Newly unveiled Harvey Milk Plaza redesign would create larger, interactive memorial

Castro group wants more for legendary supervisor: ‘Is this it? Is this how we honor our heroes?’

City officials dedicated the promenade on top of the Castro Muni station to Harvey Milk back in 1985. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that when paying a visit.

“People scratch their heads and say, ‘Is this it? Is this how we honor our heroes?’” said Brian Springfield, interim executive director of the Friends of Harvey Milk, the group that’s been fighting since 2016 to get approval for a plaza redesign proposal. The group revealed a new design proposal this week, which they hope will provide a proper acknowledgment in a public space.

Some community members have long felt the existing Harvey Milk Plaza doesn’t do the legendary supervisor justice. A giant rainbow flag welcomes visitors, its base bearing a plaque that commemorates many of The City’s well-known elected officials. But to find more mention of Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor, you have to know where to find the small display of photos and an explanation of his life’s work: Both are located on the plaza’s lower level near the entrance to the Muni Metro station.

 The site, although it bears his name, was never designed to honor him,” said Daniel Cunningham, a designer for the team that wants to transform the plaza on the corner of Castro and Market streets. “His name was applied after the fact, so no thought of honoring Harvey really went into the creation of the space”

Elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977, Milk transcended local politics. He helped elevate the fight for LGBTQ civil rights, invested deeply in the Castro neighborhood and led with a message of love and hope for all in the face of the hate, divisiveness and vitriol he often faced.

Hate so great, in fact, that he was shot and killed in City Hall by Dan White, himself a former supervisor, in 1978.

Friends of Harvey Milk has tried — and failed — since 2016 to garner enough public and political support for a total redesign of the plaza. A proposal from four years ago incited backlash from some who felt it could upend the iconic corner’s facade and disrupt the flow of thousands of transit passengers who use the Muni station below ground to access the Castro.

Now, led by SWA, a landscape architecture firm with offices in San Francisco and Sausalito, the design team thinks it has a winning proposal, which it unveiled for the public this week.

Renderings for the proposed public space include elements that designers say pay direct tribute to Milk.

A rendering of the planned redesign for Harvey Milk Plaza. (Courtesy SWA Group)

A rendering of the planned redesign for Harvey Milk Plaza. (Courtesy SWA Group)

When riders exit Muni, they’ll first see an image gallery that tells the story of Milk and the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Cunningham said this is supposed to be the memorial’s most educational element.

Included in the gallery, as well, are photos of other social movements and their leaders, signaling the connection between the work Milk started and what has since followed.

Other, more subtle nods to Milk will be positioned throughout the plaza: a canopy covering over the station escalator that echoes his love of the opera; a digital screen shaped to resemble a protest sign, like those used in his various political campaigns; and an oculus — a transparent circular opening that will allow light to shine from the street into the subterranean station —in the center of the space that speaks to his love for photography and ownership of a camera shop on Castro Street.

These ideas were borne from conversations with people who personally knew Milk and understood what parts of his personality he would want carried on in a memorial, according to the design team.

Cunningham said another goal of this redesign is to create a total experience for visitors to the Castro, not just a one dimensional memorial, such as a bronze statue or plaque.

Milk became known for a simple, but resonant, mantra: “You have to give them hope.”

A rendering of the planned redesign of the Castro Muni station at Harvey Milk Plaza that includes photos of Milk. (Courtesy SWA Group)

A rendering of the planned redesign of the Castro Muni station at Harvey Milk Plaza that includes photos of Milk. (Courtesy SWA Group)

Under the proposal, the plaza takes people from contemplative quiet in the grove, a small area planted with 11 trees to represent the number of months Milk served as supervisor, to the bustling corner of Market and Castro streets, outfitted with an elevated circular pedestal.

“This design feels right to me. The balance of hope and action, the call-to-action for activism, and the pieces that will allow visitors to feel seen and heard – this has many of the same qualities as Harvey himself,” Cleve Jones, author, activist and community leader said, in a statement.

The project team hosted virtual town halls and meetings with local organizations in order to solicit feedback to inform this latest proposal, resulting in a scaled back proposal that focuses more on landscape than structure, Springfield said.

“We made the decision that people had to be involved every step of the way,” he said. “All the sausage-making is happening in public view.”

Still, some members of the public don’t feel heard — and they don’t approve of the design.

Save Harvey Milk Plaza, a group created in opposition to the overhaul, calls on The City to preserve the existing space and improve maintenance and build out the area instead of starting from scratch.

It proposes more traditional memorial elements, such as a bronze statue, declaring it a historic site and adding a gallery of images to the street-level plaza, according to its website.

“This process has been heavily influenced by monied and elite few. … The local neighbors adjoining the site want to see improvements,” said John Goldsmith, who helps maintain the greenery in Pink Triangle Park adjacent to the station and calls the project the “Harvey Milk Plaza boondoggle.”

Next steps include hosting in-person events for the neighborhood, refining the proposal based on feedback and going through city approval processes. The team’s goal is to start construction mid-2022.

At the same time, San Francisco’s transit agency will be tackling a $14.5 million project to bring the Castro Muni station up to current accessibility standards. It will add a glass elevator and refurbish the surrounding sidewalks. Construction is expected to begin later this year, with completion targeted for 2024.

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