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SFPUC Unveils New Green Designs for Holloway, Plaza at Mission/Valencia

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SFPUC’s rendering of the plan for a new plaza at Mission and Valencia Streets, created by converting two traffic lanes.

The SF Public Utilities Commission unveiled final redesign concepts last week for two projects that would mean more space for pedestrians and stormwater-absorbing greenery. One project will bring traffic-calming bulb-outs and “rain gardens” to the eastern stretch of Holloway Avenue, a major east-west bike route in Ingleside. The other would convert two traffic lanes at Mission and Valencia Streets into a new plaza with green bulb-outs that would extend to the entrance of the Tiffany bike boulevard, altogether creating what planners call a “Green Gateway.”

Both projects appear to have garnered broad support among neighbors who participated in the design processes, though they each require the removal of a handful of car parking spaces — the usual point of contention in street redesigns. It’s a refreshing outcome compared to the battles over re-allocating car space typically seen in other city-led planning efforts.

“These projects are perfect examples of smart solutions to our city’s pedestrian safety problems,” said Nicole Schneider, executive director of Walk SF, who applauded the projects for “connecting safety with sustainability.”

“These are excellent models for how we can support holistic changes to our public spaces that tackle multiple problems,” she said. “We often see that the most dangerous streets also lack green space — picture Sixth Street or Folsom. We’d like to see more projects like these prioritized on our most dangerous streets.”

“We need more efforts where we have community space,” said D9 Supervisor David Campos, who noted that the Mission and Valencia plaza could serve as a “centerpiece” for the neighborhood south of Cesar Chavez Street. “That neighborhood hasn’t been getting enough attention.”

Only minor tweaks to the Mission and Valencia plan have been made following the last community meeting. Changes include the removal of greenery along the curb that faces Mission to make room for a bus stop to be moved there from across the street. Only 10 parking spaces will be removed for the sidewalk expansions, with some replacement spots added by converting parallel parking spots on the east side of Valencia to back-in angled parking.

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Design Tweaks Delay Construction of Safety Features on Fell and Oak

The Oak Street bike lane, seen here soon after its installation before plastic posts were added. A van is parked in the bike lane up ahead. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Construction of the final pieces of bike and pedestrian safety improvements on Fell and Oak Streets between Baker and Scott has been delayed again as the agency finalizes the design of traffic islands and bulb-outs. Previously promised this year, the upgrades have been pushed back until some time in 2014, according to the SFMTA.

The SFMTA is consulting the SFPUC to refine the designs of landscaped bulb-outs and traffic islands and maximize stormwater collection on Fell and Oak Streets. Image: SFMTA

SFMTA Livable Streets spokesperson Ben Jose said the SF Public Utilities Commission is helping the agency “enhance the corner bulb-outs to capture stormwater and beautify the project in parallel with the safety benefits the bulb-outs inherently offer.” The landscaped traffic islands, also known as concrete planters, will be installed in the buffer zones of the Fell and Oak bike lanes to help separate bicycle commuters from motor traffic “in coordination” with the bulb-outs.

“The SFMTA is collaborating with other city departments on improved designs for landscaped traffic islands to enhance physical separation from vehicle traffic, deter motorists from encroaching on the bike lanes and visually narrow the street,” Jose wrote in an email. “These traffic islands will be installed in coordination with other hardscape improvements, such as bulb-outs, curb ramps and bikeway paving improvements, next year.”

All of the planned safety improvements that don’t involve concrete work are in place. The long-awaited curbside bike lanes on Fell and Oak, currently separated by buffer space and temporary plastic posts, were installed in September 2012 and May of this year, respectively. Along with the lanes, the SFMTA installed bicycle traffic signals and more visible ladder crosswalk markings, while also lowering the synchronized traffic signal speeds from 25 to 20 mph. The block of Baker between Fell and Oak was also put on a traffic-calming road diet and had parallel parking spots converted to back-in angled parking spots.

As we reported yesterday, those improvements are yielding promising results, improving safety and comfort along the route. However, we still hear reports of drivers stopping or parking in the bike lanes, which the traffic islands should help discourage.

The landscaped bulb-outs and islands were originally expected to be completed this past spring. The bike lanes themselves came after years of advocacy for safer streets (the Oak lane was only installed in time for Bike to Work Day because D5 Supervisor London Breed pushed the SFMTA to expedite it). Is the latest delay a disappointment, or is it worth the wait to get the design of these finishing touches right? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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Creating a Safer “Green Gateway” at Valencia and Mission Streets

A vision for Valencia Street's south end at Mission Street, where two right-turn lanes would be converted into stormwater-absorbing plaza. Image: SFPUC

A chunk of roadway at Valencia and Mission Streets would be reclaimed to create a plaza designed to make the corner more pedestrian-friendly and absorb stormwater under a project led by the SF Public Utilities Commission.

The Valencia and Mission Green Gateway Project would widen sidewalks and add greenery and permeable pavement treatments along the southernmost block of Valencia, between Mission and Duncan Street, where it also intersects with the Tiffany Avenue bike boulevard.

Under designs presented by the SFPUC, the SFMTA, the Department of Public Works, and the SF Planning Department at an open house yesterday, the two right-turn traffic lanes on southbound Valencia at Mission would be converted to the permeable plaza, shortening a long crosswalk that currently crosses five lanes. The sidewalk would be expanded out to the existing refuge island.

“We’re making traffic make more sense,” said Raphael Garcia, project manager for the SFPUC.

The southbound end of Valencia would get a narrowed roadway, but an extension of the Valencia bike lane to Mission shown on an initial rendering for the project won’t be included, because that block is not part of an official bike route, according to Adam Gubser, a planner at the SFMTA’s Livable Streets subdivision. Instead, the block will retain two southbound traffic lanes so that Muni buses on the 36-Teresita line, which make a right turn there, aren’t delayed by car traffic waiting to turn, he said. Parallel parking spaces on the east side of the block would also be converted to back-in angled parking spaces to minimize parking removal. Altogether, ten parking spots would be removed for the project.

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City Sets Out to Create Safer, Greener Streets on the Wiggle

Photo: Aaron Bialick

The Wiggle could be transformed into a greener, more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly route in the coming years thanks to a new planning effort launched by the SFMTA and the SF Public Utilities Commission.

At an open house community meeting yesterday, planners shopped potential treatments like traffic diverters, traffic circles, bulb-outs, and raised crosswalks that could be used to calm motor traffic while adding plants and surfacing treatments to absorb more storm runoff.

“We want to think about how we can make the streets for people,” said Luis Montoya, a planner at the SFMTA’s Livable Streets Subdivision. “We’ve been hearing for several years about several issues going on on the Wiggle, whether it be cut-through traffic, bikes and cars speeding and not yielding to pedestrians, and people wanting to see more green on their streets.”

Bicycle traffic has grown dramatically in recent years on the Wiggle, the flattest central route connecting the eastern and western neighborhoods by zig-zagging through the Lower Haight. During that time, the SFMTA has added green-backed sharrows and more visible crosswalks, and the agency plans to remove parking spaces at corners (a.k.a. daylighting) this summer to improve visibility at intersections.

Connections to the Wiggle have also seen major improvements recently, with the installation of the Fell and Oak protected bike lanes on the west end, and an overhaul of Duboce Avenue on the east end that included a new green bike channel.

The SFMTA is now able to embark on more intensive changes to the Wiggle’s streetscape thanks to a partnership with the PUC, which is looking to replace the sewers and add water-absorbing treatments (similar to the project under construction on western Cesar Chavez Street), planners said.

The PUC is providing $4.2 million in addition to $800,000 from the Prop B street improvement bond. By combining projects and funds, both agencies can save time and money, planners said. The project is currently scheduled to be completed in mid-2016.

Ambitious visions for the Wiggle have been sketched out by city planners and livable streets advocates. In 2011, bicycle planners from the SFMTA joined planners from the Netherlands in a workshop called ThinkBike, where they set out to re-design major SF bicycle routes for walking and biking first. The conceptual plans that came out of the workshop depicted on-street greenways with chicanes and traffic lane closures, as well as green-backed sharrows and bike channels like the ones which were later implemented. Last year the SF Bicycle Coalition created more detailed renderings of a Wiggle greenway based on those visions.

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Wiener’s Proposals to Streamline Ped Safety Upgrades Pass Supes Committee

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A package of legislation aimed at cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that encumbers the city’s progress on life-saving pedestrian safety measures was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee yesterday. The full board is expected to approve the proposals in the coming weeks.

Supervisor Scott Wiener's legislation is aimed at improving coordination between agencies in making pedestrian safety improvements. Advocates hope that would get DPW to save money by adding bulb-outs when tearing up sidewalks, which it failed to do when adding these curb ramps. Photo: SF DPW

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who proposed the legislation, said it’s aimed at reforming several city procedures that often delay pedestrian safety projects, and that it should help the city meet the goal set out in the SFMTA’s draft Pedestrian Strategy: cutting pedestrian injuries by 25 percent by 2016, and by 50 percent by 2020.

“Pledges and good intentions only get us so far, and in fact, money only gets us so far,” said Wiener. “The process we have in place to implement needed pedestrian upgrades is lacking. We don’t have enough inter-agency coordination, and we have outdated codes.”

Last year, police reported that 964 pedestrians were injured on San Francisco streets — “the largest number since 2000,” said Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe. Nineteen of those people were killed, and, she pointed out, 20 to 25 percent of trauma victims in SF hospitals are hit by cars. “That’s a huge amount,” she said. “Too often, the projects to fix these dangerous streets just take too long, and the bigger projects often get whittled down.”

Wiener said the legislation would push agencies to better coordinate with one another on street infrastructure projects by creating a Street Design Review Committee. It also calls upon agencies to “modernize street code provisions” and “formulate clear procedures” for coordination. One ordinance in the package would make it easier for developers to implement pedestrian safety projects as gifts to the city in lieu of impact fees, and another targets strict interpretations of the fire code that can limit sidewalk extensions.

The SF Fire Department has resisted the fire code amendment, since it would relax the city’s definition of roadway obstructions, which department heads say could inhibit fire truck and ambulance access. Changes to street widths in California must adhere to a fire code requirement that 20 feet of clear roadway be provided, and under Wiener’s proposal, curbs less than six inches high would not be considered an obstruction by the city.

“We want less people run over in the streets,” said Fire Marshal Thomas Harvey. “But we do have difficulty trying to bridge that gap of what provides the best pedestrian safety and what actually allows for our operational needs and does not limit our fire department vehicle access.”

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New “Better Streets” Website Helps Residents Untangle City Bureaucracy

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The San Francisco Better Streets Program launched a new website this week to provide a central source of information to help residents procure street improvements like traffic-calming measures, parklets, bike corrals, plantings, art installations, sidewalk fixtures, and permits for car-free events in their neighborhood.

The website, sfbetterstreets.org, “combines all the city’s guidelines, permit requirements, and resources for public space development onto one site, giving the user a handy step-by-step approach toward improving San Francisco’s streets,” the Planning Department said in a release.

Launched as a collaboration of the Planning Department, Department of Public Works, SF Public Utilities Commission, and the SFMTA, the site should help spread awareness of the street improvements available to residents and guide them through the city’s bureaucratic processes.

“Before this website was launched, this information wasn’t available. For someone to go through the process, someone would have to go and contact various departments around the city,” said Joanna Linsangan, communications manager for the Planning Department. “People may not think they have the ability to do so, but if they want to, they can apply for a parklet, put out bike racks or put out planters in their neighborhood, at their storefront, and we’re trying to give them all the information to make it happen.”

The site follows the spirit of the 2010 Better Streets Plan, which is aimed at streamlining the process for making improvements to the pedestrian environment. Linsangan said the site was launched during Small Business Week since merchants often show interest in improving the areas around their storefronts.

The website features alluring pages that explain the ins and outs of permit processes, maintenance regulations, planning codes, ways for residents to build neighborhood support for projects, funding sources, and more.

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San Francisco Company Seeks to Expand Street Trees’ Reach

silva.jpgSan Francisco's urban forest may look bushy and green, but below ground it's suffering.

In order to pave a street, parking lot or sidewalk, the soil has to be tightly compacted to support the weight of asphalt and vehicles. Faced with hard-to-penetrate soil, tree roots have a difficult time expanding beyond their planting area -- sort of like confining a person to their baby shoes for their entire life.

As a result, city tree growth is often stunted, with a meager canopy, shortened life span, and escalating costs for maintenance and replacement.

And that's why DeepRoot, a national company with headquarters here in San Francisco, invented the Silva Cell.

"It's a modular framework for creating empty vault surfaces underneath hardscapes or paving," explained DeepRoot Marketing Manager Leda Marritz. "You can stack them one, or two or three high -- or higher -- and fill them with high-quality, lightly-compacted soil that's ideal for tree root growth."

The Silva Cell is like a Lego brick of tree-friendly soil, the kind of thing you might find at Ikea if they sold urban infrastructure.

Silva Cells are installed in the ground prior to paving, then paved over. Out of sight, they provide room for trees to expand, gaining water, nutrients, and structural stability.

"The vast majority of the street trees out there are suffering, and you can tell when you look at them," said Marritz. "On Market Street, for example, they're tall but they're in pretty bad shape. The canopy isn't thick or even, the leaves are clustered around the outer branches. They don't look like they would in a non-urban setting."

Unhealthy trees are expensive to treat and replace, but they cause other problems as well. Just last Tuesday, a tree at Fourth and Brannan split into pieces, collapsing onto cars. The tree was surrounded on all sides by an asphalt lot.

There are other consequences to unhealthy trees: They're less attractive to wildlife, which reduces the city's ability to support native species like songbirds and butterflies. And the tree's potential to reduce stormwater runoff is reduced, placing further strain on the city's overburdened sewage system.

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Strong Show of Public Support at City Hall for Watershed Restoration

One of the PUC's suggested treatments would daylight Yosemite Creek along city streets.One of the PUC's suggested treatments would daylight Yosemite Creek along city streets.

Want to see an unprecedented outpouring of public support for a government agency? Look no further than your nearest sewer.

A Monday afternoon presentation before the Board of Supervisors Land Use & Economic Development Committee by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was met with great interest and support by numerous public speakers. The primary topic was the PUC's Urban Watershed Management Program, an ambitious blueprint for cleaning local water, restoring wildlife, and putting an end to beach-closing sewage spills.

Tommy Moala, the Assistant General Manager of the SFPUC's Wastewater Enterprise, explained that the PUC's emphasis has shifted away from building more concrete structures and toward low-impact designs like green roofs, daylighted creeks, rain barrels, and permeable pavement. This represents a massive change in the way cities think about water: For decades, it's been about reducing natural areas and channeling water into treatment plants. Now, for the first time, San Francisco is among a handful of cities experimenting with more ecological alternatives.

These new practices are often met with skepticism. "A few years ago," Moala said, "the most difficult presentation was to our own staff." Engineers often appreciate the measure of predictability gained by getting rid of green space and putting water underground. But gradually, PUC staff has come around.

The PUC's Rosey Jencks explained that the city's sewers are old, and face increasing risk of failure. We have a choice: to rebuild the same way, or to adapt our streets to function more like parks.

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