Editorial: Taking back our grand plaza

Hopeful signs are emerging that The City’s grandest plaza is being taken back once more by the general public, after a lengthy, depressing period of being abandoned to the homeless, street people and drug addicts. During the past few decades, many of the Civic Center Plaza’s most civilized amenities were taken out due to abuse by transients.

About eight years ago, the plaza benches were pulled out to help reduce use of the quarter-acre park as a 24-hour outdoor homeless dormitory. Now Supervisor Sophie Maxwell is leading an effort to have the benches brought back. Her proposal was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, and it specifically requires benches divided by center armrests to make them impractical as sleeping bunks.

The San Francisco Parks Trust will now begin seeking bench-sponsorship donors to contribute $3,500 to $5,000 for a commemorative bench with a bronze plaque and 10 years of maintenance. The majority of The City’s new park benches are funded by private contributions.

Meanwhile, a temporary community vegetable garden has been installed as the latest surfacing of the central arcade behind City Hall. It will be a main rallying point for the premiere Slow Food Festival, which is expected to attract as many as 50,000 artisan food lovers to San Francisco from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1.

That tree-lined plaza arcade has a multilayered history. Originally it was an illuminated wading pool. But when it increasingly became a transients’ open-air bathtub, the water was drained. Of course an empty pool at the center of an open plaza soon became a magnet for garbage. Then it was filled in with grass turf that has now given way for the Slow Food Festival’s vegetable planters.

Recent mayors backed a serious police effort against open criminal activity adjacent to City Hall. SFPD Tenderloin Station Capt. Gary Jimenez said few, if any, homeless people still sleep in or near the plaza, and most remaining police problems there are caused by street drug dealers. Still, the plaza retains a somewhat ominous reputation and often stays empty.

Supervisor Maxwell praises the big plaza’s spectacular design and says it is time to again give visitors and government employees a place to relax and enjoy the view. Giving up on one of downtown’s irreplaceable landmarks is “not a good way to run a city,” Maxwell told The Examiner, and we agree.

A few times each year, some major event fills the Civic Center Plaza with festive throngs and we get to see how much this grand space can mean to San Francisco. We welcome all plaza activities — large and small — that can speed the Civic Center Plaza’s return to the public mainstream. Maybe it is time to re-examine an earlier idea about putting lively refreshment stands alongside the plaza.

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