The sound of a cable car trundling down California Street is iconic San Francisco, a constant against decades of change that have transformed the City on the Hill. The City’s oldest cable car line, a rare vestige of San Francisco’s rich past, includes one car from 1906 that still carries passengers.
But residents in the Lower and Upper Polk neighborhoods say the current terminus at Van Ness Avenue and California Street doesn’t live up to that legacy, and they’re beginning to envision changes they hope would jumpstart interest from tourists and locals alike once the cable car returns, create an entryway to the Polk Street corridor and provide a safer environment for pedestrians boarding the historic vehicles.
“The general sense is that there’s a big opportunity with this one. We can make it elevated and give it the significance it deserves, and we can make it a gateway to our neighborhood,” said Drew McDaniels, a recent board member of Lower Polk Neighbors.
A coalition of community groups, including Lower Polk Neighbors, the Lower Polk Community Benefit District, Interstice Architects and Discover Polk Community Benefit District, secured a $50,000 grant from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to study how modifications to the existing terminal could better celebrate the cable car’s cultural value and create a safe, navigable experience.
They want to transform the small platform in the middle of four-lane Van Ness Avenue into a terminus worthy of the line’s history and cultural cache. Additionally, they hope to use it as a community asset that paints a picture of their neighborhoods as central to San Francisco’s past and present and ties its legacy businesses to current tourism.
Andrew Dunbar, whose architectural firm is located on Polk Street, has spearheaded much of the project in these nascent stages, starting with a virtual town hall Wednesday night. About 30 people attended to brainstorm ideas for the terminal that included landscape elements to slow cars down, historic murals commissioned by local artists to tell the story of San Francisco’s cable cars, pedestrian-only sections and the addition of wayfinding materials.
Staff from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency also attended.
Dunbar said he’s hopeful the grassroots coalition can work in partnership with city agencies to create smaller improvements that would complement the massive capital projects nearby, such as the bus rapid transit systems on Geary Boulevard and Van Ness avenues, and better tie The City together.
This is a long-term vision, one that won’t really get its legs until well after the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout have passed, but they’re in the early stages now. The $50,000 grant is meant only to craft options, study their impact and begin the conversation with relevant stakeholders.
“This will take a long time to reach fruition, but if we don’t start planning now, it’ll never happen,” said Chris Schulman, executive director of Lower Polk CBD.
The story of the California Street line has long irked local cable car enthusiasts.
It was cut by about 65 percent in 1954 as The City buckled under a budget crisis, moving its westernmost terminus to Van Ness Avenue from Presidio Avenue and limiting its usefulness. Today, the line is often overshadowed by the better known tourist cable car routes running from Powell Station on Market Street.
Rick Laubscher, president of the nonprofit Market Street Railway, says the Van Ness Avenue and California terminal has been “frustrating” for quite some time because of its placement in the middle of a highly trafficked street and the pursuant risks to pedestrian safety.
When the line was cut in the 1950s, it really just “ended without a destination,” Laubscher said. He applauded the idea of making the current terminus and Polk Street destinations in and of themselves.
Community partners behind this “vision plan” agree.
They hope to make the cable car’s final stop a way to welcome tourists and visitors to Polk Street, connect them with local businesses and reinvigorate the commercial corridor and its legacy businesses.
“It doesn’t set the tone for tourists and visitors. It doesn’t make them want to stay or appeal to them. It almost makes them want to get back and get back on and go back to where they came from,” Schulman said of the current terminus. “If we can make it an appealing space and really make them feel like Polk is a welcoming place, we could entice them to spend time on Polk Street.”