Big changes eyed for street parklet in San Francisco Castro neighborhood

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday March 22, 2024
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A rendering shows the long-term "Green Embrace" proposal for Jane Warner Plaza's street view at Castro and 17th streets. Image: Courtesy SF Public Works
A rendering shows the long-term "Green Embrace" proposal for Jane Warner Plaza's street view at Castro and 17th streets. Image: Courtesy SF Public Works

Ever since its debut 15 years ago, the design and look of a public parklet by the main entrance into San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district has been less than desirable. An update to it that saw an aqua-green paint applied to its ground surface was met with derision.

Carved out of a side street adjacent to a gas station and built around the terminus for the city's trolley line featuring historic streetcars from around the globe, the space is a challenging one to transform from a roadway to an outdoor neighborhood amenity.

Nonetheless, city officials are making another stab at upgrading what is known as Jane Warner Plaza. San Francisco Public Works presented a potential future design for the parklet at a meeting for Castro community stakeholders March 22.

The concept is in the preliminary stages, according to William Bulkley, a landscape architect with Public Works. There are currently no meetings scheduled for the general public, he said, but if the concept moves forward there will be.

With plans to also transform Harvey Milk Plaza across the street from Jane Warner Plaza, Bulkley said it was a good time to think about a more cohesive reimagining for the entire area.

"It's a great opportunity for us to think conceptually about this intersection," Bulkley said, referring to the intersection of Castro, Market, and 17th streets that makes up Jane Warner Plaza. "It's a difficult intersection. ... We're hoping this can connect in a very linear way with Harvey Milk Plaza to create an urban destination, from Collingwood [Street] to The Cafe [nightclub]."

One of the reasons Jane Warner Plaza is challenging is the F-line Muni streetcar makes its turn from 17th Street to head east down Market Street en route to Embarcadero and Fisherman's Wharf. The train tracks and loading platform for the trolleys are in the center of the plaza and can't be moved.

Public Works architect Julie An said that the purpose behind the redesign is to "celebrate the leadership and community activism of Jane Warner" and to "provide a space for ... both planned and unplanned events."

Warner, a lesbian, was a longtime Castro Patrol Special Police officer. She died in 2010 after a yearlong battle with ovarian cancer. Warner also penned the Bay Area Reporter's Crime and Punishment column for many years, and a plaque in her honor can be found at the entrance to the plaza accessed from Castro Street.

Plaza concepts

Bulkley said Public Works' prior meetings with the stakeholders (of which this was the third, the first having been in September) led to the current concepts. There are two on the table — one short-term and one long-term — based on an initial proposal called the "Green Embrace."

The short-term version would add "vegetative buffer zones on both Castro and Market streets" and add pedestrian lights, Bulkley said. It would extend (or, "bulb out" in the technical language) the space of the sidewalk. Emergency vehicles would have access between 17th and Market streets. Past proposals would not have had emergency access between 17th and Market streets, but those were rejected.

The longer-term version imagines the space without the Chevron gas station at 2399 Market Street, and adds a sculpture to "honor the power of women," Bulkley said. It may feature Amanda Gorman's poem "We Rise." Gorman first rose to public attention when she recited a different poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden in 2021.

After the presentation stakeholders had the chance to ask questions. Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is president of the Castro Merchants Association and co-owner of Cliff's Variety at 479 Castro Street, asked if the city had reached out to merchants on 17th Street to ask how deliveries to their businesses would be impacted.

Bulkley said that they had, except for Nice Cuts at 3997 17th Street. He said that Orphan Andy's and The Cafe had told the city that their trucks "don't need to pull up to their store[s]."

Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is executive director of the Castro Community Benefit District, asked about garbage collection. Bulkley said, "Recology doesn't pull up there. Recology pulls up on Castro."

Tina Aguirre, a genderqueer Latinx person who is manager of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, asked about Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility. Bulkley assured them that the curb from the crosswalk to the F streetcar platform would be ADA accessible.

Asten Bennett asked if the extension of the sidewalk would make the plaza legally a park, and how that might change the legal situation regarding tent encampments. Bulkley said he did "not have the answer to that."

Asten Bennett said that issue is a "critical concern to merchants," and asked "is it a viable use of funds if it's not usable" to the general public.

Bulkley responded, "We have an amazing opportunity to do something fantastic in this city."

"We have problems in the city," he said. "We have recent legislation that might change all of these things. Who knows what will happen," and assured "we understand that's an issue" but it shouldn't stop the plan from moving forward.

The B.A.R. asked, considering recent neighborhood concerns over alleged anti-car animus from the city government, why develop plans assuming the Chevron will be no more.

Bulkley responded that "the likely economic benefit of that property with these property owners, who have been working the gas station for many years, they likely will develop that site."

An employee at the Chevron took a message for owner David Sahagun, who did not return the B.A.R.'s request for comment by press time.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro, was one of the dozen people who attended the morning meeting at the Castro Country Club, a sober space at 4058 18th Street. Mandelman is also chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board. While the Milk plaza renovation project will cost tens of millions of dollars, Mandelman expects the price tag for the Jane Warner Plaza project will be upward of $5 million.

"Our immediate focus in the intersection is Harvey Milk Plaza," Mandelman said. "But there is another plaza, and it made some sense to think about how this [Jane Warner] plaza would relate to that [Harvey Milk] plaza."

There's no shovel-ready funding for a redo of Jane Warner Plaza allocated as yet, Bulkley said. He said that the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza project across the street was the inspiration for thinking about the adjacent space.

Adam Thongsavat, a legislative aide for Mandelman, clarified to the B.A.R. March 25 that though no funding has been allocated to construction, the supervisor did secure $100,000 in Fiscal Year 2022-2023 from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority to plan the renovation project, "with a focus on improvements to pedestrian and bicycle safety in this busy multi-modal zone," according to an allocation request form he shared with the B.A.R. The funding was used to come up with the renderings. A total of $75,000 went to Public Works and $25,000 went to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Milk plaza project needs $35 million

As the B.A.R. recently reported, $500,000 in federal funding toward the Milk plaza revitalization project was allocated by Congress, courtesy of Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). That project needs to raise about $35 million.

Some of that money had already been raised, according to Brian Springfield, a gay man who is executive director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza. That includes about $1 million in private funds and $3.3 million in public funding. Of the public funding, $2.5 million was secured by gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).

The Milk plaza project aims to reconfigure the public parklet above the Castro Muni Station to make it more accessible and honor its namesake, who was the city's first openly gay elected official when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk took office in January 1978 but was assassinated, along with then-mayor George Moscone, 11 months later by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White.

While in office, Milk was a big supporter of public transit. The plaza was named in his honor in 1985.

The Milk plaza project is 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. Work on it began last year, and San Francisco Public Works expects the elevator to be operational by early 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.

Springfield stated to the B.A.R. about the plans for Jane Warner Plaza, "It's exciting to see this vision for further developing and activating this important public space at the intersection of Castro and Market."

"We are very grateful for Supervisor Mandelman's leadership on this project and his commitment to ensuring spaces in our neighborhood are vibrant and alive with queer cultural expression," he added.

Wiener stated, "As we move toward a reimagining of Harvey Milk Plaza, it's a great time to think about improvements to Jane Warner Plaza as well. I'm confident that under Supervisor Mandelman's leadership this process will move in a positive direction."

Aiello told the B.A.R. after the meeting that "The conceptual drawings are great."

"I am glad that Supervisor Mandelman is thinking about the entrance to the Castro and how the city can develop great public spaces in the Castro," she stated. "I am also glad DPW is working with the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza so that, visually, both spaces will look connected when completed. The Harvey Milk Plaza project will be shovel ready this summer. It needs funding to move forward. I know that Senator Wiener, Mayor Breed, Supervisor Mandelman and Speaker Emerita Pelosi are hard at work looking for ways to fund the redesigned Harvey Milk Plaza. I personally thank them very much. When both public spaces are completed, the Castro will finally have the entrance it deserves."

Updated: 3/25/24: This story has been updated with comments from Andrea Aiello.

Updated, 3/25/24: This article has been updated with a clarification on funding that was previously approved.

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