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Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza launches new survey; will hold town halls soon

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Brian Springfield, interim executive director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, gave a presentation on the proposed renovation project to the Castro Merchants Association April 1. Photo: Screengrab
Brian Springfield, interim executive director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, gave a presentation on the proposed renovation project to the Castro Merchants Association April 1. Photo: Screengrab  

Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza has commenced yet another online survey seeking community feedback about changes to the space's design. The booster group also will conduct two town hall events later this month, its interim executive director said April 1.

The announcements were made during the monthly Castro Merchants Association meeting, at which time Brian Springfield, the interim executive director of Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, gave a presentation.

The Friends group has been involved with plans to renovate the plaza for the last several years. The remodel proposal has been fiercely opposed by some in the community who have countered the goal of better honoring Milk can be achieved within the confines of the current design and at less cost than the estimated $10 million price tag for the fuller renovation proposal.

Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected in San Francisco when he won a supervisors' seat in 1977 and represented the Castro at City Hall. Several years after he was killed nearly a year into his first term, city officials named the aboveground entrance area into the LGBTQ neighborhood's Muni station after the pioneering politician.

While a bronze plaque and photomontage of Milk was installed at the plaza, neighborhood leaders have long felt more can be done to properly memorialize the area's namesake. They embarked on an overhaul of the plaza and secured $1 million in state funding from gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) toward the remodel project.

But earlier design proposals were shelved after being met with public criticism and tepid support from some city agencies that reviewed them. So the Friends group has basically hit reset on the project.

Last summer, San Francisco's planning department concluded that Harvey Milk Plaza is historically important and eligible for listing on the California Register of Historical Resources. It remains to be seen, however, if such listing for the public parklet above the Castro Muni Station will be sought either by the city or a community group.

Nor is it clear how the determination that the plaza itself is of historical importance — and that it contributes to having the entire Eureka Valley/Castro Street commercial historic district be designated a California Register Historic District — will impact plans to renovate the plaza. The city's public works department, in partnership with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, is planning to install a new elevator in the plaza to provide better access to the underground Muni station from the street for individuals who use wheelchairs and others with mobility issues.

"People want to see Harvey represented with something special and a gathering place for the community so the place named for Harvey is better integrated in the community," Springfield said at the meeting.

SFMTA's Castro Accessibility Project will include a four-stop elevator, as the Bay Area Reporter recently reported. SFMTA's website states construction is slated to start this fall on the $14.5 million project. It is scheduled to be completed in 2024.

Springfield said that with these changes coming to the space, now is the time for the community to make its voice heard as to what other changes it wants to make to the plaza.

"The change is coming," Springfield said. "What do we want the site to look like when it's torn apart and put back together?"

Springfield said that since he had last spoken to the merchants group, the project underwent a historic resource evaluation due to the role that the site played as a gathering space for the candlelight march from the Castro to City Hall that occurred on November 27, 1978 after the assassinations of Milk and then-mayor George Moscone. It's also being looked at historically for its role in the White Night Riots of May 21, 1979, which occurred after Dan White, the disgruntled ex-supervisor who killed Milk and Moscone, received a lenient sentence for the crimes.

After the evaluation "the project received a $1 million state grant to create an LGBTQ space at Harvey Milk Plaza," Springfield said, referring to the funding Wiener was able to obtain.

SWA Group, an international landscape, architecture, planning, and urban design firm, is now working on the project. This is the second company involved with the design; Perkins Eastman did several concepts for the plaza but those have been scrapped.

In 2017, the plaza got $500,000 from a gay California man that was used for the first design competition and Perkins Eastman.

"The way we approach a project is different from how an architect would work," said Daniel Cunningham, the SWA project lead and an associate in the firm's San Francisco office, who also is a Castro neighborhood resident. "We are landscapers."

SWA is currently working on a project at Portsmouth Square in Chinatown.

"We want our project to be rooted in the community and we want the project to feel like the Castro," Cunningham, a landscape architect, said.

Cunningham went on to speak to the merchants about different memorials SWA has or is working on, including the Sandy Hook Memorial in Newtown, Connecticut; the Grand Candela in El Paso, Texas to memorialize those killed in a 2019 mass shooting there; and the Harry S. Truman Memorial in Independence, Missouri.

Cunningham said each has a special purpose. The Grand Candela is designed to look like a prayer candle and be visible from across the Mexican border (the victims included both U.S. and Mexican nationals). The Truman memorial includes walkable space because the 33rd president enjoyed taking walks.

"We want to focus our conversation on the memory of Milk," Cunningham said. "We all walk by the site, we go to work, and it's a space — but it's not a place. ... For folks taking transit, this is the front doormat to the Castro, and it's also the last thing you'll see when you leave."

Due to the COVID pandemic, the Muni station has been fenced off and closed since last March other than a brief three-day reopening last August. SFMTA has yet to say when it will reopen.

As for the proposed plaza renovation, some questions that will have to be answered is whether the Milk memorial will be more focused on him personally or the LGBTQ-rights movement in general; whether the focus will be more San Francisco specific or global; and whether the design elements will be more traditional or out-of-the-box, Cunningham said.

"The project has the opportunity to reshape people's perception of the Castro in a major way," Cunningham said. "It's a way to bring everyone together in a positive way after this dark time as we move to the light."

The online survey is here.

The virtual town halls will be held Thursday, April 15, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 11 a.m. Anyone who wants to attend can sign up through Eventbrite. The latter meeting will be a reprise of the first one, Springfield said.

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