Crowded sidewalks in the Tenderloin have prompted calls for help from residents. The SFMTA has responded with some walkway expansions and other projects, but not everyone is convinced it is enough. (Corey Browning/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Street changes in Tenderloin provide some relief, but is it enough?

More space for kids to play and people to walk, still no more buses

After nearly six months of shelter-in-place, Tenderloin residents are finally starting to see some changes to their streets that slow traffic, provide space for children to play while socially distanced and create additional room for pedestrians to walk and avoid cramped sidewalks.

But the changes are not enough for many, with Supervisor Matt Haney describing them as “brutally inadequate.”

SFMTA Executive Director Jeffrey Tumlin told the Board of Directors Tuesday that nearly every block in the high density neighborhood has been touched by some kind of “street intervention.”

“While it took us longer than any of us wanted to get into gear on the Tenderloin, the intense amount of staff work from many agencies and our community partners have allowed us to invent an entirely new toolbox of solutions that work for the unique considerations of the Tenderloin,” he said.

Those tools include temporary conversion of traffic lanes into walkways on Jones Street using movable barriers and Play Streets, a weekly Saturday shutdown of Turk Street between Leavenworth and Jones streets for families and children to participate in art, wellness and music classes, along with other activities, provided by the non-profit Livable City.

Launched September 5, Tumlin described Play Streets as a “phenomenal success.” It’s since been paused due to poor air quality, but the agency plans to reinstate it once it’s considered safe to be outdoors.

Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, said these developments are “positive,” but inadequate.

“Especially as compared to the need, street changes they’ve implemented are still moving too slow, too impermanent, and too rare, often only happening one day or evening a week,” he said.

Even as many parts of San Francisco started to enjoy more people-friendly roadways and pedestrian-only commercial corridors within weeks of the shelter-in-place order, the Tenderloin had largely been excluded from comparable modifications despite its high concentration of vulnerable populations and limited access to green space.

Advocates have repeatedly called for attention to be devoted to this high-density neighborhood filled with families, seniors, immigrants and many unhoused individuals. They’ve described The City’s approach to the Tenderloin as one more fit for a commercial district than a residential one.

City officials have responded with a litany of reasons other citywide COVID-19-response programs wouldn’t work in the Tenderloin: it’s too hilly, narrow or wide for Slow Streets, and the sidewalks are too crowded for many Shared Spaces, for example.

Tumlin told the board Tuesday he believed the biggest hold-ups to be the unique police and fire department access concerns in the Tenderloin, which has a high number of emergency calls.

“We have had to work collaboratively to achieve goals of Slow Streets and Shared Spaces programs while at the same time ensuring rapid emergency response access to every single building,” he said of inter-agency efforts and close cooperation with community-based organizations.

None of the initiatives presented by Tumlin represent full-throated replicas of the Slow Streets or Shared Spaces programs, but they’re versions of them that achieve similar goals tailored for Tenderloin residents and needs, according to Tumlin.

Haney, however, disagrees.

“SFMTA says Slow Streets aren’t the right approach in District 6, and instead we will get other interventions, but those interventions have been slow, rare and brutally inadequate,” he said.

Residents are eager to see implementation of the SFMTA quick-build projects on Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street to reduce traffic violence and enhance pedestrian and cyclist safety.

Many also remain hopeful for an east-west pedestrian-friendly corridor on Turk Street, similar to that on Jones, as well as expanded Play Streets opportunities since parks remain closed throughout the neighborhood.

“We’re working to stay on them, and work closely with residents and SFMTA,” according to Haney. “I want to see real progress much more significant than what they’ve presented so far.”

Expansion is dependent on additional resources for community-based organizations, because they take such a lead role in executing many of the programs, Tumlin said.

“I am personally working and trying to find assistance from philanthropy communities in order to find additional capacity for CBOs so they can create these very very important events in a neighborhood that needs it the most,” he told the board.

Finally, the Tenderloin remains without two of its arterial bus routes — the 27-Bryant and 31-Balboa — despite weeks-long pleas from residents to prioritize bringing it back online.

“As you know, there are many people who depend on those routes to access their groceries, services and jobs, so we’d love to see them return as soon as possible, and we’d love to hear more about what the plans are around that,” Cat Carter of SF Transit Riders said during public comment.

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