Wednesday, May 13, 2009

First Look at Castro Plaza

I made an extra trip out of my way just to see the newly opened pedestrian plaza at Castro and Market Streets. The first impression when popping out of the Muni station is how much more intimate the corner seems to be now.

What was an expanse of asphalt a week ago is a manageable and inviting corner today. (I'm speaking of the shape and perception of safe pedestrian space. The spiky plants in narrow planters placed so closely together are visually jarring - an effect that should be avoided in future 'experiments')

The next thing you notice after you cross Castro is just how obtrusive the 17th Street crossing was before.

Now that the entire crosswalk pictured above is pedestrian space it seems so much easier to breathe. This improvement to pedestrian navigation is worth the closure in and of itself, IMHO. But the new plaza also offers more leisurely benefits.

This extra space along the sidewalk will be perfect after it's filled with tables and chairs from Orphan Andy's. Further toward the corner are more tables and chairs as well as granite blocks to sit on. When the weather is nice, as it has been recently, these spots will be full of people with coffee and their dogs.

I first heard about this plaza in late March. While the neighborhood has been talking about it for years, and various designs have been proposed over that time, this temporary plaza was not etched in stone until this year. It went from announcement to opening in around 50 days - unheard of in San Francisco.

To be sure, it was realized with inexpensive and impermanent materials. The cardboard Sonotubes as planters are a surprise, and the orange floor paint isn't a familiar sight. But that just serves to demonstrate that it doesn't take a world-class design challenge to make a public square people will enjoy (hopefully). The true value of the plaza is its location and the space it provides.

The city is planning several more such plazas around town. I cannot wait to see what we learn about our urban space and the benefits we can begin to extract from the land we'd given up to cars so long ago.

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