Harvey Milk Plaza 'buzz-raiser' meeting coming to Castro

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 17, 2024
Share this Post:
A rendering shows an overview of the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza. Illustration: Courtesy SWA Group via Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza
A rendering shows an overview of the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza. Illustration: Courtesy SWA Group via Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza

The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza is holding an event next week to drum up support for the long-planned new memorial to be constructed at the public parklet above the Castro Muni station.

It's been nearly seven years since the friends' group began working on a plan to re-imagine the plaza, which was named in honor of Milk, the city's first gay elected supervisor, back in 1985. Milk was elected to the board in November 1977, took office in January 1978, and was assassinated, along with then-mayor George Moscone, that November. Milk was a vocal transit advocate.

The friends group's most recent design, by SWA Group, includes a canopy above the Castro Street entrance to the subway, among other features.

Friends' officials said the January 25 meeting is to sort of jump-start the project, which needs to raise more than $30 million and began a "quiet" capital campaign last year. But the upcoming session is not to solicit funds, organizers said.

"I guess you'd call it not a fundraiser but a buzz-raiser," Brian Springfield, a gay man who is the friends' executive director, told the Bay Area Reporter on January 10. "It is not unusual for a nonprofit in a capital campaign to have the quiet phase — where they're working behind the scenes to get significant gifts, then reach out to the public for the last 15%-20% — but because this is about Harvey Milk, the board decided that wasn't the right approach, and we're bringing the community along with us."

The friends' group has also rebranded the project, now known as the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza. Springfield said that name came about around five years ago as a way of distinguishing the old and new plazas.

"The challenge is that there already is a Harvey Milk Plaza but it lacks that memorial," Springfield said. The design from SWA Group, an international landscape, architecture, planning, and urban design firm that is working on the project, was revealed in 2021, as the B.A.R. reported at the time.

It's all meant to coincide with other changes at the site, such as a separate $11.5 million project to construct and install a new four-stop Castro Muni elevator, as the B.A.R. previously reported. San Francisco Public Works previously estimated that project would be completed in 2026.

The new elevator had first been proposed in 2016, as the current elevator for the Castro Muni Station is across the street from its main entrance near Pink Triangle Park where 17th Street meets Market Street, which can be hard to access for wheelchair users and others with mobility issues. If out of service, then there is no way to access the station without using stairs or an escalator.

As the B.A.R. also reported, the plaza project had raised $3.3 million in public funding and $900,000 in private funding as of February 2023. Springfield told the B.A.R. that the $900,000 figure is now closer to $1 million, but the public funding amount is the same. It includes $2 million in state funding that gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) had helped to secure.

Wiener will be among those speaking at the upcoming meeting.

"I strongly support the renovation of Harvey Milk Plaza to make it a world class plaza for the neighborhood and worthy of Harvey Milk's legacy," he stated to the B.A.R. "We have a huge opportunity to create a wonderful resource for both residents and an educational opportunity for people who come to visit the Castro."

Announced speakers include Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco), a straight ally; gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman; and longtime gay activist Cleve Jones; as well as drag performers Sister Roma and Juanita MORE!, San Francisco Democratic Party Chair Honey Mahogany (who also serves as Haney's district director), and the city's drag laureate D'Arcy Drollinger.

"Acknowledging and honoring those who have significantly impacted our community and ensuring their contributions are not forgotten is crucial," MORE! stated. "The Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza is a beautiful project that aims to preserve Harvey's legacy and remind future generations of the importance of equality and acceptance. I'm thrilled to be supporting this cause."

Jones, who worked closely with Milk, told the B.A.R., "I am very excited about the plans."

"They have done a marvelous job with the way they worked with the community," he continued. "This was an open, transparent, and inclusive process."

Mandelman, who represents the Castro on the city's Board of Supervisors, acknowledged the work of the Castro Community Benefit District.

"The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza and Castro CBD have done great work to raise awareness and generate public support for the Milk Plaza redesign — their work sets the foundation for a future gathering space that will be a fitting tribute to the life and legacy of Harvey Milk," he stated. "I'm proud to join the event and help galvanize support for the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza."

Haney, Roma, Mahogany, and Drollinger did not return requests for comment.


Springfield said that the total cost of the project is $35 million, including $7 million for the commemorative features, and $27-$28 million for transit and infrastructure improvements.

One of those improvements will be moving the stairs 20 feet to the west, closer to Collingwood, which will allow the space closer to Castro Street to be utilized.

"Year one what we are focusing on is to find funding for code-compliant Muni stairs," he said, adding the stairway and escalator replacement will cost $16 million.

The construction documents should be ready by summer, Springfield said.

"That's a good sign," he said. "The city doesn't create construction documents for projects they don't plan to build."

As a prerequisite to starting the plans, the friends' group gave the city ownership over the design, which the nonprofit had heretofore owned. The Board of Supervisors had to approve accepting the gift from the friends — valued at $1.275 million — which it did November 9 on a vote of 11-0. Supervisors Mandelman and Joel Engardio, a gay man who represents District 4, introduced the resolution.

Engardio did not return a request for comment.

Springfield clarified that the $1.275 million figure came from totaling up the labor and costs of getting to the proposed design.

Members of the Castro Merchants Association are invited to come to the event one hour early, at 5 p.m., "to have a quieter special time to engage with board members about the project," according to an email blast January 4.

When asked for comment, Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is the merchants' president, referred the B.A.R. to Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is the executive director of the Castro Community Benefit District, who she credited for authoring the blast. Aiello confirmed as much to the B.A.R., stating simply, "we are getting there early to talk to interested merchants."

As for Springfield, he's still raising buzz.

"I am personally so excited to see this idea make it this far along — something the Castro has been talking about for two decades now," he said. "It has widespread support and it's exciting people to see the value of something special at Castro and Market [streets]."

Public Works' Rachel Gordon stated that no start date has been set for the plaza project.

"We don't have funds identified for Harvey Milk Plaza project, so no construction start date cemented," Gordon stated to the B.A.R. "We hope to complete the design by late summer 2024."

One of the project's critics is Howard Grant, who designed the original plaza in the 1960s along with the Castro Muni station and others located along Market Street. He 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.

Grant did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza meeting will take place Thursday, January 25, from 6 to 8 p.m. at 500 Castro Street, the former Harvey's space. People interested in attending can register online via Eventbrite.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!