North Beach piazza: For ‘people to come and rest their souls’

By the end of next year, a piazza covering a section of Vallejo Street in North Beach could replace a city block and help transform the area into an international landmark, say project advocates.

The piazza, which was dreamt up by famed poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who also owns City Lights Bookstore, is intended to create a public gathering space replete with benches, trees and a “starving poets podium.”

Seen as a way to revitalize North Beach by attracting more families and tourists to the former Beat haven, the proposed Piazza Saint Francis would cover about 100 yards of Vallejo Street between Columbus and Grant avenues.

In two weeks, project advocates are scheduled to meet with city planners to discuss permits and a project timeline.

The project presents a few challenges, such as how to mitigate the loss of five metered parking spots and six metered motorcycle parking spots as well as the impacts on traffic circulation when the city block is permanently closed. Also, project leaders have yet to raise the money needed to build the piazza.

“Ideally, we would have a combination of city and private funding to get this thing done,” said Tony Gantner, president of the North Beach Merchants Association and a member of the Piazza Saint Francis Association, a group formed to push the project forward.

The piazza would be a place for music, poetry and for “people to come and rest their souls,” Gantner said.

The envisioned piazza may also compliment another project: the refurbishment of the adjacent National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi, which includes the construction of a replica porziuncola, or chapel, where Saint Francis took refuge. The chapel would be built within the existing church-owned building on the corner of Vallejo and Columbus.

Angela Alioto, an attorney and former city supervisor, has launched a fundraising campaign to raise the estimated $10.5 million needed to refurbish the church, construct the chapel and build piazza. The piazza, designed by architect Dennis Sullivan, would cost half a million dollars, according to Gantner.

“This will not only be a pilgrim destination for people, but it will also be a huge attraction in the heart of North Beach just because of who St. Francis is,” Alioto said.

The piazza in North Beach “would be great for business” since it would induce the tourists who visit Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf to stay a while in North Beach as well, according to Gantner.

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