Breed includes $25M for Milk plaza redo in fall bond measure

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday April 29, 2024
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A rendering of a remodeled Harvey Milk Plaza shows a rose-colored canopy above the escalator and stairs leading to the Muni subway. The new elevator, a separate city-funded project, is seen in the background. Image: Courtesy Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza
A rendering of a remodeled Harvey Milk Plaza shows a rose-colored canopy above the escalator and stairs leading to the Muni subway. The new elevator, a separate city-funded project, is seen in the background. Image: Courtesy Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza

As part of a $360 million bond measure she wants to put before voters in November, San Francisco Mayor London Breed is carving out $25 million for the project to reimagine Harvey Milk Plaza in the city's Castro district. If passed, it will move the project significantly closer to the $35 million proponents need to raise before construction on it can begin.

Along with the Milk plaza project money, the bond would fund $167 million in public health infrastructure, including renovating and expanding the Chinatown Health Clinic, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, and Laguna Honda Hospital. The city's Homelessness Response System would receive $50 million to increase its capacity to house homeless families.

Another $70 million would go toward street safety projects and road repaving. Money would also be allocated toward improving Hallidie Plaza and repairing the elevator at the entrance into the Powell Street subway station.

"Harvey Milk Plaza should be an iconic location that serves the community not just as a connection to transit, but as a reminder of Harvey Milk's life and legacy. By investing in this plaza, we can make it more accessible for all, benefit the Castro community and create a new and even greater gathering space," Breed stated to the Bay Area Reporter.

The city's Capital Planning Committee took up the bond measure at its meeting Monday afternoon and is set to vote on approving it at its May 6 meeting. It must then secure eight votes from the Board of Supervisors to be added to the November 5 ballot. It will need a two-thirds approval from voters in order to pass.

"It's amazing news! The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza and city staff have done great work to get us a shovel-ready project, and if we can get this bond passed, we will finally have a clear path to giving the Castro the iconic public space Harvey deserves," gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro, told the B.A.R.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), had secured $2.5 million in state funding toward the Milk plaza project. He said passage of the bond would be "a game changer" for the fundraising campaign to secure the rest of the money the project proponents need to raise before construction can begin.

"I am over the moon," said Wiener. "This is such an important project for the neighborhood and for the community. Harvey Milk Plaza right now is not up to par in terms of Harvey's legacy and what Harvey means for our community."

It will be a transformative change for the Castro district once complete, added Wiener.

"People all over the world come to visit the Castro. We have a huge opportunity to educate people about our community and about our neighborhood's history," said Wiener, who lives not far from the plaza site.

Located above the Castro Muni station, the public parklet is considered the front door to the city's LGBTQ neighborhood. Its main entrance fronts Castro Street, with the plaza extending along Market Street to Collingwood Street.

At the moment much of the back half of the space is behind construction fencing due to a city-funded project to add a second elevator for the subway station. It should be completed by early 2026 at a cost of upward of $30 million.

When the elevator was first proposed back in 2016, neighborhood leaders had brought up also redesigning the plaza. It kicked off a lengthy process to come up with a new design for the area amid opposition from those who fought to preserve the plaza's current configuration, as the B.A.R. has extensively reported on over the years.

The project aims to reconfigure the public parklet to make it more accessible and better 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.

"As a worldwide ambassador for San Francisco and our values, Harvey is the ideal person to be celebrated by our city, and in our city," stated Cleve Jones, a gay civil rights and union leader, in a news release Breed's office shared with the B.A.R. ahead of the April 29 committee meeting.

Jones, who used to live in the Castro, was a close confidante to Milk and has been a vocal supporter of the plaza project.

"This bond measure will make possible the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza, so that it can be a beacon to others all over the world; its very existence will give hope to people who need it," stated Jones. "And it is my hope that it inspires others all across the world to become a hero in their own communities, because the world needs a lot more people like my friend, Harvey Milk."

As part of the approved plans for the plaza, a new spiral podium feature is to be built at the entrance by the intersection of Castro and Market streets in a nod to its history as a gathering place for protests and rallies. A smaller stairway leading to the underground subway station would be constructed, replacing the wider one there today that undulates downward across most of the space.

A rose-colored, transparent overhang above the stairs and escalator that go to the Muni station would be used to protect them 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.

Brian Springfield, a gay man who's executive director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, had announced last year that the project was "shovel ready" and a capital campaign had begun to raise the required funding to pay for it. Earlier this year he had told the B.A.R. about $1 million in private funds and $3.3 million in public funding had been secured.

Monday, Springfield told the B.A.R. he was "thrilled to see" the mayor had included the plaza funds in the bond measure. Ideas for updating the open space have been floated for two decades, he noted, with the current plans being able to progress the farthest to being realized.

"This funding would make the project possible and help the community realize their vision for Harvey Milk plaza," he said.

In March, at the request of Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2024 included $500,000 for the Milk plaza project. She was unable to secure the full $5 million she initially had sought last year.

With Breed now seeking $25 million for the project as part of the infrastructure bond, Springfield said Monday he is confident the full amount can be raised should voters pass the measure. He said discussions with private funders are underway; roughly $7 million is needed to pay for the commemorative elements of the project.

"I can share with you we are absolutely working on that. I hope to have good news to share soon," he said.

Wiener told the B.A.R. the bond measure is a similar approach city officials took to raise the $10 million needed to widen the sidewalks along the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street, which was completed in 2014. When he became the District 8 supervisor in 2011, Wiener had championed the project and led the campaign to pass the bond measure that fall.

"It has been a huge benefit for the neighborhood," said Wiener, noting that the sidewalks used to be "half the width they are today. It was a game changer for Castro Street."

He said he will help with the campaign for this year's bond measure should it make it to the ballot as expected.

"I think for a lot of people who look at this project, they may think it is a great idea but question if it is actually going to be funded," said Wiener. "With this commitment, if voters pass the bond of course, and I think many of us will make sure it passes, this funding sends a powerful message to funders that the city of San Francisco is committed to the Castro, committed to Harvey Milk Plaza and committed to the LGBTQ-plus community."

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