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SF to transform car-free stretch of Powell Street into pedestrian promenade

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There have been zero collision-based injures since lower Powell Street banned most traffic. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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A two-block stretch of Powell Street may soon become a Paris-style public promenade, replete with increased lighting, planters and significantly wider sidewalks.

The last open houses for the Powell Streetscape Improvement Project are Thursday, held at noon and 6 p.m., at JiNS at 151 Powell St. The project is slated to go to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors for approval in January.

Some businesses are decrying even more construction in the already construction-beleaguered downtown, but others welcome the revamped sidewalks as potentially safer.

The pilot project to create a car-free Powell Street between Ellis and Geary streets was initiated in 2015, and made permanent in July. Previously, lower Powell Street saw at least three injury collisions annually. Ever since traffic (except taxis, cable cars and loading vehicles) was banned, collision-based injuries dropped to zero.

“The pilot was tremendously successful” in terms of safety, said Dan Howard, an SFMTA transit engineer and project lead.

The lack of car traffic also helped ailing cable cars’ steel cables, which run under the street. Traffic congestion causes more wear and tear on the cables, since they’re clamped for longer and start to melt. Since lower Powell Street went car-free, the cables’ lives have been extended from 60 days to 80 days, Howard said.

Not only will the sidewalks be widened from 14 feet to 22 feet, they’ll be curbless — meaning flat with the street — noted Natalie Burdick, outreach director of advocacy group Walk SF.

“It’s a perfect example of The City prioritizing people walking,” Burdick said.

These renderings show the proposed promenade for lower Powell Street, between Ellis and Geary streets, which features added lighting, wider sidewalks and a flat curb level with the street. (Courtesy SFMTA)

The promenade will gain extra lighting from short vertical posts, called bollards, and the parklets on Powell Street will be removed, which neighbors complained were ill-maintained.

“It just attracts rats,” Phineas Ng, owner of Tad’s Steakhouse on 120 Powell St., said of the parklets and planters.

“Everything looks nice in the beginning and in the graphic design,” Ng said of project renderings. “But if you can’t afford to keep it up, it’s going to look worse than it was before.”

Union Square Business Improvement District Executive Director Karin Flood said in a statement, “We applaud any public-private initiative” that supports local business vitality.

Sensors installed by Union Square BID show 5.6 million pedestrians traversing the 200 block of Powell Street since January, and 40 million in the area around Union Square writ large.

John Konstin, owner of the historic John’s Grill right off Powell on 63 Ellis St., said his biggest problem with the promenade is construction-related traffic congestion, especially considering Central Subway construction on nearby Stockton Street.

“Traffic is just a mess,” said Konstin. “It’s going to make it worse.”

Howard said construction on the Powell Street promenade will not begin until 2021 — after the Central Subway construction is set to conclude.

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