In 1954, Turning Market Street Into a Parking Lot Seemed Like a Good Idea

How some envisioned a “better Market Street” in 1954. Image via SFMTA

In an alternate universe, the streetcar tracks that line the center of Market Street would have become car parking.

That was an actual proposal in 1954, put forward by Supervisor Marvin Lewis. The plan [PDF] was recently dug up by SFMTA staff from the agency’s archives. Today it’s an appalling idea, but back then it was typical. The conventional wisdom among city planners and elected officials held that the answer to traffic congestion in downtown SF was to tear it apart with freeways and parking spaces.

While the plan to turn Market into a parking lot was never realized, the pursuit of abundant parking left its mark on downtown SF. The dense urban core is dotted with massive parking garages, including the world’s first underground parking structure, under Union Square. It could have been worse — the Fifth and Mission Garage, for example, was envisioned to be five blocks long, with exterior car ramps.

San Francisco, perhaps more than any other U.S city, successfully resisted many of those would-be disasters. The city’s identity would be very different today if SF had torn up its neighborhoods and iconic streets, like Market, to create parking lots.

While SF fought off the worst impulses of 1950s-era thinking, the plan for Market Street is a reminder that for all the “bullets we’ve dodged,” as one SF planner put it, players at City Hall were indeed able to dramatically reshape the city around the car.

Our streets are shaped by deliberate public policy decisions, and the way they are currently designed is not the natural order of things. Every curbside parking spot that opponents of change cling to so fiercely today was at one point bestowed by policy makers, who decided to reallocate street space from general public use to private car owners.

As we revisit streets like Market in 2015, let’s remember: It’s an era for new possibilities.

Ah, iconic Market Street. Image via SFMTA
Ah, iconic Market Street. Image via SFMTA
  • Fran Taylor

    Clearly, this plan was a plot of the nefarious Baby Boomers, who get blamed regularly in Streetsblog comments for our current sorry state of transportation. The oldest of the Boomers would have been eight in 1954, but when you’re on a mission to destroy cities, you can’t start too young.

  • baklazhan

    What’s striking about it is the tiny number of people that would be served by it, for the amount of centrally-located space used. Two bus-loads, maybe? A tenth of a Bart train?

  • Easy

    Interesting that his NY Times obit talks about him as a transit advocate:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/07/obituaries/marvin-e-lewis-84-a-pioneering-lawyer.html

  • Gezellig

    Wonder if that version of Market had come to pass how long it would’ve stuck around–or if it still would be. Once these things happen it’s really really hard to bring back the original state.

    Reminds me a bit of some of Amsterdam’s former canals which were filled, some of which still stand today as street parking:

    http://www.amsterdamsebinnenstad.nl/opendegrachten/fotomontage2a.jpg

    Restoring that canal has so far not happened, in part due to merchant opposition:

    http://www.amsterdamsebinnenstad.nl/binnenstad/207/opengraven3.jpg

    “NO WETNESS IN THE WESTERSTRAAT”

    So, more or less Middle Westerstraat Merchants Association. :p

    These things are really hard to change back once they’ve happened and people feel entitled to them.

  • Don Anderson

    Just wait till the cars are autonomous, there will be a new wave of redesigning the city to accomodate them.

  • Another straw man cut down in his prime. RIP

  • Gezellig

    The above is also further proof that there’s no logical end to the “well we’re not Europe” crowd. After all, much of the anti-progress crowd in SF justifies their opposition by saying things like “well that’s nice but we’re not Amsterdam” and the like.

    But then even in Amsterdam–where over 50% of trips are made by bike (and this is likely even higher in the central core area referenced above), some people will *still* oppose any changing of a car-centric street due to selfishness, ungrounded fears…and more selfishness.

    Btw, another former canal street there–as it currently stands:

    http://www.amsterdamsebinnenstad.nl/opendegrachten/fotomontage1a.jpg

    Proposed (but not anywhere near agreed upon or approved):

    http://www.amsterdamsebinnenstad.nl/opendegrachten/fotomontage1b.jpg

    Parking addiction is powerful thing.

  • It would be interesting indeed to know why he proposed the Market plan.

    A fun connection to note from that article: “Mr. Lewis was perhaps best known for a 1970 case that the media called ‘The Cable Car Named Desire,’ in which a jury ruled in favor of a young dancer, Gloria Sykes, who claimed she lost her mental balance and became a nymphomaniac after a cable car accident. Ms. Sykes sued the city and a jury awarded her $50,000.”

    And here we are today with the SFMTA proposing to remove autos from Powell Street to prevent runaway cable cars.

  • baklazhan

    Looks like that proposed canal street has an underground parking garage? Wonder who’s paying for that.

  • Melanie Curry

    That cross section is priceless. The old cars, the bumpers sticking out into the lane, the crappy old delivery truck–beautiful. But who would believe a 9-foot bus lane??

  • Rogue Cyclist

    Not to mention the angled parking butting right up against the crosswalk. Take out a bunch of pedestrians while backing up, why don’t you?

  • Dexter Wong

    Fran, I wasn’t even born when this plan was suggested (and I was born near the peak of the Baby Boom). But the plan looks like the end of Sloat Blvd. near the Great Highway.

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