Transit renaissance en route for northern waterfront

San Francisco’s northern waterfront could soon experience a transit, cycling and walking renaissance.

Streetcars may extend from Fisherman’s Wharf to Aquatic Park, whisking thousands more visitors there daily. The historic Aquatic Park pier may be rebuilt, offering stunning views of the Golden Gate.

And last, but certainly most ambitious, a grand curving pier may connect Fort Mason to Aquatic Park, forming a “peopleway” to allow easy traversal by walkers and cyclists over the Bay, circling a massive, exhausting hill that divides the two destinations.

That’s the dream of park planners, transit officials and a smattering of waterfront advocates, who are combining some already existing efforts — and fashioning new ones — to revive transit near Fort Mason and Aquatic Park.

“We’re looking for some new energy to repackage all of these projects,” said Jim Chappell, who is chair of the Fort Mason Board of Trustees, and also a major proponent of the projects. “We thought getting them together made a lot of sense.”

Both Fort Mason and Aquatic Park are ever-so-close to major transit options, but slightly too far for most travelers heading from downtown or other parts of the Bay Area to easily get to other than by car. The lack of transit options also confounds local locomotion as well: In any other part of The City, the two destinations would naturally feed each other visitors, who would ping-pong between them for arts, culture, and cuisine opportunities, not to mention the postcard views. But that’s not the case now.

“Our biggest problem is transportation. There’s no bus service to downtown, there’s no bus service to the east,” Chappell said. “Several years ago we talked to a minority theater group and they said they’d love to come, but asked, ‘How will we get our people there?’” Chappell had to answer that they couldn’t, at least not easily by public transit.

Fort Mason’s Herbst and Festival Pavillions are massive spaces playing host to many conventions, but a Fisherman’s Wharf official said those conventioneers rarely choose Aquatic Park hotels, despite being only a stone’s throw away. The problem? Black Point hill, which sits directly between the two locales, requires some serious leg power to climb. Tourists often don’t even know what’s on the other side.

Troy Campbell, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, said that one day he thought he’d head to Fort Mason from Aquatic Park by bike. “Halfway up that hill I was sweating, I was a mess, and the fact that I smoked cigarettes in college came back to haunt me,” he said.

Chappell put the problem simply, saying, “That hill is a real stopper.”

Cyclists head down the Bay Trail hill between Fort Mason and Aquatic Park on Monday, July 23, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The means to fix the problem are relatively inexpensive compared to other transit projects across The City, said Rick Laubscher, president of Market Street Railway, a nonprofit transit history organization.

Extending the E and F streetcar lines past their current terminus at Jefferson and Jones streets to Beach Street which would help tourists flock to Aquatic Park with a brief walk, Laubscher said. Passengers could disembark and walk onto a long, arching pier called a “peopleway,” which would curve to Fort Mason’s pavillions.

The peopleway idea was first floated as part of a citywide bikeway network proposed by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition in 2010. In July 2014, Chappell said, advocates were given a cost estimate for construction and soft costs of the peopleway totalling between $11.5-$15 million. That estimate does not include restoration costs of the historic Pier 4, however.

Chappell said he hopes to fund the peopleway through private donors, and is actively soliciting support now.

As for the E and F line extension, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency applied for federal funds for its next steps, but didn’t get them. That won’t slam the breaks on the project, SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said.

“We are currently exploring options to develop a plan to move the project forward,” Rose said.

The combined efforts may require more regulatory hoops than the usual transit project. Many overlapping local and federal officials have various jurisdictions along different parts of the waterfront, who would all need buy-in: The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Presidio Trust, National Park Service, Fort Mason Center, the Recreation and Parks Department, and SFMTA, among others.

Yet despite all odds, officials have so far expressed tentative interest as advocates have revived the proposals in recent neighborhood meetings, Chappell said, and others confirmed.

The peopleway “could really make the difference in this being a viable area for conventioneers,” Campbell said, “and just for exploring the waterfront and making it accessible for people who bike it.”

Campbell said historic streetcar service “can be directly correlated to (merchants’) productivity and success. It’s really vital.”

Nick Josefowitz, a BART board director running to represent District 2 as supervisor, a district that includes Fort Mason and Aquatic Park, said he’s personally struggled climbing Black Point hill even though “my wife tells me I have thighs made to play tennis.” Josefowitz promised to push hard for the peopleway and extending the streetcar, were he elected. He said he will also submit the plan to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for regional funding.

But, Josefowitz added, the effort is not just about Fort Mason.

“I think there’s a real opportunity to put in a peopleway to make not only Fort Mason accessible to the rest of The City, but to provide folks from the Marina a way to get to North Beach and potentially even the Financial District” by rail, he said.

Jack Gallagher, an aide in Supervisor Catherine Stefani’s office, who represents District 2, said she was not aware of the peopleway effort but revitalizing historic Pier 4 is “something we’d love to look into and work with organizers on.”

Brian Wiedenmeir, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said that even though these are “old visions,” the coalition supports the efforts behind them.

“It’ll be really popular” with tourists, he said, “but also for commuters.” There’s a “surprising number of people” from the Marina, and Marin, he said, who bike along the northern waterfront to work — a route the peopleway would make far more accessible.

Laubscher said the plans may be disparate, but together, they become something else entirely.

“It’s a total vision,” he said. “It is a dream.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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