Harvey Milk Plaza project should be 'shovel ready' this summer, exec says

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday February 3, 2023
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"The Canopy" rendering of Harvey Milk Plaza shows the Castro Muni entrance and the new elevator in the background. Artist rendering courtesy SWA Group
"The Canopy" rendering of Harvey Milk Plaza shows the Castro Muni entrance and the new elevator in the background. Artist rendering courtesy SWA Group

There are no further city hearings on the plan to renovate Harvey Milk Plaza in the city's Castro neighborhood at least until the project is "shovel ready," according to a leader of the group advocating for major changes to the public parklet above a transit stop.

Brian Springfield, a gay man who is executive director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, said during Thursday's meeting of the Castro Merchants Association that the project is now eligible for building permits, which would need to be signed off by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation agency and BART, after the historic preservation commission agreed to a request for a certificate of appropriateness on November 16. This is an approval action for the project for the purposes of the California Environmental Quality Act, the commission's agenda stated and Springfield confirmed.

Now a capital campaign has been "quietly launched" to raise money for the portions of the renovations that will be privately funded, Springfield said. Already, $3.3 million in public funding and $900,000 in private funding has been committed, but "that's just gotten us to where we are," Springfield said.

"Now, we need the portion of the costs that are memorial related," Springfield said.

Springfield told the B.A.R. that in terms of total funding "we are still working with all the stakeholders to determine the exact mix. I anticipate we will be able to share more specifics on the project's financials later this spring."

Springfield stated to the B.A.R. after the merchants' meeting that the project should be shovel ready by summer.

"The conversations around public funding have just begun but I sense there's excitement behind this vision for honoring Harvey at the intersection," he stated. "Once we complete 100% construction documents this summer, the project will be shovel ready, which means it will be well-positioned for directed funding."

Springfield said that BART and SFMTA will need to approve any final changes at the site.

"SFMTA has been a great partner from the very beginning, and we will continue to work with them to ensure investment at the site maximizes transit efficiency, which is very important to those that make connections at Castro Station," Springfield stated. "SFMTA leases the station from BART, so both will need to approve any work inside the station. I'd welcome the chance to share all the transit and infrastructure improvements planned in the station that will improve efficiency. Since he was a public transportation advocate, I imagine Harvey would be quite pleased."

According to Rachel Gordon, the spokesperson for San Francisco Public Works, which has also been involved in the plaza project, city planning officials approved the certificate of appropriateness for the proposed redesign in November. There are no more approvals needed from city oversight panels, she told the B.A.R. February 3.

Daniel A. Sider, chief of staff at the planning department, confirmed to the B.A.R. in a February 6 email that "the project doesn't require any approvals from the Planning Commission, so we don't anticipate any hearings before them."

Engineers at BART do need to review the plans since the regional transit agency owns the transit station even though it doesn't have a stop there. The conceptual design approved by the city's arts commission is now going through the city's engineering review process, noted Gordon, so some tweaks may be needed due to structural concerns.

The private cash includes $150,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City, as part of its $250 million "initiative to recalibrate our nation's commemorative landscape to be more complete and accurate," according to an email from the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza.

The friends' organization described it as a "modest capacity-building grant."

"We are excited by the prospect of LGBTQ+ representation in our nation's monuments and memorials, and are proud of the fact that Mellon agrees that Harvey and the movement he led deserve to be included in our nation's story," the friends' email continued.

Springfield said that the plan is to relocate two Path of Gold lamp posts from the plaza, as well as to move the stairs, which are not up to building codes, back 20 feet. As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission in November approved the historic light fixtures' relocation.

Inclusive history is goal

Springfield said that he hopes the memorial will "tell the most inclusive version of Castro history possible." While people may visit the site hoping to learn more about Milk — the San Francisco supervisor and Castro resident who made history as the first openly gay man elected in the Golden State, and whose 1978 assassination galvanized the gay rights movement nationwide — they will end up also learning about lesbian icons such as the late Sally Gearhart, who joined Milk campaigning against a statewide ban on LGBTQ teachers. (Proposition 6 was defeated by voters in 1978.)

Springfield also plans on highlighting the late San Francisco lesbian icons Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who lived in the Castro as young women and who helped to create the Council on Religion and the Homosexual at Glide Memorial Methodist Church, as well as the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the U.S. Lyon died in 2020; Martin passed away in 2008.

Howard Grant, who designed Milk plaza in the 1960s along with the Castro Muni station and others located along Market Street, is among those opposed to seeing it be ripped up or significantly altered. Employed at the time by Reid and Tarics Associates, Grant would come out as gay years later. The Castro station subway stop has been open since 1980, and it and the plaza were first dedicated to Milk in 1985.

The SFMTA is planning on constructing accessibility improvements to the space, and the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza plans on using the time to create what it considers a more proper memorial to the late supervisor on the site.

Part of SFMTA's plan is a new four-stop elevator for the Castro Muni station. The project is slated to begin in March, part of the Castro Accessibility Project, a public works spokesperson said February 3. () Estimated to cost between $15 and $30 million, the new elevator will be built into a portion of the plaza's sunken garden area by the subway station entrance and should be completed in 2025

One person opposed to the plaza renovation recently reached out to the Mellon foundation.

John Goldsmith, a gay man, wrote an email to the Mellon foundation saying he would like to "arrange a person to person meeting with someone representing the grant that you all have provided."

"We are concerned that the monies used will not be in good faith or in the best interest of the community, locally and globally," Goldsmith stated.

For its part, Mellon told Goldsmith it was in "receipt of your [Goldsmith's] email."

The foundation did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The group Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza has been working on a renovation plan for the plaza since 2017. The current redesign proposal calls for a new spiral podium feature to be built at the entrance of the plaza at the intersection of Castro and Market streets. A smaller stairway leading to the underground subway station would be constructed.

A rose-colored, transparent overhang above the escalator that goes to the Muni station would be used to protect it from rainwater. The color scheme is derived from that of the red-and-white bullhorn the plaza's namesake famously used to rally residents of the neighborhood and the city's larger LGBTQ community during protests held at the site and during marches that kicked off from it.

Milk only served 11 months on the Board of Supervisors before he was gunned down inside City Hall the morning of November 27, 1978 along with then-mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White.

Updated 2/6/2023 with response from the San Francisco Planning and to note that Brian Springfield is no longer VP of the Friends group; he remains executive director.

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