City’s Humdrum Civic Center May Get a Massive Redesign

Newly proposed ideas for the Civic Center area include a dog park, amphitheater, fountain, and sculpture garden.

Compared with the Beaux Arts plazas in other major metropolises, San Francisco’s Civic Center leaves a lot to be desired. While City Hall’s intricately detailed rotunda and clever light displays are breathtakingly beautiful, the acres around it are fairly disappointing. We don’t have a massive Picasso statue like Chicago, or a robust water fountain like New York’s City Hall Park, or a seasonal maze in the garden outside the government building like Philadelphia. Aside from two cool new playgrounds, San Francisco’s Civic Center is pretty, well, boring.

It’s a vast swath of unused space. But in a city that suffers from a massive housing crisis and, subsequently, thousands of unhoused people, a boring Civic Center is not exactly high on anyone’s priority list to fix. But there are plans in the works, and in the next decade, it’s feasible that our Civic Center could include a dog park, sculpture garden, a garden, fountain, and even an amphitheater.

The Civic Center Public Realm Plan is led by the city’s Planning Department, in collaboration with a slew of other agencies, ranging from the SFMTA to the Arts Commission. Since the plan was launched in early 2017, the physical area has been carefully studied, its history painstakingly researched, and a number of workshops held. On Thursday, a formal presentation will be given to the Planning Commission, disclosing the planners’ proposed ideas for the space.

To fully understand the scale of the plan, one has to understand the boundaries of what’s considered Civic Center. City Hall is obvious of course, but also included are U.N. Plaza and Fulton Mall (the latter being that odd stretch of road connecting the first two, with our famously racist Pioneer Monument in the center). In all, it’s bounded by Gough Street, Golden Gate Avenue, Market Street, and Fell Street.

The renderings of the project have not been finalized, but they do offer a radically different feel for the central hub of San Francisco’s government offices, library, and arts spaces. Central to the whole shebang is an open plaza with a fountain in the center, that as drafted, appears to be a radical improvement over the current granite fountain in UN Plaza, two blocks away. With the city’s most child-dense neighborhood (the Tenderloin) just steps away from Civic Center, having the water feature be interactive would no doubt be a welcome addition to the space.

The other visual change to the plaza would be trees with lush, full canopies. The current soldier-like lineup of English sycamores is only really beautiful for half the year before a team of city-funded arborists cuts them back so they resemble knobby witch hands.

Food and retail “best of S.F.” kiosks are included in the drafts too, for the north and south edges of Civic Center Plaza, something that would create a more permanent version of the occasional food trucks that roll in for lunchtime. A large, open-sided structure titled Brooks Hall — directly across the street from the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium — would contain many of these small businesses, and could connect via escalators to the below-ground garage.

In the Fulton Mall stretch, all sorts of fun ideas are proposed, including a dog park, picnic areas, and a sculpture garden. Honoring Civic Center’s history as a gathering place for protesters, a “free speech” platform is suggested, an outdoor screen for showing movies or sports games, and even a beer garden.

Lastly, UN Plaza could contain an amphitheater, a fitness park, and — slipped subtly into the plans — a “new interactive fountain,” which hints of the potential to remove sculptor Lawrence Halprin’s pile of cement blocks altogether.

Visual upgrades aside, the plan takes into account the infrastructure needed to better improve the area, as well. Nearly all the streets that run through Civic Center Plaza are high-injury corridors, or the 12 percent of city streets where 70 percent of traffic-related injuries occur.

“City Hall and Civic Center Plaza’s streets were designed many years ago to be extra-wide for civic parades and so they would feel more grand,” the plan states. “To make the streets so wide, the blocks were shrunk, making them smaller than surrounding blocks. Is this the best use of valuable excess right-of-way space in our civic heart? What better things could we do with the space we could gain from narrowing Civic Center’s streets?”

It’s a rare problem in S.F. — but a welcome one. To better accommodate more modes of transit, the plan suggests protected bike lanes going both directions along Polk, Grove, and Larkin streets as they pass through Civic Center.

“Angled parking along the plaza edges creates unsafe, wide roadways and intersections. It also makes for an uninviting view as people approach Civic Center Plaza by foot,” the plan reads, recommending trees planted along the edges of the park instead, or a multi-use path be installed.

Designs for the plan are still being developed, and nothing will be final until 2020 at the earliest. Altogether, it’s a bold proposal that doesn’t hold back, and it’s refreshing to see city agencies dream big. No costs have been estimated yet, and to include every feature listed above, the city would have to invest an enormous amount of time, money, and resources. But it’s also hard to put a price on re-creating the heart of San Francisco, turning from a vastly boring expanse of grass into a lively hub for generations to come.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the UN Plaza fountain as consisting of concrete and rebar, when it is in fact Sierra Nevada granite, from the same quarry as the material used to build City Hall.

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