Castro plaza benches
by Matthew S. Bajko
A plan to install benches along a wall at Harvey Milk Plaza above the Castro Muni station is facing strong opposition from the area's merchants. The project is being pushed by the Castro's Community Benefits District to meet demands from the public that there be more outdoor seating located in the city's gayborhood.
The public has never embraced the plaza that bears the name of the late openly gay supervisor who was assassinated in 1978. Ideas of how to redesign the tiered entranceway to the underground public transit station have included everything from raising it to street level to installing a machine that would create a pink cloud over the area.
A public design process paid for by the CBD two years ago found wide consensus for ripping out the planters that line Market Street and using them as areas where people can wait for buses that disembark and pick up passengers at that corner. The plan also called for replacing the easternmost planter closest to Castro Street with stairs allowing for easier movement into the plaza area.
Due to the cost of implementing both ideas, the CBD opted not to pursue them at this time. It landed upon the cheaper solution of using benches and new planting to enliven the plaza area.
According to the CBD's architectural drawings for the site, the flat benches varying in width would be installed to the concrete alcoves on the sunken walkway that snakes along Market Street. The galvanized steel seating would be painted an eggplant purple. Succulents and other drought tolerant flora would be added to planters behind the wall.
The CBD has $58,000 in challenge grant funds for the project that must be used before the end of the fiscal year as well as $35,000 for the custom benches.
The CBD board plans to meet tonight (Thursday, March 11) to vote on the project. If approved, the planting would begin in late March and the benches would be installed before gay Pride in late June.
'Homeless, homeless, homeless'
But at their monthly meeting Thursday, March 4, the majority of Merchants of Upper Market and Castro business association members voted against the project, citing concerns that the seating would not be used by visitors and shoppers but by the homeless as a place to sleep.
"I see homeless, homeless, homeless. How are you going to manage it so people are not sleeping on this?" asked Tina Roberts, a MUMC board member who owns Urban Bread on 18th Street.
Petyr Kayne, another MUMC board member who owns the clothing stores Body and Citizen, also questioned why CBD officials were adding seating to the area. The city years ago removed benches from the site because of complaints about homeless people congregating there.
"Why are you putting benches there? We have been dealing for years with the fact no one goes there but the homeless," Kayne said.
Initially the CBD had wanted dividers to break up the benches in order to prevent people from sleeping on them. But the city art commission's civic design review committee rejected the design in favor of the wide-open benches.
"We went three times before the arts commission. They didn't like the bench we proposed at first," said J. Dominic Campodonico, president of the CBD board. "The art commissioners would never say why" they wouldn't allow the separated seating, he added.
According to the public minutes of the committee's September meeting, Commissioner Leo Chow "suggested using a more unique bench or sculptural piece in the plaza to add desirability to the site."
After consulting with several local artists and receiving three alternate bench proposals, CBD leaders met once again with the design review committee last November. The public minutes show they rejected the new designs and presented their original proposal "as most appropriate for the site."
It met with a rebuke from Commissioner Topher Delaney who said "the selected bench is also not appropriate," according to the meeting minutes.
At the request of the Bay Area Reporter the arts commission's director of programs, Jill Manton, reviewed staff notes from the meetings. Manton said there is nothing about committee members being opposed to armrests, rather she said their objections had more to do with the "lackluster" design of the benches for such a prominent spot in the city.
"The commissioners didn't say get rid of the armrests, they just said they wanted a better design," said Manton. "They wanted something special for a place that is so frequently visited."
The committee gave its approval to the divider-less bench design in February, and the full arts commission voted to approve the project at its meeting March 1.
"The architects were considerably pleased with the alterations that the designers made. They felt the new design of the benches better integrated them into the flow of the streetscape," said Luis R. Cancel, the city's director of cultural affairs.
Ken Stram, who oversees the LGBT Community Center's economic development program, doubted the benches would result in a homeless encampment. He pointed to the success of the 17th Street Pedestrian Plaza across the street from Harvey Milk Plaza, which merchants at first also opposed for fear of seeing the homeless overrun the outdoor seating area.
The trial run proved to be a success, and the city now plans to make the plaza permanent with a new design. Backers of the upgrades to Harvey Milk Plaza argue the same will be true of their project.
"There is a really good chance we can keep this space activated so there isn't going to be a big problem," said Stram at the MUMC meeting.
Yet merchants remain convinced the plan is a bad idea. MUMC board member Patrick Batt, who owns Auto Erotica, questioned if the arts commission "is now running the CBD" and if the business improvement district was just "willy nilly going to put in benches" it did not want in the first place.
Campodonico urged people opposed to the plan to speak at the CBD's board meeting tonight at 6 p.m. at the Chase Bank Community Room at 2112 15th Street at Market Street.