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Trees, historic trolley poles to be removed for bus project

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A challenger to The City’s Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project contends 193 trees will need to be removed during construction. A project manager says the number is actually closer to nine and that The City would plant 32 new trees as part of the project. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

A challenge to The City’s Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project was shot down Wednesday night, in a blow to those looking to preserve trees and historic trolley poles on Van Ness Avenue.

The fight pitted residents who wanted to preserve historic fixtures against transit advocates and others interested in paving the way for faster bus service for thousands.

The trolley poles were first constructed in 1915 for the Pan Pacific International Expo, which drew thousands to San Francisco’s Marina district.

The San Francisco Board of Appeals voted down an appeal by the City’s Historic Preservation Commission, which previously granted the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency permission to remove trees and historic trolley poles for the construction of traffic medians as part of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project.

The project would convert the two center lanes of Van Ness Avenue into red-painted bus-only lanes, and construct medians that act almost like train stops, in an effort to speed up Muni’s 47 and 49 bus lines.

The Historic Preservation Commission issued SFMTA a “certificate of appropriateness” to allow the project to move forward in November last year, but it was conditional. The SFMTA was told to preserve four of the historic trolley poles — two in front of City Hall, and two in front of the War Memorial building, and to create a plaque commemorating their historic significance.

The Board of Appeals decision to deny the appeal upholds the Historic Preservation Commission’s original decision to allow the SFMTA to continue, conditionally, with the Van Ness BRT project.

“They need to save them, repair them, it can be done,” said Jane Edwards, a City Hall docent, who spoke during public comment to defend the trolley poles.

But the SFMTA and preservation commission both agreed — though the concrete poles are iconic, they’re also crumbling. Efforts to redesign them, or retrofit them, were deemed too expensive or unwieldy, planners said.

Referring to the poles’ deteriorating condition, Peter Gabancho, an SFMTA project manager, told the board “It’s only going to get worse.”

Deanne Delbridge, who challenged the project, also contended that more than 196 trees would be removed. However, Gabancho said at the meeting that only nine trees in the Civic Center Historic District (the area around City Hall) would be removed.

SFMTA would also plant 32 new trees in the historic district as part of the project, he said.

Neighbors were not pleased. Tim Donnelly, who is a building manager on Van Ness Avenue, said if SFMTA clear cuts trees “it’ll look like a bomb went off.”

Rick Swig, a member of the Board of Appeals, said it was important to remember that streetcars existed on Van Ness Avenue before “General Motors created a conspiracy to rip out streetcars” around the country.

By his estimation, the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project would restore Van Ness Avenue to its historic roots as a public transit corridor. In 1915, the Pan Pacific International Expo saw the launch of the H-streetcar line ran on Van Ness Avenue.

When the streetcar line was removed from Van Ness Avenue in the 1950s, its tracks were replaced by the trees the SFMTA is now saying it will remove.

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