Better or worse? SF scales back ambitions for Market Street makeover

Better Market Street was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation undertaking, the kind of capital project that eventually defines a city....

Better Market Street was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation undertaking, the kind of capital project that eventually defines a city. Think San Francisco’s Champs-Élysées.

Time and again, though, that transformational vision keeps getting diminished. Some of the changes stem from an effort to reel in the project’s estimated costs and protect businesses in the wake of the pandemic. Other changes hope rectify over a decade of promises made to the public by city officials who didn’t always take into account the practical implications.

Approved in October 2019, after nearly 10 years of advocacy and planning, the original blueprint for the project known as “Better Market Street” included a comprehensive slew of street and sidewalk upgrades to the surface and underground; improvements to enhance transit performance; and safety measures to protect cyclists and pedestrians on the stretch of road with four of The City’s most dangerous intersections.

Piece-by-piece the plan’s ambition has slowly been walked back, either intentionally or as a consequence of other factors.

As San Francisco emerges from the pandemic, and the catastrophe it caused becomes more apparent every day, the notion of tearing up Market Street as downtown offices consider reopening, disrupting the F-Market historic streetcar line for nearly four years and ripping up sidewalk access to local businesses increasingly seems like a bad idea. Some people question whether The City even has the competence to complete such a complex project, given the problems faced on other major infrastructure efforts.

“This project is, at this point, quite different from what was presented to us a few months back, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, chair of the County Transportation Authority, at a July 13 meeting. “I think it represents a grappling with reality that is to be commended.”

When Market Street was closed to private vehicles in January 2020, the number of cyclists on the street increased by roughly 25 percent. During the pandemic, however, downtown trips reduced dramatically and many cars largely ignored the car-free mandate. Though more stringent enforcement resumed in March, concerns remain that continued use by private cars could jeopardize the initiative’s effectiveness in bringing cyclists to Market Street.

A cyclist rides up Market Street past the shuttered World of Stereo on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

A cyclist rides up Market Street past the shuttered World of Stereo on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Another of the plan’s hallmark elements, an 8-foot-wide elevated bikeway between Fifth and Eighth streets to create physical separation between cyclists and motorists, was eliminated in January 2021.

Advocates were floored, and they told The Examiner that key stakeholder groups had not been consulted around modifications to the design. They also said the alternative — painted boundary lines to protect an 11-foot-wide bike lane adjacent to the curb and the creation of a center-running Muni-only lane — was a far cry from the transformed corridor they were promised.

Latest on the chopping block are planned transit and utility upgrades for an 800-foot stretch of Market Street between Seventh and Eighth streets that would require extensive construction underground.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency wants to move forward with this $60 million approach because it will allow the team to better understand the conditions it faces beneath the surface, which would therefore inform the approach to the entire two-mile corridor, according to officials.

But doing so could lead to a torn up Market Street for up to four years. The F-Market Street historic streetcar would have to be suspended between Union Square and Castro for the duration of that time.

Market Street Railway, local merchants and other stakeholders have voiced fierce opposition to this plan, prompting city departments to propose an alternative that would stick to only street-level improvements and hold off on the larger transit and utility upgrades until a later point in time. This option would cost $30 million.

Safety measures for pedestrians on Market Street’s most dangerous intersections are part of the Better Market Street project. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Safety measures for pedestrians on Market Street’s most dangerous intersections are part of the Better Market Street project. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

“On the one hand, we have critical infrastructure upgrades that need to happen,” said Cristina Olea, the project manager for the Department of Public Works. “But on the flipside, this is a critical period for our local community and our businesses that are trying to recover from the pandemic.”

Rick Laubscher, chair of the Better Market Street Citizen Advisory Committee, saw his family’s delicatessen close as a result of BART construction along the same corridor in the 1970s. Many existing merchants share the worry that their businesses might face the same fate if messy sidewalks discourage office worker visits and a truncated historic streetcar route deters tourists.

He says BART was worth the pain because of the public good it offered to the broader Bay Area, but he’s yet to see the same compelling case made for Better Market Street.

“As we recover from this thing, any future capital project that disrupts The City or disrupts the lives of citizens and businesses anywhere needs to be scrutinized a lot more closely,” Laubscher said.

What’s more, Laubscher has lost faith in San Francisco’s ability to execute even the most well-intentioned lofty endeavors in the wake of scuttled efforts on Van Ness Avenue and the Central Subway, for example.

“There’s just simply something wrong with the way we build it and the way we manage it,” he said. “That’s what I can’t figure out.”

It’s this larger tension around why San Francisco can’t seem to manage to consistently craft, design and execute on an ambitious capital project that has Laubscher and many others so frustrated.

A recent Civil Grand Jury report concluded that much of the delays and budget overruns on the Van Ness Avenue effort can be chalked up to poor project management. Supervisors have called for a deep dive into accountability for how The City delivers — or fails to deliver — capital projects.

Peter Straus, a member of San Francisco Transit Riders, said Better Market Street, as originally approved, was laced with what should have been seen as “fatal flaws.” He asserted that it would have led to another mess of a capital project that’s become commonplace.

When SFMTA officials presented the scaled back design to the board in January, they used different terminology, but conceded there were oversights and over-promises that more closely resembled a wish list than a feasible project proposal.

Multiple attempts intended to right those wrongs threaten to leave behind a piecemeal list of state-of-good repair projects as opposed to an overarching vision for the future of San Francisco’s central corridor, some say.

And while the latest debate centers on an 800-foot segment of the entire project, SFMTA officials are clear that the stakes are high.

“To be frank, if we can’t figure out how to (do) this one block of sewer, water and track work, we aren’t going to be able to figure out how to do the rest of the street,” said Peter Gabancho, the SFMTA project manager. “This allows us to go in and settle some debates (…)”

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