Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Space in the Heart of the City

Rachel Gordon has a piece in today's Chronicle Comical on a plan to do something with Hallidie Plaza, that expansive void in the middle of downtown SF.

I imagine anyone with any amount of urban awareness has had their own ideas of what to do with this space as soon as they first laid eyes on it. It's clear the first time you visit that the plaza is just not working right. Crowds choke the area around the cable car turnaround and pedestrians avoid the relatively broad walkways along the old Bank of America building and along Market Street. BART and Muni riders hurriedly pass through the sunken area in the middle, and the area West of Cyril Magnin is an afterthought if it's thought of at all.

And any amateur urbanist's bright ideas for the plaza would probably be an improvement. The plan discussed in Gordon's article, which is apparently being seriously considered by the city, calls for that Western segment to be decked over and converted to a reservoir. That's a very practical use of the existing volume, and it would improve the plaza, to be sure. One disadvantage is that the plan would cut off access to the Powell Street Station from West of 5th Street. Riders coming from, say, the Warfield theater would need to cross either Market of 5th Street to get underground.

I confess to having my own daydreams of what Hallidie Plaza should look like. I can't say I've ironed out the details yet but in response to Gordon's article I'd like to mention some things I think are important to consider in any overhaul plans, vaguely in order of importance.

  • As much space as possible should be at the sidewalk level, and that space should be arranged so as to be as flexible as possible.
  • Access to the subway station should be easy from the perspective of all riders, but access structures (stairs, escalators and elevators) should not be obtrusive to other users of the plaza.
  • Use should be made of the space that has already been carved out under the street level. Those void canyons may not make an inviting spot to meet a date or sit while reading a magazine, but they are an investment that has already been made. Space is at a premium in this particular corner of the globe and that space could be very useful as commuter-serving retail.
That's my 2¢, if any of you armchair urbanists have your own ideas, I'd love to hear them!


Jamison said...

More context I'd like to mention as you think about your ideas:

The visitor center currently located under the Cyril Magnin overpass will move into the Old Mint at 5th & Mission. The design should establish as much connection between Hallidie Plaza and the Old Mint as possible. There is a direct line of sight so ideally this would have the impression that Mint Plaza is a natural extension, or part, of Hallidie Plaza. For example: a design that relocates the exits from Powell Station could locate them so passengers coming out would exit facing in the direction of the Old Mint to make it obvious.

Market Street will be repaved in 2013 and it's been decided that's going to be used as an opportunity to redesign Market Street and not just put down new asphalt. The forced right turns, dedicated bike lane and new intersection safety zone paint jobs are all data gathering experiments to inform that design. How that all effects Hallidie Plaza is a new design should consider loosing some of that sidewalk space to create better (even dedicated) lanes for bikes on Market and taxi pick up spot on Cyril Magnin.

Pedestrianist said...

I definitely agree that Hallidie Plaza's influence ought to be extended south of Market, making a continuously great pedestrian experience from the cable car turnaround to Mint Plaza and the new museum of SF history (ooh, and how about a more pedestrian-friendly Powell Street connecting the lot to Union Square?).

My point about the space below street level - both the space currently used by the visitor's center and the two sunken plazas - is that in this corner of SF space is at a very high premium. Personally I think that there may be higher uses for those three spaces than a water tank. (But a water tank that helps the city save water is not a horrible idea)

To your point about the Market Street redesign, I actually think carving more space from the pedestrian realm for taxis and bikes is not ideal. I'd rather see the space rearranged better, and spaces now devoted to cars given more of a woonerf treatment (like today's 'temporary' safety zones). This would also improve access to island-boarding transit on Market, including the F-line.

In my mind I'd like to see the whole triangle from building to building to building become a welcoming place for people to come, pause, and enjoy San Francisco. Cars would be allowed to pass through, but ought not to be made to feel as though they belong.

Thanks as always, Jamison, for reading and helping inform the discussion :-)