People congregate along the sidewalk on Jones Street near Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin. Residents there have complained that crowding has intensified since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Sidewalk widening to help ease crowding in Tenderloin

Jones Street project approved to give pedestrians and cyclists more space

Pedestrians and cyclists traveling in the Tenderloin will soon have some hope of respite from congested walkways and minimal open space.

A plan to widen crowded sidewalks on Jones Street received final approval Monday from city agencies including the San Francisco Fire Department and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said final design details should be released by the end of the week, but the original plan proposed the removal of one lane of traffic to free up space for those traveling by foot or bike and create more streamlined access for residents to main services, Muni bus stops and Market Street.

The proposal was made in response to resident complaints of sidewalks overflowing with tents, unsafe conditions outside essential services and pedestrians stepping into speeding traffic to avoid violating social distance protocols.

SFFD received the proposal to review emergency access concerns roughly three weeks ago, and some critics alleged the department dragged its feet on providing feedback to SFMTA.

“It’s overdue, and it’s desperately needed. Tenderloin residents have been yelling and screaming for more space to walk safely,” Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, said of the project.

But SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin said the process of approving coronavirus-related projects is complicated. It requires input from a myriad of city agencies, some of which have veto approval, the agency must prove a proposal leads to positive public health outcomes and there must be respect for the work of all “sister agencies.”

Agency staff further emphasized the unique challenges posed by the Tenderloin in rolling out a new feature, including everything from the tall buildings and overhead wires to the community’s makeup.

“We need SFFD to be able to respond to emergencies in every building in the Tenderloin. The health risks and acute needs of the population there mean that our work is very needed, but the fire department’s response cannot be compromised at all,” one staffer told the SFMTA Board of Directors on Tuesday.

Tenderloin residents and advocates have clamored for car-free streets in the neighborhood since April, when SFMTA announced its first wave of Slow Streets.

But the high-density neighborhood that’s also home to large populations of seniors and children has been left out of the City’s Slow Streets efforts, the third wave of which was approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors Tuesday afternoon.

More than a dozen people called into the hearing to voice their frustration. Speakers scoffed at the board’s professed dedication to equity, expressed dismay at the neediest neighborhood being left behind and called out a “lack of urgency” around giving housed and unhoused residents space to move and recreate. One individual called it “downright maddening” that density was being used as an “excuse” for neglecting to implement any Slow Streets.

“We’re tired of hearing the excuse that Slow Streets isn’t the right tool for the Tenderloin and SoMA […],” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition community organizer Claire Amable said.

SFMTA has said Slow Streets work best on streets that are residential, relatively flat, free of commercial or emergency conflicts and that include four-way stop-controlled intersections to be most successful.

Tenderloin streets, by contrast, are predominantly one-way, multi-lane roads governed by stop lights and described by locals as resembling freeways, which SFMTA says makes ongoing citywide multi-agency efforts best suited to tackle the neighborhood’s needs rather than a straightforward Slow Streets initiative.

But advocates say it’s the very design of the neighborhood that makes prioritizing safe open space to walk, bike and spend time outdoors so critical to the wellbeing of residents.

“We have to remember – one big reason the Tenderloin has been crying out for Slow Streets is because traffic violence is part of daily life there,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF. “This residential neighborhood — with so many families and seniors — continues to be treated like a highway. It’s unconscionable and makes the delay in Slow Streets even more painful.

SFMTA said implementation of the Jones Street project should begin within “a week or so” and said it hoped to install “Quick-Build” projects on Leavenworth and Turk streets in the near future to mitigate traffic deaths and injuries.

Tumlin also reiterated his commitment to the neighborhood, calling it SFMTA’s “highest priority” and the place where the agency’s invested great effort that’s now beginning to result in tangible outcomes.

Those in favor of more comprehensive action to create safer streets were adamant this is a start, but not nearly enough.

“It shouldn’t take this long, and this should be only the beginning,” Haney said. “The Tenderloin needs to be transformed into a more pedestrian friendly zone, with slower traffic and more space to gather and walk.”

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