reaches halfway mark
by Matthew S. Bajko
The project to expand sidewalks in the city's gay Castro district reached the halfway mark this week, and San Francisco planners remain hopeful the work will be completed by early October.
Officials had built in a self-imposed deadline of June 17 for construction to wrap on the first phase of the streetscape improvements so as not to interfere with the Frameline LGBT International Film Festival, which opens Thursday night, June 19, and takes over the Castro Theatre for 10 days, or Pride festivities next weekend in the Castro.
Crews from Ghilotti Brothers, the Marin-based contractor that won the bid for the $4 million project, had largely wrapped up their work by Tuesday, June 17. After cleaning the streets and sidewalks Wednesday morning, the company planned to vacate the area by mid-afternoon.
Fencing around the newly poured sidewalk extensions along the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street came down in early June to provide pedestrian access to the widened pathways. Crews also leveled the street and poured temporary pavement along the two blocks for vehicle access.
"This is just our first phase," said John Dennis, a designer with the city's Department of Public Works who is acting as the project manager. "We are really looking forward to finishing but are glad we reached this milestone."
Reaction so far to the improved look of the heart of San Francisco's gayborhood has been largely positive.
"They are done. They are outta here," marveled Andrea Aiello, executive director of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District, as she inspected the work done to date Tuesday morning. "We are really excited. I can't wait until everything is done."
Bay Area Reporter society columnist Donna Sachet called the new sidewalks the "Champs -Élysées of the Castro."
"It's so large, I had to walk right in the middle of the sidewalk," she said Tuesday morning.
Castro merchants, who had seen their business take a hit after work commenced in March, are anxious to see the project be finished. While some have complained about the fluctuating timeline for the work, they have been pleased with the changes so far.
(Photo: Matthew S. Bajko)
"I am very impressed," said Dan Glazer, owner of Hot Cookie. "We were a little slower than normal. But we are very optimistic this will bring in new business."
Longtime Castro business owner and leader Patrick Batt added, "I think people are going to be very happy once they are done."
Over the last three months "a lot of people just avoided the neighborhood" due to the sidewalk work, said Batt. "Once the word gets out it is possible to walk again in the Castro, I think people will start to come back."
The Castro CBD has launched a new ad campaign to promote the business district during Pride, and the city created a poster for merchants to hang in their windows explaining what work remains to be completed.
Batt faulted city planners and the contractor for not starting work in January as they had promised, leading to only a portion of the new sidewalks to be installed prior to Pride.
"If they had started in January as they promised, they probably would have gotten everything done by July," said Batt, who co-owns Castro Street coffeehouse Eureka and operates the adult bookstore Auto Erotica on 18th Street.
Workers will return the morning of Monday, June 30 to start on the project's second phase. They will begin ripping out the remaining old sidewalks flush against the buildings in order to pour new pavement and level out the pathway.
"I call that area Pandora's box," said Bob Yerion, Ghilotti's general superintendent, due to the various old pipes for utilities the contractor will have to navigate.
During the first phase of work, Yerion said crews successfully crossed 300 different utility pipes and only hit one unmarked water line.
"We had a great crew," he said.
By late July or August crews will be replacing a major water pipe that runs the length of Castro Street. The work will entail digging a trench along the roadway on the eastern side; once installed the two blocks will be repaved with more permanent materials. The roadway on 18th Street between Collingwood and Hartford will also be repaved.
Sixty-three street trees, mostly Columnar gingkos with a handful of King palms, will be planted in the coming months. New pedestrian light poles, history facts about the neighborhood, and plaques honoring LGBT luminaries will be installed during the second phase.
"It's very exciting to see the 'frame' for the Rainbow Honor Walk take shape," said David Perry, a local publicist and Castro resident who championed the LGBT history project. "In several places, we can see the actual depressions which soon will house the large bronze tributes to LGBT heroes and heroines. It's been worth the wait, so waiting a bit longer is perfectly fine with us."
The city will also be replacing the streetlights and poles that hold up the electrical wires for Muni buses later this summer. A new crosswalk configuration at the Market and Castro intersection and repaving of Jane Warner Plaza will also occur in the second phase.
One of the last elements to be installed will be rainbow-colored crosswalks at the intersection of Castro and 18th streets.
City planners told the B.A.R. this week they expect to have the remaining work done in time for the Castro Street Fair, which will be held Sunday, October 5.
"I think it is definitely doable," said Ashley Hall, a resident engineer with DPW who has been working closely with the contractor on shepherding the project. "This was the really challenging part, getting the sidewalks in."