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The Future of the Better Streets Plan Hinges on Political Will

IMG_0905.jpgThe Mayor holds up a copy of The Better Streets Plan at a press conference yesterday: "Eat your heart out Portland." Photo by Bryan Goebel.

Standing in the glaring Mission District sun yesterday on a wide new sidewalk, before a crowd of advocates, city planners, merchants, construction crews, artists and many others celebrating the completion of the Valencia Streetscape Improvement Project, Mayor Gavin Newsom officially released a bold vision for improving the pedestrian realm in San Francisco called The
Better Streets Plan

Newsom spoke of leveraging the work happening at individual agencies and packaging them into a narrative for our public realm, versus scattershot, reactive decision making to appease those who yell the loudest.

"In the past, none of that really existed," Newsom said, brandishing the thick Better Streets Plan booklet. "We had communities that said enough's enough, we need you to focus on our streets and then someone with a louder voice came to the board of Supervisors or the Mayor's Office and said no, no, no, focus on our street."

"Now we have a deliberative, proactive plan, now we're codifying in the General Plan of San Francisco this vision," said Newsom. "This will anchor the future of this effort for decades and decades to come."

The Better Streets Plan, now in its final draft after years of community input and planning, envisions a transformational and sustainable future that brings San Francisco more in line with how it was designed to be before the automobile strangled many of its neighborhoods. 

In the plan's introduction, Newsom states: "The Better Streets Plan illustrates that the City and community working
together can realize actual street changes that improve San Francisco's
streetscapes - to make our streets more useable and attractive and
universally accessible to all, to make them safer and more welcoming, to
improve their ecological functioning, and to return them to their
rightful place as the center of civic life in this wonderful city."

They are great words, but ironically, just as the Mayor was talking about how San Francisco will become the greenest city in America, news filtered out that a loud minority of Noe Valley residents, some of whom stormed a recent planning meeting in Tea Party fashion, had forced enough pressure to cause Supervisor and mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty to cave in and kill a proposed public plaza meant to convert the heart of the neighborhood into just the kind of vibrant social center Newsom talked about. 

At the Tea Party meeting, Andres Power, the Planning Department's tireless project manager for the Pavement to Parks program, was going to present the results of the SFMTA's traffic analysis of the trial closure of Noe Street at 24th Street, which the neighbors had requested. The anti-plaza crowd showed up early and took the front rows of seats so they could make a mockery of the meeting and disrupt the presentation.

Even this construct of focusing solely on the traffic belies the prejudice with which we view our streets, primarily for cars, secondarily for people and places.

Noe Valley is a good walking neighborhood, like most
neighborhoods in San Francisco, but its sidewalks in the central
commercial district on Noe Street don't do justice to the dense
crowds of residents and visitors who bustle about on foot, and there
are few public amenities to accommodate those who want to sit and
take it all in. Killing the plaza to the cries of a handful of residents
who managed to collect a few hundred signatures is an affront to The
Better Streets Plan, and I fear the kind of neighborhood battles that
will ensue until our electeds muster the political will to back up all
their green talk with action.

We've made wonderful progress with the Pavement to Parks plazas and parklets, so why turn back now because of a vocal few? Isn't that exactly what Newsom said The Better Streets Plan was designed to prevent? There is talk of two new parklets on 24th Street between Sanchez and Noe in lieu of the plaza but why not do all three?

It's particularly dismaying, but not surprising, that Dufty, who indicated initial support for the plaza, buckled. If he wants to be mayor he should start touting the tenets of The Better Streets Plan and come up with his own ideas to get it done. Aspiring to make San Francisco a greater city for pedestrians, transit riders and bicyclists should not be a political liability.

It is true that if you build it they will come, and they will enjoy. The same complaints the Noe Valley few have voiced were trumpeted by neighbors on Hartford Street over the hill in the Castro, though that resistance vanished when the final product was constructed.

If our political leaders had the strength to move forward with the trial Noe Valley plaza, I suspect all of those worries would be cast aside and residents will demand more improvements over time. 

Among the ten elements that chart a course toward more livable streets, The Better Streets Plan calls for memorable neighborhoods that support diverse public life and healthy lifestyles that encourage "walking to daily and occasional destinations, minimizing pedestrian injuries and helping to decrease major chronic diseases related to air quality and pedestrian activity."

Considering our aging population, including those baby boomers and retirees who live in some of the old Victorians that make Noe Valley so charming, wouldn't the plaza be the perfect thing to help achieve this goal? Instead, worries about disrupting private auto traffic, one of the leading contributors to chronic diseases and obesity, trump the goals of making San Francisco a healthier and more livable city.

If Newsom and Dufty and all our local electeds want to keep talking about sustainability, they should work to embolden those visionaries in the advocacy community and within the Planning Department, the SFDPW, SFMTA and the SFCTA who are so anxious to implement innovative ideas, forged from community input and best practices from around the world.

Progress on the streets really boils down to political will.

Unfortunately, many of those advocates, city planners and community leaders who do the quiet work, spend their nights at community meetings, write the speeches and press releases -- and who often get little public credit -- frequently watch their ideas collect dust, or get shot down in one swoop by a few doubters, regardless of what city policy demands.

We cannot and should not let that happen to The Better Streets Plan.

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