Noe Valley Voice May 2010

Dreams of a Town Square in 24th Street Parking Lot

By Heather World

The Noe Valley Ministry is exploring the idea of selling its parking lot to the city, and the upshot could be money for the Ministry's ambitious $4 million renovation and a 10,000-square-foot "town square" in the heart of the Noe Valley business district.

"I am very excited that we may find a win-win situation," says Rev. Keenan Kelsey, pastor of the Presbyterian church at 1021 Sanchez Street. "But it has a bazillion complications that are ours to solve."

The lot, located on 24th Street between Vicksburg and Sanchez streets, was purchased in 2001 for $3.2 million by an anonymous donor group that hoped commercial parking would help the church and serve the community. The donors gave half ownership to the Ministry, but retained the right to decide when to sell the lot.

That time has come, says Ministry fundraiser Chris Keene.

"Something is going to happen with that lot," says Keene. "It won't be blacktop."

However, creating a town square--a gathering spot that would serve as a home for the Noe Valley Farmers' Market and other community events--depends on a number of tricky factors, including money, bureaucracy, and the need for community consensus.

"For us, the selling of the parking lot is a matter of dollars and cents," says Kelsey. The Ministry needs to raise another $2.5 million to create a place of worship for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, she says, and the lot is its only asset. (See "Church to Close for Yearlong Renovation," March 2010 Voice.)

Kelsey is asking the donor group to give the Ministry the entire lot, to make sure that any sale to the city would net enough to cover the church renovation. She says both the church and the donors want the lot to continue to be used for a civic-minded purpose.

"If we can present a plan to show how it [the square] serves the community, I am hopeful we can get them to give us the rest of the parking lot," she says.

Dufty's Counsel Sought

The town square idea materialized this spring, when Ministry fundraisers learned the city might be able to buy the lot. They contacted Supervisor Bevan Dufty to help navigate the city bureaucracy.

Dufty says the money could come from a voter-established fund in the Recreation and Park Department budget, which is used to buy land for parks and other kinds of open space. The open space fund has about $5.9 million at present, according to the department's financial officer. By law, the city would pay exactly the assessed value of the lot.

The proposed town square has tremendous promise, says Dufty.

"I can envision a public plaza that would really provide a gathering space, and I think that's what we're looking for: places in which our fast-paced world can be put on hold."

In April, the supervisor arranged a meeting that included Keene and Rec and Park's director of planning, Dawn Kamalanathan, to see if the square might qualify for open space funds. He came away hopeful.

"This was but one hurdle, but it was a key one," he says.

Community Must Be One

Kamalanathan points out that any new open space must meet established criteria to win approval.

"The creation and development of a park is a complicated endeavor," she says.

On the top of the city's list is community unity. Applicants must demonstrate that a town square would have broad support.

The Ministry's Keene suggests that Noe Valley form a civic group that would raise money for the remodeling and upkeep of the square. The Ministry could contribute too, he says, if funds are left over from the renovation, scheduled to start this November.

Private funds could build the square more quickly than public funds, and neighborhood investment would make the plan more palatable to the Board of Supervisors, which must vote to approve the acquisition, he says.

"That's how we think it can move through the city quickly during constrained budget times," Keene says.

Parking a Casualty

The loss of public parking will cause concern for drivers and merchants, notes Dufty. With spots for 29 cars, the lot is the largest in the neighborhood.

But its value as a parking venue is debatable. The lot loses about $5,000 a year, according to Kelsey.

"The fact that this is a loser," Dufty says, "makes me more comfortable, because it clearly is not used enough to show it's viable, even to the Ministry. It says to me people are walking, using transit--that there is enough parking to meet demand."

A Way to Keep Farmers' Market

Peter Gabel, a member of the Noe Valley Farmers' Market board of directors, says a public town square may be the only way to maintain the Saturday market on 24th Street, and he hopes that will unite the community behind the idea.

"It's a very good situation because the owner of the lot wants the same outcome that the community wants," he says. "I think it could build on the Farmers' Market and generate other community activities in the neighborhood, like evening movies and performances."

A second meeting of the principal players has been scheduled for May, says Dufty. He adds that a possible town square does not replace the controversial Noe Street plaza plan (see story, page 19).

"From a process standpoint, it's additive," Dufty says.

Even if the funding falls into place, the town square might take years to come to fruition. There will be many meetings to attend and compromises to make, its advocates all agree.

Kelsey says she doesn't want to raise false hopes. If the donor group doesn't like the town square idea, if the money from the city isn't adequate, if the neighborhood can't come together around a common goal, the deal will fall apart.

"Then we go back to the drawing board, and I don't know what that means because we're not there yet," she says.