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Why Is SF's Civic Center Plaza Such a Mess?

Scott Lucas | July 21, 2014 | Story Politics

Reprinted with permission from Beyond Chron.

For all the talk about a “housing balance,” San Francisco’s real balancing act involves increasing housing and open space at the same time. And the most cost-effective way to expand open space is to revive underutilized land that the city already owns—such as the sprawling Civic Center Plaza.

Talk about inequality, here we have a potentially great resource for the 4,000 children and thousands of seniors and low-income residents living a short walk away in the Tenderloin, and its capacity remains untapped. The Tenderloin hasn’t gotten any open space money in years, yet nearby Civic Center Plaza has long been allowed to languish.

The World Cup and Civic Center Plaza

I made the case for energizing Civic Center Plaza a few years ago (“Reviving San Francisco’s Failed Civic Center"), but the issue recently hit home for me again when watching some of the World Cup matches shown there. For both the Brazil-Mexico and Belgium-U.S. matches, the Plaza was packed. And as occurred during theGiants World Series celebrations in 2010 and 2012, the Plaza easily held its crowds and proved a great venue.

But on days when there isn't a special event or a major rally, the plaza is depressing and underutilized—a virtual desert in the heart of the city. Yes, it can get windy there. But it also gets windy and cold at Golden Gate Park, and that hasn’t discouraged visitors. So why is this plaza so neglected?

I have talked with Park and Rec Director Phil Ginsburg about revitalizing Civic Center Plaza, and he could not be more enthusiastic. Ginsburg has facilitated the creation of temporary youth soccer fields in the Plaza, as well as many one-time events drawing large crowds. Mayor Ed Lee’s staff is also enthusiastic. The mayor’s office has targeted resources to UN Plaza and recognizes the untapped potential of a huge, little-used open space adjacent to City Hall, the Main Library, the Asian Art Museum and Bill Graham Auditorium.

City officials agree that the ideal approach for reviving Civic Center Plaza is to connect it to a repurposed UN Plaza. The two plazas would be linked by converting the unsightly truck parking lot in between into a green belt/plaza with food trucks, outdoor cafes, and the like. This idea has logistical issues to resolve, but few if any detractors. Which raises the obvious question: if everyone thinks Civic Center needs a dramatic overhaul, why isn’t it happening?

Or to put it another way, why is there a Housing Work Group to increase affordable housing production but no similar body to propose and implement an open space strategy for Civic Center Plaza and environs?

Money, Politics, Leadership

The first challenge is money. Since I wrote my 2011 article, the Civic Center CBD has brought new resources to the area. And individual donors have stepped up to improve the plaza's playground (a project still yet to commence). But although Civic Center is a stone’s throw from Mid-Market tech companies, NEMA’s huge apartment complex, and Emerald Fund’s soon-to-open highrise housing at 100 Van Ness, nobody has stepped forward with a major donation to kick off a Civic Center Plaza revival campaign.

SF Jazz raised $65 million seemingly overnight for its new facility. One would hope the city has donors also interested in making Civic Center Plaza into San Francisco’s version of New York City’s Bryant Square. But none has come forward.

Politics is also holding Civic Center Plaza back. The success of New York City’s public spaces—and Bryant Square was a worse drug haven than Civic Center ever has been—has involved turning the management of the spaces over to nonprofit groups as well as bringing in restaurants like Shake Shack and ‘wichcraft to raise revenue for park maintenance.

Yet San Francisco resists following NYC’s successful model over claims by a small but vocal minority that such actions amount to a “privatization” of public parks. Instead of focusing on the benefits to residents—and particularly to a Tenderloin neighborhood that gets the short end of the open space stick—this vocal minority has stopped progress in Civic Center Plaza in its tracks.

That brings us to the third missing ingredient: leadership. Transforming Civic Center Plaza requires the type of leadership that Lee brought to Mid-Market, and that NYC’s former Mayor Mike Bloomberg—for all his other faults—brought to the project of making his city’s public spaces work. Lee could set the process of Civic Center Plaza’s transformation in motion by establishing the type of broad-based working group that won passage of an affordable housing trust fund in 2012 and that is now working on strategies to increase housing development. What distinguishes these working groups from the many task forces created as substitutes for action is that they are time-limited and have a specific mandate—and have the mayor’s power backing the result.

San Francisco needs housing, and it also needs quality open space in the central city. The crowds we saw for the World Cup should be business as usual for Civic Center Plaza. The grand vision of busy plazas and greenery stretching from 7th and Market to City Hall is a realizable dream. But first the city needs to stop allowing itself to be held hostage—and it needs its leadership to lead.

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