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Play Streets pilot expands regular block parties citywide

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The Play Streets pilot program closed Jamestown Avenue to cars in the Bayview District allowing kids to play in the streets for a day. (Courtesy Photo)

Blow up your inflatable bouncy-houses, ready your chalk and raise your basketball hoops — San Francisco is expanding its block party street closure program Play Streets citywide.

Under the old permit system, San Franciscans could apply to close streets for block parties on a one-off basis.

But the Play Streets pilot program lets neighbors apply for a series of regularly scheduled block closures over the course of months — say, the first Thursday of every month — and provides training as well as low-cost equipment rentals (yes, even bouncy houses) to make it all happen.

The $225,000 Play Streets pilot program was available in some neighborhoods last year, but the second phase of the pilot begins Saturday, making the service available to all San Franciscans.

“When we first funded it, we always hoped it would go citywide,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, who secured $180,000 for the program during his tenure on the Board of Supervisors. “This is about activating public space, reclaiming public space for communities, and making sure neighbors are connected to each other.”

The program is administered by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in cooperation with Livable City, an advocacy group. When a neighbor wants to close a one-block stretch of street to host a block party, they can apply online and sign up for a “boot camp” from Livable City to go through all the ins-and-outs of neighborhood outreach to approve the street closure, safety training, and a run-down of equipment rentals.

Permits cost $100 whether the neighbor wants three sessions or 10 sessions, said Katy Birnbaum, program director at Livable City. Without ordering a bouncy house through vendor partners, she said, equipment rentals range from $50 to $300, depending on the ask: The program requires neighbors to rent barricades to close off the street, but also offers basketball hoops, chalk, bubbles, AstroTurf and more.

An “organizing team” is formed by neighbors who want to host the party, and at least one of those organizers must live on the host block.

That requirement is so “you’re not going across town and putting a stake in a street and saying, ‘I’m here whether you like it or not!’” Birnbaum said, with a laugh. The organizing team canvasses neighbors to make sure everyone has buy-in, she said.

Play Streets was the brainchild of SFMTA traffic calming program manager Patrick Golier, who said he saw similar programs in other cities.

“I thought, ‘Why not San Francisco?” Golier said.

Last year, the program was piloted in a few neighborhoods, including the Bayview, Western Addition, Mission and Visitacion Valley. The SFMTA has the “largest available public space” in San Francisco, he said: city streets.

“We want residents to think about [streets] as more than just moving traffic,” he said, they’re “a public good.”

Wiener, Birnbaum and Golier all hope the SFMTA or the Board of Supervisors fully funds Play Streets as a permanent program next year.

Wiener hails from suburban New Jersey, where it’s easier and safer for children to play outside, he said.

“We played in the streets, had our bikes out in the streets. We were able to run around and be kids,” he said, an experience that now may come to San Francisco. “That’s what makes a healthy community.”

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