Milk Plaza redesign gets $500K
by Seth Hemmelgarn
Backed by a $500,000 donation from a gay California man and an upcoming international design competition, plans are being set for a multimillion-dollar redesign of San Francisco's Harvey Milk Plaza.
The dismal public space in the Castro district has been better known for the escalator that transports people from the underground Muni transit lines and for complaints about homeless people than it's been for honoring the slain gay icon.
The Harvey Milk Plaza Accessibility Improvements Project is expected to begin construction in 2020. A redesign for the plaza and Muni station was already expected in order to comply with accessibility mandates.
Local residents and others "asked city leaders if the same construction window could also be used to reimagine the space as a fitting tribute to Milk and LGBT rights," according to a news release from Andrea Aiello, executive director of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District. "The city agreed."
"The accessibility project makes re-creating Harvey Milk Plaza much more of a reality because significant cost savings can be gained by rolling the re-envisioning project into the existing construction project," Aiello stated.
The project is expected to be funded by private donations and grants.
The $500,000 donation from Lawrence Cushman, which gay state Senator Scott Wiener said was made several years ago into a fund at the Horizons Foundation for the plaza's benefit, is being dedicated to help with the project, known as Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza. Cushman didn't respond to interview requests.
Two design charettes are planned for community members to give their input. The first will be from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 18 at Eureka Valley Recreation Center, 100 Collingwood Avenue. The second will be from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 25 at the recreation center.
Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza has chosen the American Institute of Architects-San Francisco to oversee an international design competition. The organization plans to release in February a brief that includes community feedback, city guidelines, and other details.
"We're really excited about the plaza growing into what we could call an outdoor museum," Aiello said. "That's really what I envision, something that is really inspiring, but at the same time informative and educational" that provides insight "about the legacy of Harvey Milk and about LGBT rights and human rights. ... We could really make the plaza into something that is a destination and really honors the space for what it is. It's sacred ground for LGBT rights and inspires people, so I'm not sure really what that's going to look like. That's why we're having a competition."
Milk, who started in the neighborhood as a camera shop owner and in 1977 became the city's first gay elected official, was assassinated along with then-Mayor George Moscone in City Hall in 1978.
Years of problems
The plaza, where Milk famously used his megaphone to rally the community to fight for civil rights, has long vexed neighborhood leaders since it first opened nearly four decades ago.
Its design has been derided as uninviting with poorly laid out spaces little used other than by smokers or homeless people.
Over the years various ideas have been touted to improve the plaza. In 2000 artists wanted to float a pink cloud over it, an idea that never got off the ground.
A decade later the CBD presented plans to install benches to the walkway on the top level of the plaza in order to meet demands from the public for outdoor seating in the city's gayborhood. The colorful benches were ripped out two years later amid complaints they attracted homeless people and transient youth.
Aiello said this week that the architects' announcement would address "the challenges for the space," which continue to include homeless people using it as a place to sleep.
"There are strategies that can be done that discourage or encourage" different uses, and with the upcoming brief, designers will be able to "keep those things in mind" as they make their proposals, she said.
Transit officials were already set to add a second elevator at the Muni station before Aiello announced the charettes this week.
The project, which is expected to cost millions of dollars to complete, may be done in phases, she said.
Phase 1, which might cost $2 million, she said as an example, "will be designed in such a way that it stands alone and doesn't look unfinished." If that's all the money that's been raised by the time the city's Municipal Transportation Agency starts construction, it "will be implemented," Aiello said.
Citing estimates from San Francisco Public Works, she said that if improvements, including raising the ground-level garden to street level and using all the space from Castro Street to Collingwood Street for the garden were made, the cost could be from $8 million to $10 million.
Initial meetings in recent months have taken place with volunteer community leader Gregg Cassin, CBD representatives, Castro Merchants, representatives from Wiener's former supervisor's office, the Horizons Foundation, and the GLBT Historical Society. Aiello has chaired the meetings.
Wiener was the city supervisor for District 8, which includes the Castro, before being elected to the Senate in November.
In a Tuesday, January 10 interview, he said that "a few years ago," he and Aiello convened a working group to start talking about the plaza's future, and the work has continued.
"Harvey Milk Plaza is a broken plaza," Wiener said. "The design does not work in terms of community use. ... It needs to be redesigned. It needs to be improved. This plaza should be a fitting tribute to Harvey Milk and to our entire community, and it needs to be more useable. I'm happy there is some initial money to get the project going, in addition to a strong community desire to see change."
In Aiello's news release, Cassin, a longtime AIDS activist and one of the project's earliest advocates, said, "This is an opportunity of a lifetime to acknowledge Harvey Milk Plaza for the sacred place it is and the role it has played in the history of the LGBT civil rights movement."
Cleve Jones, a gay Castro resident who was a confidante of Milk's, said in the news release that he's "excited to work with Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, and to honor Harvey and the plaza in his name in a way that makes us proud."
Jennifer Jones, executive director of American Institute of Architects-San Francisco, said in a brief call Tuesday, "We're really excited to create a great place for San Franciscans to be able to gather and to create a gateway to the Castro, and a place that recognizes Harvey's contributions to the city and everyone dwelling within it."