Seizing space - Page 4

How Rebar and other artsy renegades reignited a movement to reclaim the urban environment
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The Parkcycle from Parking Day
Photo by Andrea Scher

Farrah had connections to the Burning Man community, so he facilitated the placement of the temple along Octavia Boulevard, then one of the city's newest and least developed public spaces. Next came the placement of another Burning Man sculpture, Flock by Michael Christian, in Civic Center Plaza that fall. Both projects got funding and support from the Black Rock Arts Foundation, a public art outgrowth of Burning Man.

"I saw, after some of the temporary art and special events, how it's changed people's ideas about what's possible," Farrah said. "There has been a change in the way people view the streets."

That got Farrah thinking about what else could be done, so he approached BRAF's then-director Leslie Pritchett and Rebar's Bela, telling them, "I need you to look at San Francisco like a canvas. Tell me the things you want to do, and I'll tell you if it's possible or not. And that's led to a lot of cool stuff."

Livable city advocates like Radulovich — progressives who are generally not allied with Newsom and who have battled with him on issues from limiting parking to the Healthy Saturdays effort to create more carfree space in Golden Gate Park — give the Mayor's Office credit for its greening initiatives.

He credits Greening Director Astrid Haryati and DPW chief Ed Reiskin with facilitating this return to urbanism. "He's really responsive and he gets it," Radulovich said of Reiskin. "This is really where a lot of energy is going in the mayor's office. It seems to have captured their imaginations."

Another catalyst was last year's visit by New York City transportation commissioner and public space visionary Janette Sadik-Khan, who met with Reiskin and Newsom on a trip sponsored by Livable City and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Radulovich said her message, which SF has embraced, is that, "There are low-cost, reversible ways you can reclaim urban space in the near term."

The Mayor's Office, SFBC, and Livable City partnered last year to create Sunday Streets, which involved closing streets to cars for part of the day. The events have proven hugely successful after overcoming initial opposition from merchants who now embrace it.

Then there's the Pavement to Parks program — which involves converting streets into temporary parks for weeks or months at a time — that grew directly from the Sadik-Khan visit. Andres Power, who directs the program for the Planning Department, told us the visit was a catalyst for Pavement to Parks: "She came to the city a year ago and inspired my director, Ed Reiskin."

"We're rethinking what the streets are and what they can be," Power said. "It's rewarding to see this stuff happen and to be at the forefront of a national effort to imagine what our streets could be."

 

DE-PAVE THE CONCRETE

Pavement to Parks launched last year, a multiagency effort with virtually no budget, but the mandate to use existing materials the city has on hand to turn underutilized streets into active parks. "It looks at areas where we can reclaim space that's been given over to cars over the decades," Power told the Guardian.

At the first site, where 17th Street meets Market and Castro, the city and volunteer groups used planters and chairs to convert a one-block stretch of street that was little-used by cars because of the Muni line at the site.

"We bent over backward to make the space look temporary," Power said, noting the concern over community backlash that never really materialized, leading to two time extensions for the project. "But we're now ready to revamp that whole space."

Another Pavement to Parks site at Guerrero and San Jose streets was created by Jane Martin, whom Newsom appointed to the city's Commission on the Environment in part because of the innovative work she has done in creating and facilitating sidewalk gardens since 2003.