Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Castro plaza rules inch closer to passage


People hurried through a wet Harvey Milk Plaza last Friday; the Board of Supervisors is expected to vote Tuesday on rules for the plaza, as well as the Jane Warner Plaza across Castro Street. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)
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Rules governing two outdoor plazas in the Castro inched closer to passage this week after a Board of Supervisors' committee endorsed the proposed regulations.

Under the new guidelines for both Jane Warner and Harvey Milk plazas at the corner of Market and Castro streets, camping and sleeping would be banned at all hours in the public parklets. Cigarette smoking would also be prohibited in the two areas, while signage would make clear that removable chairs and tables would be stored between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. each day.

The plazas would remain open 24 hours and people would be allowed to sit either on the ground or on benches in the plazas, insists District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener. The openly gay lawmaker, who lives near the area, introduced the measure at the behest of the Castro Community Benefit District.

"This legislation is not draconian. It does not restrict anyone from the plazas," said Wiener, later adding, "This is basic, common sense legislation."

The board's land use committee voted 2-1 to support the rules, which now go before the full board for passage Tuesday, January 31. District 4 Supervisor Carmen Chu voted with Wiener in favor of the regulations.

"I appreciate the passion. But I don't believe it comes from a place of hate or discrimination," said Chu after hearing more than two hours of testimony during the Monday, January 23 hearing.

District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar, the committee's chair, voted to oppose the measure although he does believe smoking should be banned in the plazas. Having toured the parklets with those opposed to the rules, Mar said he is concerned the regulations would hinder people's civil rights.

"My hope is you can really work with everyone to address the human and civil rights issues," said Mar.

The proposal has sparked months of controversy with critics complaining the rules were crafted without community input and needlessly target the homeless and queer youth. The issue has pitted anti-smoking activists and Castro residents against homeless advocates and a neighborhood nonprofit that offers services to LGBT youth.

"San Francisco doesn't need more cynical laws. There is a need to protect open spaces for all people," said Laura Slattery, the executive director of the Gubbio Project, a daytime program for homeless people at Saint Boniface class=st> Church in the Tenderloin.

Also speaking out against the proposed rules was Jodi Schwartz, executive director of the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center, better known as LYRIC. The program for LGBT youth is located on Collingwood Street in the Castro.

"We are opposed to this and are troubled by the privatization of public space," said Schwartz. "It really says that people with money set the rules."

Residents who live nearby the plazas and local merchants, however, say the rules are needed to address unsafe behaviors, such as public urination and drug use, that particularly occur at Harvey Milk Plaza above the Castro Muni station.

Kathy Amendola, a Castro resident who leads historic walking tours of the neighborhood, said she routinely encounters people smoking crack or injecting drugs at the benches below the flagpole in Milk plaza.

"It is a safety issue and a public health issue," she said.

Those working to reduce tobacco use among LGBT people hailed the rule banning smoking at the plazas. A number of people spoke about the dangers of smoking, including second-hand smoke, and how they are unable to use the plazas unless they are smoke free.

"Cigarette smoke makes it hard for me to breath," said Brian Davis, the project director for Freedom from Tobacco, a program of the LGBT Community Center.

But medical marijuana advocates argued their needs to be a clear distinction that the use of doctor-prescribed cannabis is allowed in the outdoor areas.

"There are precious few places where medical cannabis users can medicate," said David Goldman, a gay man who owns a home nearby the plazas and is a longtime patient advocate who served on the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Task Force. "Pot smoke is not like cigarette smoke."

One anti-smoking advocate said he had no objections to people using medical cannabis there.

"Personally, I support an exemption for medical cannabis," said Naphtali Offen, who co-founded the Coalition of Lavender Americans on Smoking and Health.

Wiener said he did look into whether other city ordinances governing public spaces had carved out exemptions for medical cannabis use but found no such examples.

"It is consistent with what this legislation says," said Wiener, noting the ordinance as written speaks only to cigarette smoke and says nothing about the use of vaporizers, a device some people use to inhale medical marijuana in a smokeless form.

Wiener needs six votes from his fellow supervisors next week to approve the regulations. Those opposed to the rules are targeting Board President David Chiu as the swing vote on the 11-member board and have been urging him to vote against the proposal.

Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter following the land use hearing, Wiener expressed optimism of seeing the measure be adopted.

"I don't want to speculate, but I think we have a good chance of getting this passed," he said.

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