Guest Opinion: Plaza architect weighs in on update

  • by Howard Grant
  • Wednesday November 15, 2017
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I am the retired architect and designer of the Castro Street Muni Metro station and Harvey Milk Plaza. I also designed the Civic Center/UN Plaza, Van Ness, Church, and West Portal Muni stations. But as a gay man, I am especially proud of the Castro project and consider it my contribution to my LGBTQI community.

The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza recently announced the winning design of its redesign competition for the plaza. In my humble opinion, they chose the worst of the proposals when it comes to Muni patrons. Our patronage studies showed the primary foot traffic to be the southwest corner of Castro and Market streets. The winning design, in addition to subjecting the patrons to extended demolition and construction activity, would relocate the entrance to the west, almost to Collingwood. That means patrons would have to travel an extensive distance and double back when coming or going to the station. The mature landscaping would also disappear. All three finalists in the redesign competition envisioned deleting the landscaping that stretches a full block all the way from Castro to Collingwood. This would dramatically change the esthetics of the area and directly affect the residents just to the west of the plaza. In a city where cutting down a tree is often the source of drama, what will be the reaction when the public fully realizes what this proposal will entail? All this in order to create an "assembly and protest" area at street level.

The taxpayers of the City and County of San Francisco paid several million dollars ($6 million today) under the BART bond issued to create the plaza that has efficiently served transit patrons and enhanced their experience and that of passersby for 40 years. The plaza visually connects the subway station with the street, integrating it with the neighborhood. It was intended to create a graceful three-dimensional addition to the neighborhood. Its curved planters and serpentine wall echo the curves of the station below. Is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency really on board with destroying that for a non-transit related project? Not to mention the delays in its ADA compliance project that the Friends hope to incorporate? The cedar benches I designed for the serpentine concrete wall separating the plaza from Market Street were removed by the Castro community business district because the homeless found them a nice place to linger in the sun. Years later, colorful metal benches were installed and then removed for the same reason. Prediction: the stadium bleachers in the winning proposal will provide a great place for the homeless to sleep and skateboarders to navigate.

According to Andrea Aiello, executive director of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District and president of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, this design may cost as much as $15 million. Most of the actual memorial information will remain underground at the station mezzanine level. There is a large area in the present design that Muni fenced off to discourage the homeless that could be creatively used to honor Milk without destroying the plaza or inconveniencing transit patrons. A new stairway to the west, cutting through the stepped planters, could serve the Collingwood area and create foot traffic that would keep this area from being a dead end attraction for the homeless. This solution would also preserve the mature landscaped green belt from the plaza to Collingwood.

An issue that is never addressed in the Friends' news releases is the dramatic impact the proposal would have on transit patrons, neighbors, and merchants. The Castro has endured a seemingly endless sidewalk renovation; is the community prepared for years of demolition and construction at the major Castro and Market corner? Transit patrons would have to be re-routed to the north entrance and funneled through a much narrower stairway and escalator. Imagine the result of dumping a large crowd of commuters on the north corner and having most of them wait for traffic lights to head south to the business district.

And does the intersection at Market and Castro streets really need another empty expanse of paving? Across the street is the large Jane Warner Plaza that is mostly empty because it is bereft of seating. The CBD puts out a few metal tables and chairs each morning and locks them up at night to discourage the homeless. Wouldn't this area satisfy the need for assembly and protest? A photograph of the 2013 candlelight vigil in memory of Milk's murder shows how the present design functioned well: the Gay Men's Chorus was on the upper level by the serpentine wall, the organizers were next to the stairs and escalator, and the crowd filled Castro Street. We have always taken to the streets for our protests and memorial marches: Castro, Market, and Polk in front of City Hall.

Finally, I do not believe Milk would have approved of destroying one gay man's creation in order to honor another, albeit a more famous one. Surely there are more pressing projects in the Castro that could use the infusion of $10-$15 million.

Howard Grant is retired and lives in Oakland.