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Posts from the "Urban Design" Category

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Personal Garages Become Cafes in the Castro, Thanks to Smarter Zoning

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This used to be a garage. Photo: Tom Radulovich

Three new cafes and restaurants in the Castro have been created in spaces formerly used as personal parking garages. Driveways and dark garage doors on 18th Street have been replaced with storefronts and inviting patios filled with people.

A few years ago, this would’ve been illegal.

Reveille Coffee Company and Beso, a tapas restaurant, were able to move in and convert these garages this year, thanks to changes in the SF Planning Code’s zoning laws in 2011 proposed by Livable City and former Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. The provision to allow garages to be converted into shops, housing, and service spaces in “Neighborhood Commercial” zoning districts was part of a package of parking-related reforms.

In addition to the first two garage-to-business conversions on 18th, a third is currently under construction nearby.

“These new businesses are helping make a more walkable (and sittable), vital, and convivial 18th Street,” said Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich. He pointed out that the curb space in front, formerly reserved to ensure private garage access, have also become public street parking spaces.

The idea seems to be spreading: Radulovich said the Ocean Avenue Merchants this week endorsed allowing conversions of garages to storefronts in their district, which is zoned as “Residential.”

Radulovich said the 2011 ordinance “also allows the addition of a single [residential] unit to an existing residential building without a new off-street parking space, so long as that unit meets the other requirements of the code, including density limits.”

The entrance to Beso. Photo: Tom Radulovich

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SFFD “Imposing the Authority” to Demand Wider, Speedier Streets

The debate over whether San Francisco’s streets should be wider and less safe just to accommodate fire trucks was aired publicly at a City Hall hearing yesterday. Livable streets advocates and Supervisor Scott Wiener, who called the hearing, challenged the SF Fire Department’s insistence on wider roadways, particularly its recent eleventh-hour push to change street widths that were agreed upon years ago in redevelopments at Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point.

Fire Marshall Michie Wong. Image: SFGovTV

Fire Marshal Michie Wong. Image: SFGovTV

Officials from SFFD and the Department of Public Works asserted that dozens of miles of new residential streets planned in those redevelopments were not limited to 20 feet wide, as stipulated in city plans and agreements. Instead, they insisted that the roads must be expanded to 26 feet. Officials from the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure (the successor to the SF Redevelopment Agency), the developers, and community members involved in the decades of planning for those projects all disagreed.

SFFD officials disregarded those agreements, as well as 20-foot minimums set in the state fire code — the same width SFFD defended when it attempted to subvert new 12-foot minimums last yearFire Marshal Michie Wong said the department prefers 26 feet because that’s the standard set in the International Fire Code, even though city policies have set much lower minimums. Wong said SFFD has printed documents telling developers that the minimum street width under the Fire Code is 26 feet.

“We are imposing the authority to use whatever we need to justify the increased width,” said Wong. Using the International Fire Code standard “as a guideline is sound judgment.”

In response, Wiener said, “I have an issue when the legislative body that the voters have elected has chosen not to adopt a particular requirement, that the Fire Department would nevertheless impose that.”

To make the department’s case, SFFD Assistant Deputy Chief Ken Lombardi showed a presentation of photos and videos from fires in the city where they claimed limited space between parked cars made the job difficult, including the recent major construction fire in Mission Bay, and a similar one in Houston, Texas.

“Using the example of extreme [situations] does not help the conversation; it definitely escalates fear in people,” said Cheryl Brinkman, who sits on the SFMTA Board of Directors but spoke only for herself. “I think we have more to fear every day from poorly-designed streets.”

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How Public Q&A Sessions Can Obscure Support for Street Changes

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A snapshot of the proposals to improve N-Judah service at Ninth and Irving. See all of the proposals on the SFMTA website.

When it comes to gauging support for changes on our streets, it’s easy to get the impression at community meetings that a handful of vocal critics represent significant opposition. But as preliminary survey results from a recent Inner Sunset meeting on improvements for the N-Judah show, public forums can often be a poor reflection of the actual level of community support for re-allocating street space to improve transit, walking, and biking.

Attendees at the meeting on N-Judah improvements in the Inner Sunset two weeks ago. Photo: Greg Dewar/Twitter

At a meeting about the N-Judah two weeks ago, planners for the Transit Effectiveness Project fielded input on route adjustments and other measures to speed up Muni service, like transit bulbs, new transit-priority traffic signals, and stop consolidation.

Having attended most of the SFMTA’s community planning meetings over the past three years, I’ve noticed a strong pattern: While a handful of people may scream about project proposals in a public forum, that doesn’t mean they represent their neighbors.

During the Q&A portion of the N-Judah meeting, the usual dynamic played out. Complainers dominated. Fear of change seemed to permeate the room.

But in the survey filled out by people at the same meeting, most respondents supported the boldest proposals [PDF]. Actual public sentiment was in favor of change. The pro-reform contingent was just less vocal during the Q&A.

Not that planning decisions that make streets safer and improve service for thousands of transit riders should come down to a vote. But too often, city agencies cave to the loudest people in the room and water down proposals in a misguided bid to appease critics. The N-Judah meeting showed that the angry people may command the most attention, but that doesn’t mean they’re representative of public sentiment.

Take the Polk Street redesign, which the SFMTA watered down last year to appease merchants who fiercely oppose any removal of parking for protected bike lanes and sidewalk extensions. As it turns out, a recent survey of people who live, work and shop on Polk showed that safety for people walking and biking is a far greater concern than the supply of car storage.

So what were the survey numbers on the N-Judah improvements? According to 101 responses at the meeting:

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Meet Streetmix, the Website Where You Can Design Your Own Street

Streetmix lets users mix and match design elements to create the street of their dreams. Image: Streetmix

Last fall, Lou Huang was at a community meeting for the initiative to redesign Second Street in San Francisco. Planners handed out paper cutouts, allowing participants to mix and match to create their ideal street. Huang, an urban designer himself, thought the exercise would make for a great website. Now, after months of work beginning at a January hackathon with colleagues at Code for America, it is a great website.

The principle behind Streetmix is simple: it brings drag-and-drop functionality to a basic street design template. Users select a road width and add or remove everything from light rail to wayfinding signs, adjusting the size of each feature meet their specifications.

“It’s a little bit like a video game,” collaborator Marcin Wichary said. ”We were very inspired by SimCity.”

But Streetmix is more than just a fun way for amateur street designers to spend an afternoon. “What we want to focus on is, how can this enable meaningful conversations around streets?” Wichary said. “For many people it’s a kind of entry point.”

The first version of Streetmix went online in January, but the latest version, which has new features and a slicker design, launched less than two weeks ago. In that short time, advocates have used the website to illustrate possibilities for Dexter Avenue in Seattle and Route 35 on the Jersey Shore. Streetmix has profiled how people from Vancouver to Cleveland use the website. Residents of Sioux Center, Iowa, even used Streetmix illustrations in their campaign to stop the state DOT’s road widening plan in their town.

“It’s giving power back to the people, allowing them to vocalize what their streetscape priorities are,” Huang said.

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Construction Begins on Pedestrian-Friendly Redesign of Fisherman’s Wharf

Crews began work yesterday on an overhaul of Jefferson Street in Fisherman’s Wharf that will expand pedestrian space, reduce the number of cars, and create a more welcoming public realm for the throngs of tourists that regularly crowd the street. Improvements on the first two blocks of Jefferson, between Jones and Hyde Streets, were fast-tracked for completion in time for America’s Cup, which is set to begin on July 4. Construction was originally scheduled to begin in October, but it was pushed back to January for unspecified reasons.

The project, designed with the help of Danish architect Jan Gehl, is expected to transform Jefferson into the kind of popular pedestrian-oriented streets that are found many in cities across the world, but are few and far between in San Francisco, as the San Francisco Business Times noted back in June:

The remade Fisherman’s Wharf will recall — but not try to copy — other noted areas where strolling and biking are the main way to get around a shopping/eating district, like Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade or Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road.

“It’s not being done to make it like Disneyland,” said Troy Campbell, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District. It was important to shopkeepers and other longtime residents of the area that Fisherman’s Wharf maintain its character, Campbell said.

“On a busy day, it should feel like an outdoor plaza, an urban living space,” said Neil Hrushowy, project manager in the city’s Planning Department.

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New Ordinance Streamlines Conversion of Gas Stations to Ped-Friendly Uses

The Arco gas station at Fell and Divisadero Streets, where a queue of drivers regularly blocks the sidewalk and bike lane. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SF Board of Supervisors today approved changes to the city’s planning code to make it easier for developers to convert gas stations to uses like apartments and storefronts on major transit and pedestrian streets.

“Gas stations have a lot of [drivers] coming in and out, and they can slow down transit,” said Judson True, an aide to Supervisor David Chiu, at a hearing of the Land Use and Economic Development Committee last week. “In a transit-first city, while we want to make sure there are some gas stations, on primary transit corridors, this allows them to be converted under certain parameters without a Conditional Use authorization.”

By removing the hurdle of obtaining a Conditional Use permit — an exemption from local planning regulations — the amendment is intended “to balance the desire to retain [gas stations] with city policies which support walking, cycling, and public transportation, and which encourage new jobs and housing to be located in transit corridors,” according to the Board of Supes’ summary of the bill [PDF].

In addition to attracting car traffic that often blocks transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks, gas stations are voids in the urban fabric that degrade the pedestrian environment. On a block of Divisadero Street between Fell and Oak Streets, which is packed with three gas stations, street safety advocates held protests in 2010 calling for the closure of a driveway at an Arco gas station where drivers regularly block the bike lane on Fell. The situation improved somewhat after the SFMTA painted the bike lane green and removed parking spaces to create a longer queuing space. Though major street improvements are planned for Fell and Oak, the Arco entrance would remain mostly as it is, and it’s unclear whether these routes would be considered primary transit or pedestrian streets.

The ordinance, which also includes a provision expanding the enforceable bike parking requirements within buildings, is part of a larger effort underway by Livable City and Supervisor Chiu to reform myriad aspects of the city’s planning code. Stay tuned for more coverage of this ongoing campaign.

A gas station at the corner of Market and Buchanan Streets, where the Wiggle begins, is currently being converted into a 115-unit condo building with ground-level retail space. Photos: Google Maps and Arquitectonica via Curbed SF

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From Minneapolis: Ten Street Design Solutions to Transform Your City

Minneapolis has dozens of miles of off-street facilities.

Only 11 cities in the U.S. have earned the title of Gold-Level Bicycle Friendly Community from the League of American Bicyclists. In May, Minneapolis joined the select ranks and, last week, the city got a chance to show off its bike progress to a national audience of active transportation advocates and officials.

When Mayor R.T. Rybak took the stage at the Safe Routes to School National Conference, he made it clear that Minneapolis is gunning for Portland, aiming to be the best biking city in the nation. Not surprisingly, many of the 600 attendees were eager to see the anatomy of a gold-level bicycle friendly city firsthand.

The city’s rise is thanks, in part, to the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Project, a program created by the last federal transportation bill that put $25 million in the coffers of four cities to increase bicycling through infrastructure improvements. To showcase the innovations spurred by those dollars, in Minneapolis, Shaun Murphy, the city’s non-motorized transportation coordinator, and Steve Clark, walking and bicycling program manager for Transit for Livable Communities, took Safe Routes participants on a bike tour of some of the completed and in-progress projects.

Drawing largely from Clark’s cheat sheet, here are the “10 Design Solutions that Can Transform your City.”

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Alex Steffen: We Can’t Avert Climate Change Without Dense Cities

Alex Steffen goes by the title “planetary futurist,” which makes me realize I should probably spruce up my title to something that makes me sound like I should be wearing a cape, too. What he does is write about sustainable cities, on WorldChanging.com for seven years and more recently in his book, Carbon Zero.

He just gave a TED talk about how to make cities more sustainable. And while he’s primarily looking at climate impacts, he pretty conclusively dismissed the notion that the problem can be solved with clean fuels.

“We tend to seek simple answers,” he said. And if we assume the problem is fossil fuels, he said, “the answer must be to replace fossil fuels with clean sources of energy. And while we do need clean energy, I would put to you that by looking at climate change as a clean energy generation problem, we’re setting ourselves up not to solve it.”

With a rapidly urbanizing planet and eight billion people projected to live in or near cities by midcentury, Steffen asserts that it may just not be possible to generate enough energy to power all those cities – if those cities continue to look like the ones in the developed world today, anyway. The solution, he said, is density.

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Danish Architect Jan Gehl on Cities for People: The Safe City

Sibelius Park, a housing complex in Copenhagen, has cooperated with the Danish Crime Prevention Council to carefully define private, semiprivate, semipublic and public territories in the complex. Subsequent studies have shown that there is less crime and greater security than in other similar developments. Photos: Jan Gehl

Editor’s note: Streetsblog San Francisco is thrilled to launch a three-part series today by renowned Danish architect and livable streets luminary Jan Gehl. The pieces are excerpts are from his book, “Cities for People” published by Island Press. Donate to Streetsblog SF and you’ll qualify to win a copy of the book, courtesy of Island Press. Visit the Island Press website to find many more great titles by the nation’s leading publisher of books on environmental issues.

Feeling safe is crucial if we hope to have people embrace city space. In general, life and people themselves make the city more inviting and safe in terms of both experienced and perceived security.

In this section we deal with the safe city issue with the goal of ensuring good cities by inviting walking, biking and staying. Our discussion will focus on two important sectors where targeted efforts can satisfy the requirement for safety in city space: traffic safety and crime prevention.

Throughout the entire period of car encroachment, cities have tried to remove bicycle traffic from their streets. The risk of accident to pedestrians and bicyclists has been great throughout the rise in car traffic, and the fear of accident even greater.

Many European countries and North America experienced the car invasion early on and have watched city quality deteriorate year by year. There have been numerous counter reactions and an incipient development of new traffic planning principles in response. In other countries whose economies have developed more slowly and modestly, cars have only begun to invade cities more recently. In every case the result is a dramatic worsening of conditions for pedestrians and bicycle traffic.

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Searching for Market Street’s True Identity

San Franciscans are dreaming big as Market Street’s transformation approaches in 2015, when the city’s most important street is scheduled to be redesigned and repaved. City planners are engaging with citizens to answer a century-old question: How can we make Market Street the glorious thoroughfare that it needs to be?

Better Market Street, a collaborative project of five city agencies, has held public meetings and webinars the past two weeks to field input from people who walk, bike, ride transit, and even drive along the street. The effort is being informed by a large swath of research brought to the table by city staffers, which is now available on the Better Market Street website.

“Market Street is San Francisco’s civic backbone, connecting water to hills, businesses to neighborhoods, cultural centers to recreational opportunities,” the site’s about page states. “The movement of people and goods, from the very earliest times, has dominated its design and use. But Market Street needs to be more than a transportation route. It needs to be the city’s most vibrant public space and many San Franciscans feel it falls far short of this ideal.”

Block-by-block, hour-by-hour data documenting the urban environment were collected by researchers to help inform input from attendees at recent workshops. Researchers note everything from fluctuations in pedestrian and bicycle traffic along the street, to the conditions plaguing its extremely high volume of transit trips, to the placement of trees and how the usage of plazas is impacted by the sun and wind. Comparisons and best practices from major streets abroad help put it all in perspective.

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