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After 15 years, Angela Alioto’s Poets Plaza is dead in the water

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The proposed “Piazza Saint Francis, The Poets Plaza” would span Vallejo Street between Columbus and Grant avenues in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Angela Alioto’s proposed Poets Plaza in North Beach is dead.

Well, dead-ish. Dead-esque. Zombified, you could say. Let me explain …

After a madcap, two-hour meeting Tuesday, filled with so much tension you could slice it with a steeple from Saints Peter and Paul Church, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors opted not to study closing Vallejo Street for the plaza.

No street closure, means no piazza.

The “Piazza Saint Francis, The Poets Plaza,” which would span Vallejo Street between Columbus and Grant avenues, long ago ceased being just about a few benches and shrubs.

SEE RELATED: Angela Alioto’s stalled Poets Plaza heads to SFMTA board

A narrative has persisted that the 15-year long project parted Little Italy like Moses and the Red Sea, with denizens in bitter opposition on either side. Yet the if the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors meeting Tuesday provided any lessons, that’s not entirely accurate.

As Tuesday’s hearing stretched on under City Hall’s gilded dome, a pattern emerged: Many of those speaking against the project identified as native San Franciscans, longtime North Beach residents or merchants in the area. Supporters of the piazza, by contrast, largely identified themselves as living outside North Beach, some outside The City altogether. A few worked in North Beach, too.

Basically, it was Angela Alioto’s Rolodex versus the neighborhood. At least, at the meeting.

After her project’s defeat, Alioto denied that description of events.

“I don’t believe all the people that said they were from the neighborhood were,” she told me. “I’ve never seen them.”

I saw Alioto’s supporters and counted them one by one. They included a San Mateo judge, a bevy of union carpenters (who, let’s not begrudge them for this, were jockeying for a job), developers, well-heeled political allies of Alioto, a self-identified YIMBY member from Southern California and a tourism professional.

Repeatedly, those against the piazza said they were from North Beach. I want to write “tensions ran high,” but that’s a bit of an understatement.

“Liar!” a woman shouted under a cough, when a public commenter claimed the Archdiocese was in support of the project. In the beginning of the meeting, two men on opposite sides of the piazza debate argued heatedly over who first sat in a chair in the audience. Dozens lined up outside, and more were sent to an overflow room.

The proposed “Piazza Saint Francis, The Poets Plaza,” a controversial plan in North Beach spearheaded by Angela Alioto, has been in the works for more than 10 years. Creation of the piazza would close Vallejo Street to vehicle traffic and include benches and olive trees as a community gathering place. (Courtesy Piazza Saint Francis, The Poet’s Plaza)

In all, 75 speakers voiced their opinions on the project. I counted 29 in favor, 45 against it. One lone organization — the Archdiocese, which owns a church on Vallejo Street — remained neutral on the project (heaven forbid!).

OK, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Laughter was had (over a proposal for a bar in the overflow room for big crowds at City Hall), and lasagna was offered as a peace offering for the sore feelings.

But the two groups — the opposition in red-and-black “SOS Vallejo” buttons, supporters in green piazza armbands — accused each other of many a transgression.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, by recording, called the anti-piazza organizers harbingers of “car-mageddon.”

Momo, a North Beach denizen, said Ferlinghetti is his friend, but the piazza puts neighborhood favorite Caffe Trieste at Grant and Vallejo streets “in danger” by blocking traffic.

Jerri Diep, a community organizer with the Chinatown Community Development Center, said Alioto “wrongfully used our name” on its list of endorsers.

“Our organization was never approached for feedback,” Diep said, and even wrote repeated letters to Alioto to remove their name, to no avail.

Initiated in 2002, the project received a transportation impact study by the SFMTA in 2007. It’s been so long that the project was first studied when the band Linkin’ Park was on the top billboard charts, followed closely by “This is Why I’m Hot” by Mims.

SFMTA staffer Mike Sallaberry, who introduced the plaza project to the board on Tuesday and described its features — benches to sit, plants and trees for beauty and the like — wisely ducked from the fray and said, “We look forward to the board for the next steps.”

The SFMTA board initially sought to help the community broker a compromise with Alioto for a piazza with a road through it, which Alioto rebuffed, saying, “It’s not a piazza.”

Ultimately, chair Cheryl Brinkman summed up the board’s feeling the most succinctly: They love public walking spaces, she said, and the community’s worry about traffic problems is “overblown.”

But …

“Considering we didn’t have the outreach or support needed,” Brinkman said, “I don’t think we could turn around and impose our will on this one block.”

And with that, Alioto can say arrivederci to the piazza.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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