City may topple Japantown’s ‘Berlin Wall’

City planners are proposing to redesign a below-ground-level stretch of Geary Boulevard to create more open space and pedestrian-friendly links between Japantown and the Fillmore and Western Addition areas.

Geary is the most heavily used transit corridor in the northern part of San Francisco, according to county officials. The eight-lane arterial, dips eastbound drivers between below-ground-level walls as they pass Steiner Street.

“Geary Boulevard has been the invisible Berlin Wall that’s separated Japantown from the Fillmore,” said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the neighborhoods. “Now it’s time to correct that.”

Longtime San Francisco resident George Vlahos compared the stretch of Geary Boulevard to the Embarcadero Freeway, which used to create a barrier between The City and the waterfront. Vlahos said he was on a committee that recommended demolishing the freeway after it was damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. “You have to break that wall feeling down,” he said.

During recent Japantown planning workshops, residents repeatedly told city planners they would like to see the arterial overhauled to make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street, according to Rosemary Dudley, who is leading a Better Neighborhoods project to breathe new life and space into the neighborhood.

“Even though there are pedestrian bridges that are supposed to be used, people don’t use them,” Dudley said. Seniors and others have trouble scaling the stairs, she said, and the bridges have a “sketchy” feel.

Options for breaking down the Geary Boulevard barrier will be discussed at a public workshop on Feb. 12, according to Dudley, when a related Geary Boulevard transit project is discussed. Options will include new traffic signals and pedestrian crossings, integration of the boulevard with new open spaces planned in Japantown, and raising the street to ground-level, preliminary draft plans show.

Plans for the future of Japantown and Geary Boulevard will be crafted based on public feedback and could be presented to the Board of Supervisors as soon as June, according to Dudley.

The separate, but synchronized, Geary Boulevard Corridor Bus Rapid Transit project proposed by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency would create dedicated bus lanes and other features built along the entire corridor to prioritize transit, bicycle and pedestrian travel rather than car travel.

The transit plan was criticized by the Greater Geary Boulevard Merchants and Property Owners Association because it will remove parking and make car-travel more difficult. President David Heller said he also opposes the newly announced plans at Japantown. “I think that they need to focus on other things,” he said.

jupton@examiner.com

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