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North Beach Braces for Washington Square Closure

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The phased closure of Dolores Park was an annoyance for dog owners, coconut-and-rum vendors, and those looking for a place to drink outdoors on sunny days. But two years later, it emerged with infinitely better bathrooms, new pathways, and other delightful improvements to accommodate its citywide popularity.

Across town, North Beach is bracing for the closure of Washington Square Park in early 2019 — although it’s far less glamorous and won’t yield a new bathroom or upgraded tennis courts. Instead, it’s getting an irrigation-system upgrade that will save more than two million gallons of water each year, and prevent a swamp-like state after rainfall.

Soon after the last California drought was recorded, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department identified the park and its 65-year-old irrigation system as using more than three million gallons every year — the most per acre for any park in the city.

City officials find that they can prevent unnecessary water guzzling by adding drought-tolerant plants and drainage infrastructure on top of the system change. Washington Square will also emerge with replaced trees, repaved pathways, and better accessibility for people with disabilities.

The downside? Everything but the restroom and playground will be closed for six months.

At first, the $2 million project was expected to close the park for one year, a plan which took neighbors by surprise when it was announced to the community in February. After all, the park is regularly used by elderly tai chi groups, energetic dogs, playground-bound kids, tired tourists, sleepy individuals lacking homes, and boozy young adults.

Saints Peter and Paul Church taken from Washington Square Park. Photo by Brenna Daugherty

“I think at first everyone was pretty shocked,” says Danny Sauter, president of North Beach Neighbors. “There’s a good number who rely on the park for refuge.”

Sauter is in support of the improvements but had concerns about where it would leave unhoused neighbors, who use the park as a place to sleep. North Beach Neighbors also offered suggestions on the lights, rodent issues, replacing hazardous trees with new ones, and finding alternative community spaces for people to hang out.

One of those spaces, Joe DiMaggio Playground, is just two blocks north and comes with a clubhouse, recreational courts, and green space to fill part of the void. But it doesn’t have the same neighborhood draw that boosts surrounding businesses and attracts tourists.

“We believe that Rec and Park generally means well,” the San Francisco North Beach Business Association’s website says. “But they don’t live, work or own business here. We’ve already lost too many small businesses.”

The group appeared blindsided by the closure and lack of community input before the decision was made. The irrigation project is indeed happening, but Rec and Park is still soliciting feedback on ways to soften any blow to the area.

But in the long term, six months isn’t that long. When all is said and done, visitors and frequent park users can rest assured that water wasting will be in the past. Plus, they can lounge in the grass without a wet bottom thanks to the new drainage, keeping it accessible despite the weather.

Rec and Park will hold a community meeting on Wednesday, July 25, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Joe DiMaggio Clubhouse, 651 Lombard St.

It is also conducting a community survey to take input, which can be accessed at sfrecpark.org/project/washington-square-water-conservation-project/.

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Ida Mojadad

Ida Mojadad is a reporter at SF Weekly, often covering politics, housing and transportation. Her words can also be found in the Orange County Register, KQED (NPR), Faribault Daily News, Northfield News and SF Examiner. You can reach her at (415)-359-2728 or by email at imojadad@sfweekly.com.

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