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SF plans major Civic Center transformation

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Plans to revitalize the Civic Center include changing the design of the area and increasing activity with a concert venue and food hall. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Homeless residents, drug users and alcoholics have long remained quite visible right outside of City Hall in Civic Center Plaza and adjacent areas like UN Plaza for which San Francisco’s mayors have faced criticism.

Efforts by past mayors like Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, which included removing seating to deter homeless persons from congregating there, haven’t made much of a difference.

But a new sweeping effort by Mayor Ed Lee, which acknowledges those past failures and involves multiple city departments, would bring a new design to the Civic Center and surrounding public spaces like UN Plaza.

“Design alone cannot be expected to solve social problems, but thoughtful design can be a part of the solution,” reads the proposal.

The plan also includes increasing activity in the area such as putting to use Polk Hall at Bill Graham Auditorium for an intimate 200-seat concert hall with 100 events a year and reopening the underground Brooks Hall, possibly as a food hall.

The effort could become one of the mayor’s final acts in office and a lasting part of his legacy. He is termed out of office in January 2020.

Homeless advocates have reason to be wary but are reserving judgment.

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Prospective bidders on the $600,000 “Civic Center Public Space Design” contract met with the Planning Department on Friday. The department could not immediately provide names of the firms in attendance but said about 50 persons were present. Proposals are due Feb. 10.

The plan specifically faults past decisions, such as the removal of benches to discourage loitering and sleeping. “The result of this stripped environment is spaces that are unwelcoming to everyone, and have achieved minimal reduction in illicit or undesirable behaviors,” reads the contract documents.

The effort is similar to the concentrated focus on the Mid-Market area — a gritty part of town that other mayors had also attempted to transform but failed — just a few blocks away where Twitter, which was given tax break in 2011, has its headquarters. The changes under Lee, which he has deemed a success, have had mixed reactions over the years as the longstanding tradition of sidewalk chess was forced to end and homeless persons were pushed to other areas.

For the plaza design, “changes should be to welcome more people in, versus pushing people out,” the documents read.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, suggested design elements should include “plenty of seating,” shade and “tables where people can play chess.”

“There’s been a lot of attempts to push destitute people out of the plaza and they have been a failure because when you make space unwelcoming it has the opposite impact,” Friedenbach said. “Hopefully they don’t make the same kind of mistakes and do a lot of anti-homeless stuff.”

She added, “Public space is for everybody regardless how much their salary is.”

John Updike, The City’s director of Real Estate, which is part of the effort, said that “our goal is to create a more active, inviting environment in the Commons for all to enjoy.”

He pointed to the recent installations of art projects in the UN Plaza. “With stewards at the installation to help visitors interact with the display, we’ve seen not just tourists and residents enjoy it, but it has been a welcome respite for those living on the streets nearby, who found the interaction soothing,” Updike said. “I don’t see this as an either/or dilemma, but rather an opportunity to positively activate the area as a pleasant experience for all.”

Planning Department spokesperson Gina Simi said Friday that “the design team is dedicated to ensuring the issues and needs of all people who use Civic Center will be factored into the design process, and is coordinating closely with current efforts to improve place-oriented social services in the area, such as the Downtown Streets Team and Lava Mae.”

In 1990, then-Mayor Art Agnos had to contend with a large number of homeless persons camped in Civic Center plaza in what became known as “Camp Agnos,” putting him in a difficult political position and he ultimately ordered the camp disbanded.

In 1999, a decade later, then-Mayor Willie Brown, Lee’s mentor, promised a new dawn for the plaza, although criticism in media reports at that time was that the mayor was only displacing homeless residents with increased park patrol in the plaza.

“Asked about his vision for the plaza, which is just outside his new second-floor office in City Hall, Brown said drinking and drug dealing ‘will be things of the past. There will be little kids playing and dogs walking. The homeless are not going to sleep in the parks or occupy the parks,’” reads a January 1999 San Francisco Chronicle article.

To this day there remains that tension between police and some plaza users. On a recent day, a San Francisco Examiner reporter observed a police cruiser roll across a plaza walkway and stop in front of a group of young adults at a grassy section of the plaza, where four police officers hopped out. One officer grabbed a brown paper bag held in one person’s hand and dumped the alcoholic contents out, while another demanded to see what was in a second person’s hands, which wasn’t anything illegal. Another officer asked if anyone wanted warm jackets, walked to the trunk of the cruiser and popped it open revealing a number of coats.

The issue extends to inside as well. The Main Public Library has clamped down on patron conduct in recent years with tougher rules and harsher punishments.

The operators who lease the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium from The City, Another Planet Entertainment, where big name acts have concertgoers congregating in the park or waiting in line along the plaza to get in, have tried to drive homeless campers away by blasting annoying sounds through the wee hours of the night.

The area also attracts affluent art patrons who park in the vicinity and walk to the opera at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center.

Signs of a Civic Center transformation are already evident. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency recently proposed eliminating the 19-Muni bus stop, the only library stop, but halted the plan amid criticism it would restrict library access by patrons with disabilities.

The Public Health Department is examining a more than $60 million move from its long-standing Civic Center presence at 101 Grove St. to the San Francisco General Hospital campus, which includes moving Tom Waddell Urgent Care Clinic to a not-yet determined location. If the relocation occurs, The City is considering leasing to the historic 101 Grove St. building.

Developer Emerald Fund has built new high rise apartment buildings adjacent to 101 Grove St., including the 162-unit, 13-story “The Civic” at 101 Polk St.

As part of the plaza plans, The City is in talks with APE to add more capacity to the venue’s main hall, which accommodates about 6,000 concertgoers by using the facility’s Polk Hall, which could serve as “a 150-200 person intimate concert setting), which will add as many as 100 event nights to the premises by 2018,” according to the contract documents.

The City is also examining reopening Brooks Hall, the former 90,000 square foot conference facility built below Civic Center Plaza, which was built in 1958 and closed down in 1993. It could cost up to $40 million to reopen the space depending on the new use. Updike said ideas suggested for Brooks Hall include a food hall, kitchen incubator space or commercial use.

The City is also conducting a “Civic Center Public Life Study” for completion this summer to “analyze how people currently use the Civic Center’s public realm.”

The plan comes as there is a growing income gap in the Bay Area, “with San Francisco the prime example of this trend,” according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s updated economic data for the region.

“The data shows high-wage workers increasingly living in The City, the middle class getting priced out, and some lower-income residents able to remain only because of the development of affordable housing,” the report reads.

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