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SF hopes to become first city to succeed in creating a public space ‘that works for everyone’

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The City is still in the planning stages of the Civic Center Plaza renovation, but hopes to make the area and surrounding public space one that works for all residents. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Randy Carter spends long hours in one of San Francisco’s most diverse cross-sections, the Civic Center area, and he has many stories to share.

There was the time a couple was trying to have sex on the grass one day at 5 p.m. And when, a stolen parking meter had been dressed in a hoodie and pants and left on the ground.

Other times, drug addicts have been seen shooting drugs into the veins in their neck, and there was the time just last month when a drug dealer shook Carter’s hand and agreed to take his illicit sales elsewhere.

Carter is a supervisor for the Hunters Point Family nonprofit, which has a partnership with The City to act as stewards of art installations in an area known as the Civic Center Commons — UN Plaza, Civic Center Plaza, and Fulton Street between the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Main Public Library. The public spaces are targeted by The City for a major transformation.

Carter began his work there in June 2016 as a steward of an art installation at UN Plaza “to change the culture of the area.” A lot of that is simply knowing which agencies to call to address certain issues, just talking to people or encouraging drug dealers to take their business elsewhere.

“I just like the fact that people feel safe coming into the community again,” Carter told the San Francisco Library Commission earlier this month.

Hunters Point Family is part of The City’s longer term strategy under development and previously reported by the San Francisco Examiner to overhaul the Civic Center Plaza and surrounding public spaces. Past efforts by former mayors to improve the public spaces have failed and many saw them as only anti-homeless programs.

Peter Warfield, who heads the group Library Users Association, remains skeptical of the current effort. “Overall I’d like to say that this smells and sounds like a version of homeless removal,” Warfield said.

But some are being won over. One past critic of the effort, Library Commissioner Zoe Dunning, criticized the library in March for spending money on activities outside of its main mission of providing library services.

As part of Mayor Ed Lee’s budget proposal, which the Board of Supervisors will vote to approve on July 18, several departments have funding allocated toward the effort, including $100,000 from the library.

Dunning has changed her position and now supports the initiative. “I recognize that in order for us to provide our services we have to be accessible,” Dunning said. “In order to be accessible, people have to feel safe and comfortable coming to the Main Library.”

The City, which has recently launched the civiccentersf.org website, had solicited firms to redesign the area and is currently engaged in a public realm use study. The website states the plan for a major transformation with public comment would conclude in July 2018 and allows for a subsequent two-year environmental analysis period. Final adoption of the plan is slated for March and April of 2020.

Amy Cohen, of the Office of Economic Workforce Development, is spearheading the effort, and was asked by the commission to respond to concerns about the impacts to homeless residents.

“It’s a very, very big area we are talking about here. There’s really no cities that have succeeded in creating public space outdoors that really works for everyone, including very poor people and very sick people,” Cohen said. “But we are really trying to make a space that allows for homeless people to be there. It’s how do we make this available to a homeless person or a family. It is an experiment. The City is new at trying to do this.”

Cohen also noted that “a lot of the people who hang out here actually live in an SRO and they have somewhere to sleep but they don’t have anything to do during the day.”

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