as a neighborhood commercial street that has traffic going both ways in a hopefully stately, well-managed pace.”

The project got a boost after D8 Supervisor Scott Wiener announced in the Bay Area Reporter earlier this month that $4 million would be secured from Prop B bond funds. “While the Castro has wonderful parks at its edges, the neighborhood has remarkably little usable public space,” Wiener wrote. “Harvey Milk Plaza is poorly designed and doesn’t honor its namesake with a wonderful and safe public gathering space. Jane Warner Plaza is terrific but small. While the Castro is one of the most pedestrian-focused neighborhoods in the city, Castro Street’s sidewalks are embarrassingly narrow.”

The Planning Department expects to begin developing street designs through public workshops starting in January, but the process was already kickstarted several years ago by a community streetscape vision known as the Neighborhood Beautification and Safety Plan, developed by the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District. That plan, adopted by the CBD in 2008, called for widening Castro’s sidewalks and narrowing its excessively wide traffic lanes to accommodate the crowds of pedestrians. It also envisioned the pedestrian plaza on 17th Street, which was built in 2009 as part of the Planning Department’s Pavement to Parks program and later dubbed Jane Warner Plaza (a.k.a. the Castro Commons).

The streetscape project, which is scheduled to begin construction some time late next year, may also include safety fixes at the massive, dangerous intersection of Market and Castro Streets. Perry said planners are still determining the scope of the project, but that the Castro CBD’s community plan helped put it on the fast track.

“Usually, in the typical planning process, you have a workshop at the beginning where you look at existing conditions and talk about what we want to do, but the community’s already done that work for us through the CBD’s plan,” said Perry, a Castro District resident, who held drop-in office hours yesterday with staff from the Castro CBD and the Department of Public Works to field ideas from neighbors for street improvements. “This is an iconic street, and a really important street for the LGBT community and for the city of San Francisco, so this is a gigantic opportunity to make it really shine as a place that everyone’s really proud of. All we’ve heard so far is excitement, and ‘how fast can we do it?’”

George Ridgely, executive director of the Castro Street Fair, said he wants to ensure the changes to the street will accommodate the annual event, but that “as someone who comes to the neighborhood and goes out in the neighborhood on days other than the street fair,” the project is “awesome.”

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe said she is “very excited about the sidewalk widening in the Castro to accommodate the many people who live, work, and shop in the neighborhood, who all get around on foot. This is exactly the kind of project that the streetscape bond is for, and helped win Walk SF’s strong support.”

“We look forward to this project’s rapid implementation, and many more like it,” she added.