Bike lane wars come to the Castro

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday February 1, 2024
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The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Christopher Kidd had a tough audience at the Castro Merchants Association's first meeting of the year February 1 after he suggested protected bike lanes on upper Market Street. Protected bike lanes in the center of Valencia Street have upset Mission neighborhood merchants. Photo: John Ferrannini
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Christopher Kidd had a tough audience at the Castro Merchants Association's first meeting of the year February 1 after he suggested protected bike lanes on upper Market Street. Protected bike lanes in the center of Valencia Street have upset Mission neighborhood merchants. Photo: John Ferrannini

Members of the Castro Merchants Association demanded answers from a representative of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency over alleged anti-car animus hurting the city's — and the LGBTQ neighborhood's — economy.

In other matters, the merchants discussed retail theft ahead of a town hall on the topic and prepared to say goodbye to the Castro Theatre as it temporarily closes for renovations.

The transportation discussion started when SFMTA's Christopher Kidd said officials were considering adding protected bike lanes to upper Market Street. Kidd came to the merchants' first meeting of the year February 1 to give a presentation on the San Francisco Active Communities Plan. According to the agency, the plan "directs SFMTA future investments in the active transportation network, support facilities, programs, and policies for the next 10-15 years. This new planning effort includes all devices that can legally use the active transportation network and elevates the voices and needs of equity priority communities."

Kidd told the Bay Area Reporter that he came to solicit input from local communities because SFMTA is trying to avoid a repeat of the controversial protected bike lanes in the center of Valencia Street. Approved last April, the pilot program led to the removal of 70 parking spots, and merchants in the area are demanding changes, according to KGO-TV.

Kidd told the B.A.R. the citywide plan would make bike lanes in San Francisco more linked to one another. During the last major redo of upper Market Street dedicated bike lanes were added to the thoroughfare between the rightmost driving lane and parking spots. Some sections of the bikeway between Castro Street and Octavia Boulevard are simply painted green, with others protected from passing vehicles by a curb.

"We have some really great facilities, but we also have a lot of gaps," he said.

Kidd began his remarks to the merchants by noting that as the housing supply increases, the city does not want that to mean a commensurate increase in vehicular traffic. He also said that 10% of San Franciscans use a bike, scooter, or electric device.

"Our guiding priority is on the need to connect our network across the city and make it more inclusive," he said, adding that research shows most bike riders are younger, whiter, and more male than the general population, and that accessibility and reducing bicycle theft can help address the disparities.

Kidd also said traffic fatalities involving bicycles decrease 50% when protected bike lanes are established.

But pushback from merchants ensued.

Desmond Morgan, a gay man who is co-owner of cannabis dispensary Eureka Sky, said that city bureaucracy is not considering the needs of merchants when making decisions about which streets should have protected bike lanes.

"You can't shop on a bicycle," he said, adding that more people currently use cars than bicycles — especially when visiting from out of town.

Kidd responded that "yes, we have 10% [using bicycles], but we are a transit first city," adding that 35% of San Franciscans use public transportation.

With regard to out-of-town visitors, Kidd added residents should avoid driving so people can take the limited parking available.

"If people can make these trips without taking parking, it creates more opportunity for someone else," he said of visitors.

Responded Morgan: "What we're trying to tell you is you're not understanding or hearing us. We want you to stop for the sake of the city."

Mark D. McHale, a real estate agent, chimed in, saying that the continuation of the Slow Streets program — which started during the early days of the COVID pandemic so that people could physically distance — has been "self-indulgent" and "arrogant" on the part of the city.

"These businesses are suffering because if you have to go 16 blocks to buy two cans of paint it's not going to work," he said. "The neighborhood has been degraded by good intentions."

Max Khusid, owner of Art House SF, said that the Japan Center Garage in the city's Western Addition neighborhood could be a blueprint for parking relief in the Castro.

"In Japantown we find an amazing, big parking lot that's safe," he said. "Everyone shops till 10 p.m. As a merchant, that's what I love to see."

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is president of the association, quipped that it would be great if the old Pottery Barn building on 2390 Market Street could be repurposed for that use.

Kidd said he was listening. If he disparaged cars, he said, "strike that from the record."

"We do want cars," he said. "They're integral to how the city works."

From now until June, the San Francisco Active Communities Plan is in the first part of its "citywide outreach" phase.

"The ACP involves an inclusive yearlong outreach process to engage residents citywide about biking, scooting, rolling, and how it can, or should, evolve," SFMTA's website states. "The plan's wide-ranging engagement includes focus on the disability community, monolingual communities, youth, and women/trans/nonbinary people."

Outreach started in January 2023 and ends at plan adoption in March, the site noted. The ACP includes targeted engagement in communities that have been historically excluded and underserved by transportation planning: Bayview-Hunters Point, Outer Mission/Excelsior, The Mission, SoMa [South of Market], the Tenderloin, and Western Addition/Fillmore."

People interested in providing feedback can email [email protected]

Castro recession punctuated by 'flashmob' retail theft

Meanwhile, another aspect of business was discussed. Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman told the group that the Castro and Mission districts appear to be in an economic recession, though he did not give specific metrics.

Retail theft in District 8 might be one of the more visible signs of the crisis; Mandelman pointed to just the other day when TV viewers saw "scenes from the flashmob theft at the Castro Walgreens."

Video aired and posted by KRON-TV shows half a dozen people, with masks, filling bags with merchandise before departing.

To address this and other concerns, Mandelman will be holding a town hall with District Attorney Brooke Jenkins Monday, February 5, as the B.A.R. previously reported. The event will be at 5 p.m. at Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez Street. People interested in attending can RSVP here.

Eureka Sky's Morgan asked how the city can advertise to combat its blighted reputation.

Mandelman said that while it's true that some of the worst media reports are not indicative of the everyday situation, "a message of 'it's not as bad as they say' doesn't work for a number of reasons. One, it reminds people that people are saying it's bad. ... There's ways to promote us — there are great things about San Francisco: our natural environment, our people, our restaurants, our culture — but there's more than a kernel of truth to the broader perception."

As the B.A.R. previously reported, the San Francisco Travel Association did feature Lady Camden of "RuPaul's Drag Race" fame, the Castro Theatre, and a 21st century rendition of "San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate" as part of a $6 million ad buy last year.

Mandelman's public safety liaison, straight ally Dave Burke, said the entire city might see a flurry of activity if the San Francisco 49ers win Super Bowl LVIII on February 11 against the Kansas City Chiefs. It would be the team's first Super Bowl win since the 1994 NFL season.

Already, buses were being rerouted as the team made a dramatic comeback during the National Football Conference championship earlier this week, defeating the Detroit Lions 34-31 at Levi's Stadium.

"A lot of people went out, a lot of people drinking, a lot of fireworks," Burke said. "That should expand next Sunday. We obviously don't want vandalism and the destruction of MTA buses."

Burke said the city is paying attention to illegal food vending, but because rules are enforced by the Department of Public Health — which generally does not work nights or weekends — it's hard to prevent.

"I heard there was one near Castro Badlands," Burke said. "This past Friday there was one reported on the Safeway steps. DPH came out, supported by the SFPD. Some food that was not the right temperature was confiscated and nobody was cited but the violators voluntarily vacated."

Castro Theatre finally closing for renovations

Alas, the time has finally come to say goodbye, for now, to the Castro Theatre. Margaret Casey of Another Planet Entertainment plugged a Sunday, February 4, showing of "Victor/Victoria" that starts at 7 p.m. and will feature a live appearance by Lesley Ann Warren, who was in the 1982 musical comedy.

Gay APE spokesperson David Perry had told the B.A.R. in December that a February 4 event marking the closure would be something "highlighting the Castro community and the LGBTQ+ community."

Work will start on the building's interior as part of the extensive renovations announced two years ago and that will involve removing the theater's fixed orchestra seats.

That controversy began in 2022 when APE, which runs the Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco's Civic Center area, was announced as the new operator of the 101-year-old movie house.

Some Castro neighborhood organizations, and LGBTQ and film groups — such as the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and the Castro Theatre Conservancy — formed the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition in opposition to the proposed changes.

However, during numerous hearings over last spring, summer, and fall, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the prerequisite ordinances allowing APE's vision to move forward. The most recent — allowing second-floor alcohol sales throughout the Castro Street Neighborhood Commercial District — was approved October 24, as the B.A.R. reported.

"Some people are already asking about the seats," Casey said. "We're working on a plan to sell the seats."

APE hopes to be done with the interior work in time for Pride and Frameline in 2025, but "we can only do one step at a time," Casey said.

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