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Designers weigh comments on Milk plaza

by Tony Taylor

Castro resident Kile Ozier talks about his small group's thoughts on a reimagined Harvey Milk Plaza at the first of four community meetings January 27 in the Castro. Photo: Tony Taylor
Castro resident Kile Ozier talks about his small group's thoughts on a reimagined Harvey Milk Plaza at the first of four community meetings January 27 in the Castro. Photo: Tony Taylor  

People continue to have mixed views on the plans to renovate Harvey Milk Plaza, even as speakers at two recent meetings voiced concerns over the current space.

On the one hand, designers and the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza envision a sweeping new public space, while others are critical of initial renderings and wonder how the space will avoid becoming a magnet for homeless people.

The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza started on the project last year, planning to incorporate plaza changes with accessibility improvements led by the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency.

After a series of internet surveys, in-person conversations began last week to determine the fate of the Castro's "plaza for the people."

Led by Perkins Eastman, the winning design firm that is based in New York and has an office in San Francisco, the plan is to convert the corner of Castro and Market streets into a community space that offers locals, visitors, and commuters a safe, user-friendly, and inviting public gathering area in the heart of the Castro.

In its initial rendering, the Perkins Eastman design is a large, open plaza at the Castro corner sitting at the foot of an amphitheater which steps upward, pointing toward Sutro Tower. The amphitheater is composed of a series of "stages" for seeing, hearing, and watching, connected by a series of ramps and benches for pausing and listening. Lighting treatment in the plaza also creates a permanent "candlelight vigil."

But it's unlikely that design will be used, though elements from it might be included.

There was mention at the meeting of the Muni entrance continuing to be oriented toward Castro Street, as it is now. The Perkins Eastman design had the entrance further west near Collingwood Street.

"The competition was more of an ideas competition to determine which team has a big idea and is able to take input from different stakeholders, like the city jury, design jury, and be flexible, and listen to people," Perkins Eastman representative Justin Skoda said during the first of four community meetings January 27 at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church.

The afternoon session began with a room of locals who brainstormed ideas on how best to restore the plaza.

After reviewing the site's history, attendees heard an overview of how the SFMTA accessibility project fits into the plaza's redesign.

"We want to make sure people in community understand [the accessibility project] is happening in its own timeline," said Skoda.

According to the SFMTA website, as part of a system-wide effort to improve Americans with Disabilities Act access to Muni, the pavement and pedestrian areas around the Castro Muni station will be widened, a second elevator will be added to the south side transit entrance, the existing lighting will be replaced, and the pavement above the station will be regraded.

SFMTA predicts construction completion in 2020.

"The main focus of today's meeting is to have everyone sit down, talk amongst themselves, and hear what the community wants to tell us," added Skoda. "We want to hear what everyone thinks."

People were seated at round tables, offering a mixture of different viewpoints. The groups worked together, sharing ideas before coming to a consensus.

"With the recording and documentation of today, we'll take that information and make the basis of a new design," Skoda told the B.A.R.

After answering a series of questions that included, "What should a memorial to Harvey Milk feel like?" and "What qualities should a future Harvey Milk Plaza have?" the groups were ready to share.

Castro resident Kile Ozier was first to speak. His group noted that with "the sunken, hiddenness of the plaza [as it is], people can walk through it and not know they've been in it. And it's a built-in opportunity for antisocial behavior and violence."

"It needs to be and feel very safe with an iconic presence, memorializing what Harvey stood for: coming out, community, and having fun," Ozier said. "Virtually every movement has started right there and some quality to the architecture [should] convey that."

Ozier's group suggested the installation of a "giant, iconic bullhorn, on its back, straight up, with a big fountain that is a water show at night."

In 1973, Milk addressed voters in the Castro with a bullhorn atop a soapbox in support of his first campaign for San Francisco supervisor. He won a seat on the board in 1977, becoming the first openly gay man elected to office in San Francisco and California.

"People need to see that they're at a place when they get off the bus or the train," Ozier added. "[There should be] something iconic like the clock at Grand Central Terminal."

Last year, the B.A.R. reported that the $500,000 donation to support the design competition and subsequent plaza development came from Lawrence Cushman, a gay California man, which gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said was made several years ago into a fund at the Horizons Foundation for the plaza's benefit.
Andrea Aiello, president of the Friends' group and executive director of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District, said the first meeting went well.

"It was a great turnout for the first meeting and we gathered a lot of great feedback from the community," Aiello wrote in an email.

She said that the feedback sheets are posted on the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/friendsofharveymilkplaza/) and will be added to the Friends' website in the next week or so.

Aiello said that the next meeting will include a series of different sketches for a reimagined public space.

EVNA meeting
At the January 24 Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association meeting, attendees had mixed feelings about how to enliven the plaza. During a question and answer segment, residents agreed on the most important component of the plaza's redesign: safety.

"In any public space, [safety] will always be an issue, how to keep out unwanted urban behavior," said Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza secretary Brian Springfield. "The answer is to activate the space, so [the homeless] won't gather."

"Jane Warner [Plaza] is as activated as it's ever been and the place is crawling with [homeless] people at 5 a.m.," said Crispin Hollings, EVNA's former president, referring to the plaza across the street.

"We need to come up with something better than a promise to activate the plaza in whatever form it's in," Hollings added. "The idea that we're going to activate it in the same way as Jane Warner Plaza will result in the same way: an encampment for homelessness. We will stay in a place of fear. You need to come up with something better."

One person asked why Harvey Milk Plaza wasn't working in its current configuration. The site now is dreary; benches have been installed and removed over the years, and the upper part of the plaza doesn't easily connect to the lower part, where there is some information about Milk.

"Overwhelmingly, people wanted to honor Harvey Milk in a way that's significant," Springfield responded. "I'm not sure it's possible in the current space. There's only a sliver of space to dedicate a memorial experience."

Other people expressed concerns about seating and the idea of an increased space to assemble.

Howard Grant, a retired architect and designer of the Castro Street Muni station and Harvey Milk Plaza, opposes the redesign.

"We haven't talked about the disruption and inconvenience demolition and replacement of the plaza would bring for the hundreds of Muni commuters and adjacent neighbors," he said, reading from a prepared speech. "I believe Harvey Milk Plaza is a community asset that should be treasured, not demolished."

During last October's public comment period, the Harvey Milk Plaza redesign project received over 20,000 interactions. Based on the data collected by Neighborland, the communications host of the online survey, during those two weeks, 2,600 people participated in the survey component and 4,000 contributed survey responses. Forty-seven percent of those who responded live or work in the 94114 ZIP code and 50 percent utilize Harvey Milk Plaza daily, weekly, or monthly.

Additional fundraising efforts will call on public contributions to secure the additional $10 million required for the full funding of the design, construction, and maintenance of the plaza.

The next community meetings are scheduled for March 3 and April 7 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. at Most Holy Redeemer. The fourth meeting's time and location are unconfirmed.

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