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Mayor Appoints Livable Streets Proponent Julie Christensen as D3 Supe

Julie Christensen, a leading North Beach advocate for wider sidewalks and a Central Subway extension, has been appointed as the new District 3 Supervisor by Mayor Ed Lee.

Christensen fills the seat left by David Chiu after his election to the State Assembly. She has shown promise as a neighborhood leader who stands behind changes that make room for livable streets improvements even when it means subtracting space for cars.

Christensen is a member of the SPUR Advisory Board and founded SF NexTstop to rally for an extension of the Central Subway to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf. She has backed sidewalk extensions and bike lanes on Columbus Avenue, and championed the Mason Street plaza as part of the North Beach Library expansion, which opponents claimed would cripple the neighborhood when the block was closed to cars. (It didn’t.)

The appointment was announced on the library street plaza itself, where, in 2009, she remarked on the success of the trial plaza:

We were standing out there yesterday and the world was not coming to an end. North Beach was not hopelessly snarled in traffic. People have these Christmas faces on, like it’s Christmas day and this present has been dropped on them.

In a publicly-viewable Facebook post by North Beach News last April, she defended transit bulb-outs on Columbus at Washington Square Park that removed a handful of car parking spaces. She told NBN, ”Will it be better? We shall see. There will be more room for pedestrians and more room for transit riders. Nice if the park gets healed. We shall see.”

Commenting on the post, one woman complained, “This is not just widening sidewalks, it’s a loss of tons more parking and a bike lane that does not make a whole lot of since [sic].” In response, Christensen wrote:

“Tons” of parking = 3 spaces eliminated. (Yes, I know, still a loss). There will still be 2 traffic lanes. No bike lanes – yet. That will be discussed at further neighborhood meetings.

In a statement, Mayor Lee said he’s “very proud to appoint” Christensen. “As a longtime District Three resident and small business owner, Julie has worked tirelessly on important projects and neighborhood concerns including the North Beach Library, the Central Subway and numerous pedestrian safety projects.”

Chiu, the outgoing supervisor, was considered one of the city’s most bike-friendly politicos for a time. But when Polk Street merchants complained about the loss of parking spaces for protected bike lanes, Chiu caved and dropped his previous calls for SF to move quickly on implementing a robust bike network, which he once said was his top priority.

So, while Christensen’s record on transit and livable streets is promising, it remains to be seen how strongly she’ll stand up for safety improvements to her district’s streets when the parking-at-all-costs crowd gets loud.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who has previously decried the “tortured path” of the North Beach Library expansion as a symbol of how “a highly popular, beautifully designed project” can be “stymied by a small group of opponents,” told the SF Examiner that Christensen is “one of the best neighborhood leaders in the city.”

“She has a proven track record of getting things done at a neighborhood level,” he said.

Read more coverage of Christensen’s appointment at the SF Chronicle and the SF Business Times.

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Extending the Central Subway: Why Stop at Fisherman’s Wharf?

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The nascent prospect of extending the Central Subway beyond Chinatown gained steam this week with the release of a preliminary city study [PDFthat lays out some conceptual proposals to bring the subway further into the city’s northern neighborhoods.

T-Third “Phase 4″: subway to the Presidio? Image: SFMTA [PDF]

North Beach neighbors, who are living with construction disruption as the tunnel’s drill is extracted in their backyards, but won’t get a station, joined Fisherman’s Wharf merchants at an SFMTA Board of Directors meeting this week to cheer the “T-Third Phase 3″ extension proposal. (The existing T-Third alignment is the line’s first phase, and the Central Subway currently under construction is the second phase.) The extension doesn’t have any firm plans or timelines yet, as this is the first time city planning agencies have formally examined the possibilities.

But one transit advocate asked: Why stop at the wharf?

“You have to be more far-sighted,” said Howard Strassner, chair of the local Sierra Club chapter’s land use and transportation committee.

For all the Central Subway’s faults, extending it to connect Muni’s T-Third line northward to major destinations would make it more useful. Strassner said a westward expansion of the T past Fisherman’s Wharf, through Russian Hill and the Marina, to the Presidio — a prospect the city study loosely discusses as “T-Third Phase 4″ — “should be [analyzed] at the same level of intensity and completeness…. It’s just as important, it may get many more riders.”

Indeed, the city’s preliminary study says that a rail line to the Presidio — whether it’s underground, on the surface, or a mix of both — could be too popular. “The ridership increase would overload the existing T-Line system infrastructure to beyond planning capacity levels, because the 2-car platforms and 2-car trains are too small,” the study says.

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SFMTA to Create Sansome Street Contra-Flow Lane for Muni’s 10, 12 Lines

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A new contra-flow lane for transit and commercial vehicles on Sansome would eliminate a detour for Muni’s 10-Townsend line [PDF]. Image: SFMTA

The SFMTA plans to install a contra-flow transit lane for three blocks of Sansome Street near the Financial District, providing a faster and more direct route for Muni’s 10-Townsend and 12-Folsom bus routes.

The new southbound lane would be reserved for transit, bicyclists, and commercial vehicles during daytime hours, and eliminate a detour that Muni buses must currently take along Battery Street, one block away. It’s expected to save an average of three minutes for Muni riders, according to Sean Kennedy, planning manager for the SFMTA Transit Effectiveness Project.

The project received preliminary approval at an SFMTA engineering hearing today, and is set to go to the SFMTA Board of Directors for final approval on September 2. It’s expected to be installed by spring 2016.

Currently, the three-block stretch of Sansome between Washington Street and Broadway has two traffic lanes, both one-way northbound, with parking lanes on either side. The project would convert that stretch to two-way traffic, similar to the configuration that already exists on Sansome south of Washington, but the newly-converted southbound lane would be prohibited to cars between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day. All of the existing metered parking spaces on the southbound side would be converted to metered loading zones, according to Kennedy, and most of them would be replaced on cross-streets by converting other loading zones to parking spaces.

Sansome, looking south toward Pacific Avenue. Photo: Google Maps

The new southbound lane would be similar to the existing part-time lane on the east side of Sansome. On the eastern curb, parking is currently banned between 3 to 6 p.m., when the curbside lane becomes a moving lane for transit and commercial vehicles.

The project will also upgrade the traffic signals along Sansome with transit priority detection, “daylight” some corners, and the crosswalks will be upgraded to “continental” or ladder-style, said Kennedy. American Disabilities Act-friendly curb ramps and blue zones for disabled parking will also be added.

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SFMTA Considers Restricting Cars on Crooked Lombard Street

Photo: Aaron Bialick

The “crookedest street in the world” block of Lombard Street is a world-famous tourist attraction, but the resulting car traffic causes congestion and safety problems and may lead the SFMTA to ban tourists from driving that stretch.

In an attempt to reduce pedestrian injuries and blocks-long car queues, the SFMTA Board of Directors on Tuesday will consider several summer trials to allow only “local” cars on two blocks of Lombard. The restrictions would apply on eastbound Lombard, between Larkin and Leavenworth Streets, on Saturdays and Sundays from June 21 through July 13, and on Friday, July 4. The SFMTA will consider longer-term, even permanent, restrictions after monitoring the impacts.

According to an SFMTA report [PDF], the push for restricting tourists from driving on curvy Lombard came from the residents who live on it, as well as District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell. The effort has support from Russian Hill Neighbors and the Lombard Hill Improvement Association.

“In prior years, this portion of Lombard Street has experienced a number of vehicular collisions, pedestrian injuries, and residential property damage,” the report says, also noting “chronic congestion in the summer months” that reaches three blocks back to Van Ness Avenue, where queued drivers “can delay regional transit and vehicular traffic.” At the entrance to the crooked block, drivers also often block the Hyde Street cable car.

“Residents are also concerned about the mixing of large pedestrian crowds… with vehicular traffic,” the report notes, listing several crashes with railings, pedestrians, and fire hydrants on the block within the last few years. In one incident, a speeding driver reportedly crashed into a retaining wall, rolled the car over and fled on foot.

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Columbus Safety Plans Vetted By Community, Opposed By Merchant Leader

The SFMTA is looking to implement plans based on the concepts approved in a Columbus Avenue study three years ago, such as this vision for the Green and Stockton intersection, but removing traffic lanes may still face some opposition. Image: SFCTA

Over two-thirds of the space on Columbus Avenue is devoted primarily to cars, yet only one-third of the people on the street are typically in automobiles.

That’s according to a 2010 study of how to improve the design of Columbus, in which residents and transportation planners came to the conclusion that North Beach’s thoroughfare needs calmer traffic and more space for pedestrians, transit, and bicycling. Now, three years later, as the SFMTA looks to finally implement the ideas laid out in the plan, some merchants and residents are pushing back, dismissing the extensive analysis and community planning already done.

Columbus is set to be re-paved next summer, presenting an opportunity to cost-effectively implement the concepts in the SF County Transportation Authority study, which include bulb-outs on Columbus’ narrow, crowded sidewalks and an on-street plaza — dubbed “Piazza St. Francis, the Poet’s Plaza” — on an adjacent block of Vallejo Street. At the intersection of Columbus, Green, and Stockton Streets, traffic islands would be added to simplify motor vehicle movements, diverting traffic off westbound Green and southbound Stockton (converting it to a one-way street north of Columbus).

With a road diet, one stretch of Columbus, between Green and Union Streets, would get transit-only lanes, while 8-foot-wide buffered bike lanes would be installed between Green and Washington Streets (although the bike lanes weren’t included in the SFCTA study, the traffic impacts of a road diet were).

“Columbus is being re-paved, and probably won’t be re-paved for another 20 years,” SFMTA planner James Shahamiri said at a meeting with the Telegraph Hill Dwellers in October. “We have some funding, and we want to see what level of improvements we can make based on the community plan that was adopted by the TA.”

The “primary liaison between the [SFCTA] and the many stakeholders” involved in the development of the study, as described in the study itself, was Renew SF — Revitalize and Energize the Northeast and Waterfront of San Francisco. Wells Whitney, the organization’s founder, said neighborhood support for the plan still seems strong. “Almost everyone I’ve talked to is enthusiastic about wider sidewalks, more bulb-outs, bike lanes, and calming the traffic and making it more of a neighborhood boulevard than a thruway,” he said.

Leading the opposition to the safer street design is Daniel Macchiarini of the North Beach Business Association. Macchiarini told Streetsblog he doesn’t believe a road diet on Columbus will result in the kind of boost in livability and business that came with a similar, widely-lauded project on Valencia Street because, unlike Valencia, Columbus lacks alternative parallel routes for drivers. “This is another project that will stall traffic on Columbus Avenue,” he said.

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Central Subway Pagoda Deal Will Take $9 Million From Muni Operating Funds

Updated 2/23

A deal struck by the SF Municipal Transportation Agency to extract tunnel drills at the site of the abandoned Pagoda Theatre will cost the agency an estimated $9.15 million. While the lease deal with building owner Joel Campos allows the SFMTA to move forward with an extraction plan that’s less disruptive to the North Beach neighborhood than the original one, agency Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin said the money will come out of Muni’s operating budget, unless it receives an additional grant from the Federal Transit Administration to plug the gap, according to the SF Examiner.

The site of the abandoned Pagoda Theatre at Powell Street and Columbus Avenue. Image: Google Maps

The news confirms fears that the Central Subway’s ever-ballooning costs will eat away at funds needed to provide existing Muni service. Put in terms of bus service lost, $9.15 million equates to roughly 100,000 service hours, based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation using the cost savings estimated by the SFMTA when it proposed service cuts in 2010.

“MUNI bus service to North Beach and Telegraph Hill has been slashed continually for years due to operational funding shortfalls,” said Mike Sonn, chair of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Transportation and Parking Committee, in a letter sent today to Reiskin and the Board of Supervisors [PDF]. “Today, residents and visitors to North Beach no longer have even one direct bus route to or from downtown that runs during non-rush hour times. And in MUNI’s proposed new ‘Transit Effectiveness Plan,’ service to North Beach would be reduced even further through cuts to the 8X line.”

THD is urging the SFMTA to instead “pursue the less-expensive and less-disruptive alternative to leave the drilling machine under the ground near the final Central Subway stop on Washington Street.”

Though the Pagoda plan initially had support from Central Subway skeptics because it could open the door for a future North Beach station, the site’s property manager, Martin Kirkwood, told the Examiner Campos intends to move forward with plans to develop the site, ruling out the possibility of turning it into a station.

“Diverting $9.15 million in precious funds from MUNI’s operational budget will steal that money directly from the bus service we desperately need for an unnecessary drilling machine extraction site we absolutely don’t,” said Sonn.

Update 2/23, 1:00 p.m.: Responding in the comment section on this article, SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said that the funds would not come from the operating budget, as Reiskin stated, but from reserves in the city’s General Fund:

While we respect concerns for Muni and its budget, some of these details misrepresent the facts about Muni service to North Beach and the Pagoda Palace plan. Regarding the Pagoda deal, we will not use our current operating budget to pay for the lease or the additional construction costs. Instead, the funds will initially come from our General Fund reserve, which is larger than expected due to a stronger economy. The two-year lease includes $400k in yearly rent, but all other payments up to a maximum of $3.15 million are conditional upon our approval of ownership’s out-of-pocket costs. Going forward, we will work with the Federal Transit Administration to secure their approval to reimburse these costs. With the addition of the Central Subway, the T Third Line is projected to become Muni’s most utilized light rail line, with more than 65,000 boardings per day by 2030. That means less crowded streets and buses, and more efficient travel through downtown, Chinatown, North Beach and beyond.  Contrary to what is stated, Muni provides North Beach residents and visitors a variety of transit options, including the 8x, 30, 45 and 41 bus routes and the historic cable cars, for travel to and from the Financial District, Union Square and other downtown areas. Most of these routes operate all day, within and outside of rush hour times. Also, through programs like the Transit Effectiveness Project, we aim to add transit-only lanes, widen streets and improve transit signal priority to make bus routes throughout the city more efficient, faster and reliable.

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Calls for North Beach Central Subway Station Intensify as Plans Evolve

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Central Subway planners got the green light from the SF Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors today to pursue a new plan that could cut down on the expected construction disruption in North Beach while also keeping the path clear for an eventual extension of the line to the neighborhood.

An SFMTA plan would reduce disruptions due to extracting the Central Subway drill in North Beach, but extending the line into the neighborhood still hasn't even been studied. Image: centralsubwaysf.com

Residents and merchants in North Beach, who were fiercely opposed to the SFMTA’s original plan to extract the subway tunnel boring machine on Columbus Avenue at Union Street — which would have closed two of Columbus’s four traffic lanes for ten months — rallied behind the idea of bringing the machine out at the nearby abandoned Pagoda Palace Theater. Of the options on the table, planners say that one would most effectively minimize disruption while keeping the tunnel clear if the agency eventually decides to extend the T-Third subway line to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf.

The lack of solid plans to extend the Central Subway beyond Chinatown, despite taking the drill out in North Beach, has been one of the major criticisms of the project. According to SF Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin believes it’s possible to turn the Pagoda site into an eventual subway station, though the agency has yet to even study the next phase for the subway.

But Reiskin also emphasized that the SFMTA Board’s vote to endorse the Pagoda plan would have little bearing on a potential North Beach station. “I think this was a little bit misconstrued in some of the media reports,” he told the board. Discussions and planning for a North Beach extension, he said, “would be subject to a separate process.”

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The Sky Didn’t Fall: Block of Mason Street Now Permanently Closed to Cars

Photo: Tony Wessling

Putting another nail in the coffin of falsely-predicted traffic jams, a block of Mason Street has been permanently closed to motorists for the construction of a plaza as part of the expansion of the North Beach Public Library.

North Beach resident Tony Wessling sent in the above photo, noting that “the predictions of Traffigeddon have not materialized, and the speed of traffic heading up and down Mason above Columbus has slowed considerably.”

That confirms the conclusions found in a trial plaza study three years ago aimed at assuaging fears voiced by an opposition group formed under the banner “Save Mason Street” (whose website no longer exists). When the Board of Supervisors approved the enrivonmental impact report for the library expansion project in June of last year, Ed Reiskin, head of the Department of Public Works at the time, said the trial “not only helped to validate the analysis of the traffic impact, but really supported the notion that there was significant positive impact for the public for the increased open space.”

The plaza is expected to be completed in the first half of 2014, said DPW spokesperson Mindy Linetzky, although she noted that “the Recreation and Parks Department may be making additional improvements to the Mason Street section as well as the surrounding Joe Di Maggio Playground that could run after this date.”

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Sunday Streets Returns to Chinatown (But Not North Beach) This Weekend

Sunday Streets returns to Chinatown this weekend with a car-free route running along Grant Avenue and east toward the Embarcadero. It’ll be Sunday Streets’ second run in Chinatown, following a highly popular event last year, but the route will be different: Rather than running into North Beach all the way to Coit Tower, it’ll turn east at Jackson Street toward the waterfront.

Sunday Streets organizer Susan King said the route was changed to avoid disrupting Muni service on Columbus Avenue, which will help accommodate the crowds headed to the America’s Cup yacht race this weekend. On a block of Battery Street, where the route jogs over from Jackson to Washington Street, King said a temporary transit-only lane will be created to allow Muni and Golden Gate Transit buses to run through. “I am curious to see if this helps speed transit up since there are no cars to compete for road space with,” she said.

However, while King said organizers would aim to include North Beach in the following years, the neighborhood’s exclusion from the event was a surprise and a disappointment to local residents and merchants, said Mike Sonn, head of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Parking and Transportation Committee.

“Sunday Streets provides an excellent opportunity to experience a great neighborhood in an exciting new way and to expose our unique collection of local businesses to thousands of visitors and residents alike,” he said. “We look forward to working with Sunday Streets in the future to ensure that North Beach becomes a staple in the annual line-up.”

To be sure, folks from around the city will be coming to the area for the usual abundance of activities, including the annual ping pong tournament at Portsmouth Square, Tai Chi classes, a preview exhibit of the new Exploratorium, and, of course, free bike rentals and bike riding lessons for kids. Unlike last year, bicycle riding will be allowed along the entire route.

See you out there.

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First Walking Sunday Streets a Hit in Chinatown and North Beach

Thousands of people enjoyed a car-free Grant Avenue through Chinatown, North Beach and Telegraph Hill yesterday. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

San Francisco’s Grant Avenue, the city’s oldest street, was opened to pedestrians only yesterday in a milestone Sunday Streets event that drew thousands of people to the historic neighborhoods of Chinatown and North Beach on a sunny, 74-degree day. The city’s first walking Sunday Streets on a thoroughfare that seems like one of the most ideal streets to pedestrianize was clearly a hit.

“It’s a fantastic event. The weather is gorgeous and it’s nice to have Chinatown and North Beach connected in this way,” said Tom Radulovich of the non-profit Livable City, which sponsors Sunday Streets.

Unlike fairs in Chinatown and North Beach that typically line the street with outside vendors, the car-free event that spanned more than 20 blocks was organized to give neighborhood residents, locals and merchants a taste of what Grant Avenue can look and feel like without cars on a typical Sunday.

“I like having no cars,” said Lisa Mai, a North Beach resident who took a break from jump roping with other teens from the YMCA, a Chinatown fixture since 1911. “When you’re in a car it’s like you’re really rushing, but when you’re walking, when you walk along Grant, you see all these people coming out to enjoy it.”

From the Chinatown Gateway to Coit Tower, people filled the narrow street on foot, and shopped, sipped tea, snapped photos, hula-hooped, painted, enjoyed live music and other activities without the anxiety of automobiles.

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