Angela Alioto’s stalled Poets Plaza heads to SFMTA board

It’s North Beach’s third rail, the issue sure to divide any room in the ’hood, cause tempers to soar and prompt the nearest Italiano to shout, “Basta!” (Enough!)

Love it or hate it, the Poet’s Plaza is back.

Yes, political scion Angela Alioto’s controversial piazza may see its first sign of moving forward since January last year as the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is set for an informational hearing Tuesday, Oct. 3, on the matter.

The proposed “Piazza Saint Francis, The Poets Plaza” would rest at Vallejo Street, between Columbus and Grant avenues, and would see the street closed to car traffic and opened to pedestrians. Two benches, some olive trees and space to gather “over a cup of cappuccino” are the simple hallmarks of the project, whose website calls it “a garden of wishes, a garden of dreams.”

Famed Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti initially dreamed up the piazza, which has since been spearheaded by Alioto. Yet the supposedly pastoral project has attracted both support and ire of North Beach denizens.

Neighbor Cynthia Birmingham, who founded an opposition group called SOS Vallejo, contends the street closure would snarl nearby traffic. She’s tried to figure out the permit status of the piazza, to no avail.

“It makes me feel like the developer has an inside track, and the community doesn’t,” Birmingham said.

That inside track hasn’t helped much, it seems. Alioto told me it’s taken more than 10 years to even reach this point — so even an informational hearing is a small victory.

“That’s OK, we’re still moving forward,” she said. “We’ve got incredible momentum.”
This “incredible momentum” does not yet include a permit. The SFMTA board is not set to vote on approvals for the project on Tuesday.

“It was put on the agenda to create an opportunity to hear from the community,” said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose.

Alioto pins the blame of the project’s molasses-slow progress squarely on the shoulders of Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district includes North Beach.

In 2015, Alioto worked with then-Supervisor Julie Christensen, Peskin’s one-time opponent, on the piazza. “I guess we backed the wrong team,” she said. “Because after that, every step of the way, Mr. Peskin has tried to stop the piazza.”

Now, this seems like a stretch for a few reasons. Alioto and Peskin have famously feuded for years, for instance. To wit, “It’s beneath me to respond to baseless, untrue, petty political squabbles,” Peskin told me.
Peskin is chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which Alioto worries may give him power of the purse over the piazza project. Some SFMTA funding is disbursed by the SFCTA, but the project hasn’t even reached that point yet.

With all due respect, it seems boosters of the piazza have — ahem — occasionally, shall we say, exaggerated the support from some sectors of The City.

The Archdiocese, for instance, wrote a 2015 letter to Peskin about the piazza.

“There have been far too many occasions in which third parties purported to represent the Archdiocese and have mischaracterized its position with respect to it, or where the plans have been changed because the Archdiocese ‘knew all about it’ and ‘was completely on board with it,’ when in fact we knew nothing about it.”
I
t should be noted that trying to get North Beach locals to talk about the piazza is like pulling teeth.
Everyone is connected to someone in Little Italy, and as soon as I mentioned the piazza, locals practically slammed their doors and boarded their windows.

The piazza fanned the flames of a family feud of the owners and relatives behind Caffe Trieste, the neighborhood favorite nestled on Grant Avenue, as detailed in the complaint in San Francisco Superior Court.

Those relatives — Caffe Trieste shareholder and manager Ida Zoubi and her uncle Fabio Giotta, among others — are now in a pitched legal battle. In the complaint, Giotta alleges his brother’s widow, Adrienne Giotta, and Zoubi “misrepresented” that Caffee Trieste is against the piazza.

Neighbors in the know, and hyperlocal site Hoodline, sensed the hand of piazza supporters in the lawsuit.

Still, Alioto said, this will all be worth it in the end: “The piazza is going to be a jewel.”

Let’s just hope North Beach neighbors don’t tear each other apart first.

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.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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