People congregate along the sidewalk on Jones Street near Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin in July. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Jones Street getting more pedestrian space after months of community pressure

Pedestrians on Jones Street will have more room to walk as early as this week.

Jones Street from O’Farrell Street to Golden Gate Avenue will be temporarily made more foot-friendly with the creation of an additional five- to eight-feet of walking space.

The SFMTA will remove one travel lane and one parking lane from the east side of the street, and convert the space into a pedestrian passage. The lane will be protected by concrete barriers or, in some places, stationary cars using the adjacent lane for street parking.

Approval of changes to Jones Street were first announced in an under-the-radar comment during the July 21 SFMTA meeting. But Mayor London Breed’s unveiling of the program Friday included a more robust roster of ideas to address concerns about overcrowding.

Contiguous blocks will close every Saturday for Tenderloin youth, most of whom don’t live within walking distance of a playground or park, to play, and SFMTA staff will assist local merchants with developing a Shared Spaces plan, which allows businesses to move their operations outdoors into a closed parking lane or sidewalk.

The project, though progress, is not what Tenderloin activists have demanded of the SFMTA.

Evan Oravec, co-chair of the Tenderloin Task Force, said repeated requests during the early stages of the pandemic to implement a Slow Street, a citywide initiative that shuts down corridors to through-traffic to create more room for people to travel and recreate outside while maintaining social distance, were deemed infeasible by the transportation agency.

SFMTA has said Slow Streets work best in low-density residential areas with two-lane roads governed by stop signs and minimal interference with emergency or commercial access points.

The Tenderloin, by contrast, is one of San Francisco’s most densely populated neighborhoods. Most of the streets are multi-lane throughways with higher speed limits and intersections controlled by stop lights. There are also a number of access concerns given higher rates of emergency calls to the area.

Oravec said the focus eventually became “what can be done,” as sidewalks overcrowded with tents for the unhoused and reports of the neighborhood’s seniors, children and residents living with disability staying locked indoors created an urgent need for some relief.

Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, called the months-long process to get the Jones Street initiative approved “embarrassing” for “such a small amount of change.”

“We were pushing for broader changes for months and we kept being told by SFMTA that the Tenderloin is the top priority, but then it takes four months to get changes on a couple blocks that had broad consensus,” he said, noting widespread community support for changes to Jones Street.

Similar plans for Turk Street that would create an east-west corridor through the neighborhood safer for pedestrians remain in discussion.

Residents of the Tenderloin say it’s treated as part of a traffic network, not as a residential neighborhood.

But Oravec is cautiously optimistic the “Slow Streets debacle” will lead to sustained public pressure that ultimately leads to the beginning of a “narrative shift” around the Tenderloin and how it’s treated by local government.

“COVID-19 has inflamed pre-existing issues, the temperature has risen, and The City has been forced to pay attention,” he said.

Haney echoed his hopes Jones Street marks a sea change.

“I hope that this is not just the beginning, but a real breakthrough that leads to quicker, bigger change.”

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