Noe Valley Voice May 2010

Controversy Over Plaza Plan Revs Up Traffic Studies

By Heather World

At an April 8 community meeting at St. Philip's Church, local residents and merchants got a chance to see preliminary sketches of two proposed designs for a pedestrian park on Noe Street. Plan A (above), the car-free "plaza," would close a 60-foot section of Noe Street extending south from 24th Street. Plan B (below), the smaller "parklet," would allow drivers road access. The city is currently doing traffic studies at the intersection and on several side streets, in preparation for a second meeting.
Sketches by Seth Boor of Boor Bridges Architecture

Opposition to a proposed pedestrian plaza on Noe Street voiced at an April community meeting has pushed city planners to expand their traffic studies and present the results at a second public meeting.

"We listened to the input at the community meeting, and people really wanted a broad analysis, so we're looking at not just that intersection but surrounding streets as well," says planner Andres Power, who manages Pavement to Parks (P2P), the one-year-old city program that turns swaths of street into open space.

Power says the Municipal Transportation Agency will stretch black tubes across Noe, Jersey, Elizabeth, Castro, and Sanchez streets to clock the number of vehicles crossing on weekdays and Saturdays. Engineers then will make "guarded predictions" about where those cars might go next, he says.

Power says he hopes to host the second meeting the third week in May, contingent upon the MTA's completing its analysis. The city will notify residents of the meeting by email and by posting flyers around the neighborhood.

But those actions may not satisfy some opponents of the project, which calls for a temporary barricade across Noe Street, closing the street to all traffic but emergency vehicles.

"We don't want to close the street, that's the bottom line," says Joel Panzer, a Jersey Street resident and owner of RMC Real Management Company on Castro. "We need to take this off the table. We need to start having meetings, and talk, and work together like we always do."

The plaza would extend south from 24th Street about 60 feet and offer portable seating and greenery designed by architect Seth Boor and garden expert Flora Grubb. Besides the roadway, four parking spaces and six motorcycle spots on Noe would be taken out of service. (An alternative plan, called a "parklet," would keep Noe Street open.)

'Keep Noe Open'

Panzer and longtime Noe Street resident Dan Duncan have gathered about 350 signatures on a petition opposing the plaza. They've also produced green "Keep Noe Open" placards to supplement the orange "Don't Block Noe" signs peppering windows in the neighborhood. To generate support for their cause, they will continue to man a table at the Saturday farmers market on 24th Street, Panzer says.

"People should have a say, but some people should have more of a say than others, if it's in your back yard," he says.

The April 8 meeting, moderated by Supervisor Bevan Dufty, drew a crowd of some 300 residents to St. Philip's Church, many of whom held pre-made signs or wore stickers for or against the trial. Once inside, the attendees examined a poster-sized rendition of the plaza (and the parklet too), a project advocated by the Noe Valley Association, the community benefit district on 24th Street. The NVA proposed the plaza idea to the city in January, which responded with a $38,000 grant.

After introductory remarks by Dufty, and Power's slideshow describing P2P and the project, people lined up on either side of the room to take two minutes at the microphone and express their opinion. Opposition to the plaza revolved around fears of increased noise, parking scarcity, and traffic congestion on the blocks surrounding the minipark. Some skeptics argued there might be better uses for city money or more appropriate spots in the neighborhood for a public gathering place.

Space Suits Neighborhood

The proponents of the plaza trial were led by 23rd Street resident John Murphy. Murphy, a father and local activist, hopes the neighborhood will give the project a chance.

"I support this plaza because it is the sort of big public space that suits the demographics of Noe Valley, that will bring customers for our businesses and will improve the quality of the intersection of 24th and Noe," he says.

Murphy says he and a loose-knit group of supporters are creating their own window signs and may set up a table at the farmers market as well. They've also been using email and Twitter to get the word out. "I think that viral approach is more effective in this day and age," he says.

Murphy's pro-plaza blog, yesnoevalley, rallied supporters to the first meeting at St. Philip's. "A lot of the supporters are parents with young children," he says.

Wary of 'Temporary'

People on both sides of the debate expressed concern over the way news of the proposed plaza trickled out. Most heard about it for the first time from the San Francisco Chronicle Feb. 25, when Mayor Gavin Newsom included the Noe Valley plaza in a boast about new P2P projects.

"There's a lot of mistrust that's been bred," says 24th Street resident Mary McFadden, who spoke for the opposition at the meeting. She describes the project as "small but hugely disruptive."

Like many opponents, she doesn't trust the city to pull the plaza if it proves unpopular when its trial status is reviewed.

"Those of us who have lived in San Francisco for a while are suspicious of the word 'temporary,' especially if you're a public school parent, where there are plenty of 'temporary' bungalows," she said.

Measuring the Trial

Dufty says he thinks many who opposed the street closure want to be reassured that scientific, objective methods are being used to measure the impact.

"We're carefully pursuing MTA and DPT [the Department of Parking and Traffic] for traffic counts," he says. "I do think some of those who spoke against trial closure want to know if there is a real science in how we evaluate during this trial period."

Power has also met with the San Francisco Fire Department to ensure the project does not impede emergency access.

He says that if the project goes forward, residents will have a say in the length of the initial trial. (Past P2P projects have been evaluated after two months and six months.) At the end of the trial period, the MTA and SF Better Streets, a nonprofit that has worked with P2P to measure the numbers and types of park users, would take a second round of measurements.

For information or if you would like to receive notice of the next meeting, send an email to