Noe Valley Voice April 2007

It Takes a Lot of Neighbors to Design a Village

By Corrie M. Anders

The meetings are over. The poll results are in. And Downtown Noe Valley is well on the way to adopting a long-range design plan that should solidify its reputation as an urban village that is family-friendly, aesthetically attractive, and--dare we say it?--green.

Do you want to see calmer traffic along the 24th Street shopping corridor? It's in the plan. How about street clocks and planter boxes, mini-parks and public art? Also on the drawing board. And what about putting those ugly utility wires underground? Well, we'll have to wait a while on that one.

The master plan for 24th Street, dubbed "An Urban Village Plan," was completed last month following a series of community forums. At the meetings, local residents and merchants massaged three alternative proposals drawn up by an urban design firm under a $35,000 contract from the Noe Valley Association (NVA).

The firm, Urban Ecology, is writing its final report, which the association will use to help determine how the commercial district should look over the next 20 years or so. The plan preferred by forum participants focuses on the establishment of six "village hubs," gathering spots that would be located along 24th Street at the major intersections of Church, Castro, and Diamond streets, and at three mid-block locations.

"I'm pretty pleased with it," said David Eiland, chairman of the NVA's Green and Beautification Committee. "I think ultimately it will be a blueprint for the city."

Bulb-Outs for Bus Stops

The design research began with forums in November and December, where Urban Ecology employed role-playing to get residents to rank their desires for community improvements. Participants were given a stash of symbolic money--their tax dollars, as it were--to spend on their favorite physical improvements.

The plan's highest priority emphasized strategies to make both the street safer for pedestrians and the sidewalks more hospitable. Together, they would "increase the family-friendly nature" of Noe Valley, said Kamya Ramachandran, Urban Ecology's community designer.

The traffic measure that grabbed the most ardent consideration called for establishing bus "bulb-outs'' to replace Muni's current loading zones at several intersections. The bulb-outs would be created by extending the sidewalk into the street by up to six feet. The bulb-outs also would be dressed up with plantings and light fixtures.

Instead of moving from the traffic lane to curbside loading zones, as they now do, buses would stop in the middle of the street to take on and discharge passengers. The practical effect would be to force cars to cool their wheels until the bus is ready to resume its route.

The bulb-outs would only use 40 feet of curbside space, not the 70 to 80 feet that bus zones currently eat up. "We don't lose any parking spaces by doing this," said Ramachandran, "and we might even gain a few parking spaces."

Crosswalks That Shout

The second highest amount of faux money was spent on the installation of high-visibility crosswalks. This choice reflects residents' concerns that drivers have been failing to yield to pedestrians along 24th Street, and vice versa. The Noe Valley self-planners suggested the use of bold, ladder- or zebra-style stripes to shout out to vehicular traffic the location of crosswalks. A yellow ladder prototype is already in use at the intersection at 24th and Castro streets.

Another proposed method was to alter the texture of the pavement at crosswalks. For pedestrians, a singing countdown at traffic lights would let them know how much time remained to cross to the other side of the street.

Some residents expressed concern that bus bulb-outs and other traffic-calming measures would divert cars and trucks onto side streets. They posed the question, "Are we going to make Jersey and Elizabeth streets the fast zones?" Eiland said, and the answer was "absolutely not."

Ideas for Busy Sidewalks

Meeting participants happily spent a sizable portion of their funds to make 24th Street's 12-foot-wide sidewalks a livelier place for pedestrians. "Right now, the sidewalks are too narrow to deal with more fun stuff," said Ramachandran. "You can't really do much with it."

The sidewalk width would remain as it is (except for the bulb-outs). But the plan would reserve three feet of sidewalk space closest to the street as a "sidewalk furnishing zone." That area would include streetlights, parking meters, trees, and other landscaping--creating a buffer that would separate pedestrians from vehicular traffic.

The next six feet of sidewalk would serve as a clear travel way for shoppers and passersby. The last three feet, in front of businesses, would be set aside for shop furnishings such as benches, store display racks, and planters.

Trees and Energy Efficiency

Ramachandran said residents also were "really excited" over the prospects of "enhancing the environmental sensitivity of the streets." For example, they asked for street furnishings that used wooden or recycled plastic furniture, landscaping that consisted of native plants and easy-to-maintain trees, and energy-efficient street lighting.

But their top environmental recommendation urged the use of permeable sidewalk surfaces and planter beds so that rainwater could soak into the ground and reduce the amount that wasted into the city's sewer system.

"The idea for this is, as much as possible, to recharge the ground with water," she said. "Right now, we have impervious surfaces of concrete and asphalt... where the rainwater water goes into the sewer system" and has to be treated with chemicals.

The idea already has captured the imagination of one Noe Valley property owner, according to Eiland, who operates Just for Fun, a gift store at 3982 24th Street. Eiland said the property owner is his landlord, who needs to repair the concrete sidewalk in front of the store that has been buckled by tree roots for the fourth time in 19 years.

The owner plans to either replace the sidewalk around the tree with a permeable material or leave the space open and plant flowers or shrubs, Eiland said. "This is an example of what the whole street will look like one day," he said.

Art and Public Space

Endowing Noe Valley with more public art was another goal of meeting-goers. Ramachandran said it "really stood out" on the community's wish list, especially functional art such as benches and trash receptacles, and aesthetic works like sculptures and murals.

Residents were keen to see their children create murals or ceramic tile projects for public display. Two possible locations for those works were identified: the blank wall at the Sterling Bank at Church Street and the blank wall near Rabat at Noe Street.

In the new plan, four parking lot areas would serve as mini gathering locations for residents to socialize or for shoppers to take a breather. Flowers and shrubs and benches would be used to soften the edges and invite people into the "community hubs" at these parking lots: at Bell Market, the Noe Valley Ministry's lot, Walgreen's, and the city-operated facility across from the Valley Tavern.

A Need for Real Money

To stimulate discussion, Urban Ecology had drawn up three alternative versions for the master plan: a village center located at Bell Market; a smaller "village hubs" plan (the one eventually chosen); and a village street concept that spread the amenities along the entire commercial strip. These concepts were shown to a group of about 45 people at a final meeting on March 6 at St. Philip's Hall.

"The community liked the village center [too]," said Ramachandran, which would have included a bus-stop island in front of Bell Market and a pedestrian crosswalk in the middle of the block. But the city had nixed the idea because it didn't conform to city policy and couldn't have won approval, Ramachandran said.

That mid-block alternative may be reconsidered sometime in the future, as well as a couple of design ideas that didn't make the cut this time for practical reasons: putting utility wires underground and permitting more diagonal parking along Castro Street closer to 24th Street. (Diagonal parking already exists in the block of Castro between Jersey and 25th streets.)

The urban village plan will require funding from various city, state, and federal sources. But having such a plan in place, worked out with community feedback, will make it easier to get the funding, Ramachandran said.

"That said, it does not mean having a plan is going to get things done in the next two years," she said. "It's almost a 20-year plan.... We have to fit the plans in with the city's capital budget."