Noe Valley Voice April 2010

In March, neighbors on this block of Noe Street, between Jersey and 24th Street, were debating plans for a plant-filled minipark, which would close a third of the street to cars.
Photo by Pamela Gerard

Minipark Spurs Mini Revolt

By Heather World

A proposed minipark that would seal off half a block of Noe Street south of 24th Street has adjacent neighbors up in arms, but supporters and city planners say the park is not a done deal and promise a public vetting.

The plan calls for a temporary barricade across Noe Street, closing the street to all traffic but emergency vehicles. A pedestrian plaza with benches, shrubs, and plants would extend south from 24th about 60 feet to the end of Starbucks and Rabat--displacing four parking spaces and six motorcycle spots.

After six months, the public would have a chance to evaluate the plaza and decide if it should stay, change, or go.

The experiment is part of the city's one-year-old Pavement to Parks program--known as P2P--which turns roadway into public space at relatively low cost. The miniparks, funded by both private and public grants, are designed to revert back to their original state if they prove to be unpopular.

"It's really all about what makes a great neighborhood," says Debra Niemann, executive director of the Noe Valley Association, which supports the project and helped choose the location for the pedestrian hub. (The nonprofit NVA runs the community benefit district along 24th Street; property owners and businesses within the boundaries of the CBD pay a special tax, which is then used for local policing and beautification projects.)

News of the plaza hit the streets Feb. 25, first in a San Francisco Chronicle story and later that evening at a community meeting organized to discuss another controversial issue (an end to the restaurant moratorium in Noe Valley). Then the "Rumors" column in the March Voice reported a few details, including the fact that the project might start as early as June.

As word spread, many nearby residents and merchants fired off emails, saying they were caught off guard.

But Niemann and Andres Power, who manages the P2P program, say the announcement in the Chronicle was premature. "It's not a done deal," said Power. "We haven't done any focused outreach about this."

Concerns About Noise, Congestion

Still, some neighbors worry that a closed-off Noe Street would cause gridlock on surrounding streets. Others fear the plaza would create too much noise, with the hubbub lingering into the night. Many say the street is too windy and shady to make a good park.

Several, like Noe Street resident Doug Lockyear, argue that the loss of parking will hurt businesses as well.

"I don't see how it's going to do the merchants any good," he says. "I don't understand how this concept of frustrating drivers is seen as a benefit."

A petition opposing the plaza garnered 40 signatures in the first day of outreach, says Joel Panzer, a Jersey Street resident and owner of RMC Real Management Company on Castro Street. Panzer and other upset neighbors generally praise the NVA but say information about the project has been vague and slowly disclosed.

Opponent Dan Duncan, who lives on the block of Noe Street that would become a cul-de-sac, says he's not against improvements to the 24th Street business district. He accepts a certain amount of hassle and says his street is often clogged with delivery trucks, commercial garbage haulers, and double-parked cars.

"We recognize that living in an urban environment requires give and take. However, it doesn't require them taking our street," Duncan says.

Others Say Just Try It

But Michael Norelli, who lives on Jersey Street at Noe, says he thinks the plaza is a great idea.

"I'm generally in favor of new or unusual uses for public spaces," he says. He sees his corner as a hub of activity, with Girls Scouts selling cookies, performing street artists, and coffee lovers strolling in and out of Starbucks.

"It's difficult to cross that intersection [by car] when everybody is out on the weekend," says Norelli. A plaza in what he calls a sunny location could help.

While some businesses have signed the petition stating opposition to the project, others support the plaza. David Eiland, co-owner of Just for Fun and the vice president of the NVA, says the group's surveys show people want a central gathering place in the shopping district.

"In theory, we all thought it was a good idea to have a public place where we can have events and do things in the middle of downtown," he says, listing afternoon music as one option.

Eiland says he's heard some opposition from customers but that a lot of those people have misinformation.

"On a test basis, I would hope that we could try it and see if it works," he says.

A Success in the Castro

According to planner Power, that is what happened in the Castro District. He says many neighbors who had initially opposed the first P2P project on 17th Street at Castro now support it, partly because their fears of homeless hangouts and snarled traffic failed to materialize.

The Castro Plaza recently underwent its second evaluation and earned a permanent status. Two other P2P parks in the Mission and in Potrero Hill are still in the review process.

In the end, Power says he will not move forward on a project that does not have community support.

"It's not in our interest and it's not good government to do something people don't want," he says. "We have a long list of locations where people want these projects."

Meanwhile, Niemann will continue to talk up the plan for a small oasis on the 24th Street commercial strip. She says in workshops sponsored by the NVA in 2007 local residents and merchants said they wanted more pedestrian hubs, "to promote social interaction and a strong sense of community" in the neighborhood.

"This minipark--however it gets designed by the community--is one of those places," Niemann says.

In late March, Andres Power announced that Pavement to Parks will hold a public discussion of the minipark proposal on Thursday, April 8, 6:30 p.m., at St. Philip's Church, 665 Elizabeth Street at Diamond. One of the items on the agenda will be an alternative "parklet" plan, which would replace parking spaces without rerouting traffic.