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4 design concepts presented for Harvey Milk Plaza renovation project

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A rendering of the pedestal concept for Harvey Milk Plaza was shown to attendees at Thursday's virtual town hall. Photo: Screengrab via SWA Group
A rendering of the pedestal concept for Harvey Milk Plaza was shown to attendees at Thursday's virtual town hall. Photo: Screengrab via SWA Group  

As the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza works to reboot its renovation project, new preliminary designs for the public parklet above the Castro Muni Station were rolled out Thursday during a virtual town hall that saw a memorial grove concept received most favorably by attendees.

A pedestal-type design scored lower, though specific numbers weren't available from the Friends group for the informal voting that took place during the meeting.

The concepts are part of a plan to give a facelift to the plaza, which 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 11 months into his first term, city officials named the aboveground entrance area into the LGBTQ neighborhood's transit station after the pioneering politician.

There were two sets of non-exclusive general approaches to the design of the space, as explained by Daniel Cunningham, a landscape architect with SWA Group, an international landscape, architecture, planning, and urban design firm that is working on the project. Cunningham said the inspiration behind the design concepts presented were "based on years of community feedback."

Consolidated designs
The first set of approaches are consolidated ones, fitting within the confines of the existing plaza.

These include a pedestal concept featuring a platform for people to speak, which Cunningham said would provide "space for people to activate and engage the intersection;" a beacon concept, which Cunningham said can either be as "visibility," showcasing images of community members, or "hope," providing inspiration during challenging times; the memorial grove concept, which would fit with what Cunningham said was the more "garden" ambiance of the Castro neighborhood westward; and an activation concept, which would be a potential spot for Milk birthday celebrations and other gatherings. (Milk's May 22 birthday is a day of special significance in California.)

Cunningham said that the activation concept was inspired by events at Milk's 1978 funeral, when people were exhorted to spread funereal flowers across the city.

"People can bring flowers to the site and allow this tradition to be started," Cunningham said. "The idea is to activate the site."

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, the Friends group announced during the April 1 meeting of the Castro Merchants Association that it has launched an online survey seeking community feedback about the space, which is located at the southwest corner of the intersection at Market and Castro streets, at the underground Muni station.

Those attending the April 15 town hall were able to vote via Zoom's poll function on the four concepts. Brian Springfield, a gay man who is the interim executive director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, said that these results will be combined with results from a second town hall this Saturday to inform SWA Group.

Separately, the plaza is already slated to undergo changes as part of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Castro Accessibility Project, including a four-stop elevator. 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.

Though Springfield has not provided the B.A.R. with vote totals, or the number of attendees, as of press time, the memorial grove concept received the highest number of "Love It" votes (at 47%), followed by the beacon concept (41%), the pedestal concept (26%), and the activation concept (21%).

The pedestal concept received the highest number of "Dislike It" votes (21%), followed by the activation concept (18%), the beacon concept (9%), and the memorial grove concept (6%).

People could also vote "Like It" or "Neutral/OK."

Beyond confines of the plaza
The second set of non-exclusive approaches are expansive ones, which mean they go beyond the confines of the current plaza.

The first of these is "stitch the divide," which Cunningham said could engage Jane Warner Plaza, Pink Triangle Park, and space in front of the old Pottery Barn building, which would tie together the intersection at Castro and Market streets.

The second is the "welcome to the Castro" concept, which could use a ribbon of words or art to connect the plaza with the underground Muni station.

"The idea is to have a continuous art piece," Cunningham explained. "It could be text, but the idea is to bring the culture of the Castro down into the station.

"Why can't we have the vibrancy of the Castro in the station?" Cunningham asked. "When you get off the Muni, shouldn't you know where you are?"

The third concept, "catalyst for change," would be focused on Milk's inspirational words.

"We've heard from some in the community that they want to hear Harvey Milk's voice in the space," Cunningham said. "Maybe we can take that literally."

As part of this concept, audio recordings of Milk could be played, from time to time, "to inspire people as they pass through this space," he said.

Finally, the "engage the city" concept could bring elements of the memorial to the location of Milk's old camera shop at 575 Castro Street, his residence before his assassination on Henry Street, or even to his old City Hall office, "so we can walk through the city in the footsteps of Harvey," Cunningham said.

Of these, stitch the divide received the highest number of "Love It" votes (at 74%), followed by welcome to the Castro (56%), catalyst for change (24%), and engage the city (18%).

Engage the city received the highest number of "Dislike It" votes (15%), followed by catalyst for change (12%). Stitch the divide and welcome to the Castro received no dislike votes.

Cunningham, who said he has lived in the Castro since 2013, stressed that he understands the importance of the plaza.

"I use this site every day to get to work," he said.

Cunningham and Springfield repeated much of what they told the merchants about how the project came to this point.

"Our mission is to reimagine Harvey Milk Plaza as a welcoming, vibrant space that honors Harvey's life and legacy, celebrates his enduring importance to the LGBTQ+ community, and inspires by acting as a beacon of hope to marginalized communities worldwide," Springfield said at the outset of the town hall.

Springfield said there are many considerations that come into play when considering and brainstorming sets of approaches and concepts, like if the memorial should be more "traditional" or "unconventional," if it should be more "global" or "local," and if it should be more focused on Milk personally, or the LGBTQ rights movement generally.

Participants got the opportunity to make their voices heard on these questions, too, through a Zoom feature that allowed people to plot their preferences on a chart. People leaned more toward unconventional, global, and the movement on the questions.

"We're going to compile this with data from the next meeting and use this to inform how we move forward with the design process," Springfield said.

The town hall will be repeated Saturday, April 17, at 11 a.m. People interested in attending can sign up here. Community members can also provide feedback at this event.

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