SF arts panel backs latest Harvey Milk Plaza design

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday September 20, 2021
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The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza unveiled the preliminary design for Harvey Milk Plaza during virtual presentations in June. Photo: Courtesy Screengrab
The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza unveiled the preliminary design for Harvey Milk Plaza during virtual presentations in June. Photo: Courtesy Screengrab

Nearly three years after it first weighed in on the proposal to revamp Harvey Milk Plaza, a panel of local art experts has given its support to the latest design for the public parklet in the city's LGBTQ Castro district.

At its September 20 meeting the Civic Design Review Committee of the San Francisco Arts Commission unanimously voted 5-0 to back the current modifications for the project. The committee members praised the new design as a "breath of fresh air" and an "astounding" change from what they had voted on before.

"You decided to use the space much more actively than passively. I applaud the entire effort," said gay arts commissioner Paul Woolford. "I think it is remarkable and a place people will come and visit for the opportunity to experience the phenomenon of Harvey Milk."

Commissioner Abby Sadin Schnair added that the revisions are "such a turnaround. I am blown away. Whoa!"

The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza revealed its new proposal for the entrance area into the Castro Muni Station in June following another round of community meetings to elicit feedback about its plans. As the Bay Area Reporter noted at the time, the site would be reconfigured to make it more accessible for people with mobility issues. A new spiral podium feature would be built at the entrance of the plaza at the intersection of Castro and Market streets.

A smaller stairway leading to the underground subway station would be constructed. A rose-colored, transparent overhang above the escalator that goes to the MUNI station would be used to protect it 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. The late Supervisor Harvey Milk was the first gay person elected to public office in San Francisco and California.

He was gunned down 11 months into his first term inside City Hall the morning of November 27, 1978 along with then-mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White. City officials named the plaza in honor of Milk, a vocal public transit advocate during his lifetime, in 1985.

Quotes of Milk's would be embedded throughout the plaza. A memorial grove with 11 trees, of different kinds, symbolizing Milk's 11 months in office would stand at the plaza's entrance from Collingwood Street. In the same area would be a "hope grove," symbolizing the candlelight vigil that took mourners from the Castro to City Hall after Milk and Moscone were slain.

"We have today at Harvey Milk Plaza a space never meant to be a plaza and never designed to represent an important civil right leader like Harvey Milk," said Brian Springfield, a gay man who is the executive director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza.

Crispin Hollings, a gay man who lives nearby the plaza, acknowledged in an email to the arts committee that he initially had concerns about the proposed renovation. But the latest design he said addresses those concerns and is "visibly pleasing" and will be a "functional" asset for the neighborhood."

The plaza and Muni station had first opened June 11, 1980. Howard Grant, who at the time was married to the mother of his children but later came out as gay, designed it with its signature curving brick stairway and sunken gardens. Grant and others have vehemently opposed seeing a major rebuild of the plaza be undertaken, arguing instead more minor cosmetic changes can be made to provide a best user experience and enhanced memorial to Milk.

Grant submitted a three-minute video for Monday's meeting that laid out their concerns. It noted that the plaza has been found to have historical significance worthy of preservation, with some community members calling for it to be a city landmark.

Art historian Paul V. Turner, a former Stanford professor who was friends with Milk and his lover Scott Smith, called the plaza a historical feature of the Castro that should be preserved in an email to the arts committee. A resident of the neighborhood since 1973 and frequent user of the transit station, Turner argued that none of the revamp proposals "justify destroying the existing plaza."

He added that, "Every time I walk up and down the steps I enjoy the innovative design," in particular its "graceful curves" and warm brick material.

Alan Martinez, a gay man who served on the city's historic preservation commission, argued against moving forward with the redesign of the plaza. He warned that much of the glass in the design is likely to be damaged and wondered how the repairs will be paid for when it is.

"Unless the project comes with a huge endowment to fix it every year, it is going to be sad," he said. "It is going to be a mess."

But there have long been complaints that the plaza is hard for people with mobility issues to navigate and that the wind-swept area is a less-than desirable place for the public to congregate. In more recent decades neighborhood leaders have tried to stem its usage by homeless people and drug users.

Leaders of the plaza friends group have soldiered on in pressing for city approval of the remodel project. Its cost remains unknown though previous iterations were estimated to need at least $10 million.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has secured $2.5 million since 2019 in state funding for the project. He urged the arts committee to approve the design modifications.

Neighborhood groups also sent in letters supporting the latest design, including the Castro/Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association, the Castro Merchants association and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District advisory board. Longtime Castro resident Cleve Jones, a gay rights activist who was friends with Milk, also praised the plaza friends group for listening to problems people like himself had voiced about the previous plans.

An artist's rendering shows off the elevator and oculus at a reimagined Harvey Milk Plaza. Photo by: Courtesy SWA Group  

"I love it," Jones said of the latest design, saying it is "really beautiful" and fixes the current stairs leading into the station, which he called "a death trap."

The plaza friends group has engaged the SWA Group, an international landscape, architecture, planning, and urban design firm, to work on the revised plans for the site. Its inspiration for the design comes from the concept of without action there is no hope, explained Daniel Cunningham, a gay man who is a landscape architect with SWA Group.

"The community is looking for a memorial that represents Harvey as well as the movement he was a part of that continues today," said Cunningham, the project lead for the plaza redesign. "It is more narrative in telling the story of Harvey Milk."

It still needs to win approval from the full arts commission once the final design is completed, and several other city agencies and regional transit oversight bodies will need to weigh in on it. No funding has yet been secured to cover the cost to revamp the plaza.

As part of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Castro Accessibility Project a new four-stop elevator will be built into a portion of the plaza's sunken garden area closeted to the entrance into the Muni station. SFMTA's website for the project states construction is slated to start this fall on the $14.5 million project, with completion expected in 2024.

The new plaza design calls for an oculus centering a plaza in front of the elevator entrance that brings sunlight into the belowground concourse level for the transit station. It nods to Milk's operating a camera shop in the Castro from which he ran his campaigns for public office.

"Now that the elevator project is happening, this is the time to honor Harvey Milk and to do what is right for Harvey," said Springfield.

To learn more about the proposed redesign of Milk plaza click here.

UPDATED September 29, 2021 to indicate Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza Executive Director Brian Springfield dropped the interim from his title as of July 1.

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