Temporary Neighborhood Plaza on Way to Permanence
Locals lounge on a weekend afternoon between rainstorms. The plaza, located at Castro and 17th St., has become a favorite hangout since its inception last May. (photo: Bill Sywak)
By Jessica Mullins
The Castro’s temporary 17th Street plaza, which has garnered neighborhood popularity for its prominent location, special events and public accessibility, has an opportunity to become a local fixture this summer.
The plaza first took shape in May when approval was granted to temporarily close the end of 17th Street where the F-line ends at Market and Castro streets. The initial plan was to have the plaza for one month, but its existence has continually been lengthened.
Plaza organizers are now seeking permanent approval this summer, which requires a vote of approval from the Municipal Transportation Agency Board and the Board of Supervisors. It is likely to be voted on in May or June, according to Andres Power, project manager for the city’s Pavement to Parks program.
Pending approval, future plans for the plaza include sprucing it up and continuing with live entertainment, according to Andrea Aiello, executive director of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District (CBD). Free two-hour concerts were organized over the summer at the plaza. “Each concert had over 100 people there at any one point,” Aiello said.
She said they hope to have more organized events in the plaza, such as paid musical acts. “There are ideas to try to use the plaza to stimulate more foot traffic and economic vitality in the neighborhood,” Aiello said, who added that the CBD will also ensure there’s plenty of quiet time. “It’s important to strike a balance, people do like it if nothing happens there, they like to sit and read a newspaper.” She said they would seek volunteers to help with the event planning.
The benefit district recently began fundraising to cover improvements as well as maintenance, cleaning and ongoing programming costs. “The planters and bollards are made out of cardboard. It was never designed to last this long, ” she said. “We’ve been doing this work pro bono. It’s coming out of our income budget.”
The heavy January rain exacerbated the disintegration of the plaza elements. Posted signs read “plaza update coming soon.” Organizers said new tables and chairs will be brought in and the bollards will be replaced with concrete planters.
Aiello said organizers hope the first round of improvements will be done by June 26 to coincide with Pride celebrations.
The CBD has also applied for stimulus funds through the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development for plaza improvements. The city has committed to putting down new pavement to help distinguish the space from the street at an estimated cost of $40,000. Long-range conceptual plans (five to six years) include raising the street so it’s even with the curb, which could cost $2 to $3 million.
After the plaza’s first six-month extension, organizers asked neighbors and community members for feedback. Power said they found nearly unanimous support for the road closure.
“Instantly it became a meeting place. Even in inclement weather, you see people out there,” Power said. “In the Castro area, there aren’t many places that function as a gathering spot.”
Although many are supportive of a permanent plaza, there are a few local merchants, such as Wild Card owner John Parr, who have dealt with its negative side effects. He said the plaza, located in front of his card and stationary store, has led to increased problems with garbage and homeless people. “I’m definitely opposed to [the plaza].”
He said the increased number of people who smoke outside the shop prevent him from keeping the front door open. Likewise, he said some delivery companies charge an additional fee because they can no longer drive to the front of the store. “I refuse to pay the extra delivery fee.”
William Pung, owner and manager for Orphan Andy’s diner on 17th Street, said the plaza is good for the neighborhood. Pung said there have been some issues with homeless people in the plaza at night, but that it had not become a big issue.
“I like the fact cars aren’t bustling down the street anymore,” he said. “I’ve come to appreciate the plaza.”
Local resident Jamie Cohen, who often uses the plaza, said that it is a nice alternative to the hazardous pedestrian intersection that previously existed there. “I love it. It’s a nice place to congregate and sit. It’s the best people watching spot around.”
The plaza was the first project to be part of the San Francisco’s new Pavement to Parks program, which seeks to temporarily reclaim unused streets and public right of ways and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks.
The other two current projects in the program are at the San Jose Avenue and Guerrero Street intersection and at 8th and 16th streets in lower Potrero Hill.
“There are going to be a couple other that will be implemented in the next month and a half,” Power said.
For more information about the Castro/Upper Market Benefit District or to make donations, call (650) 355-1294 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.