The Yerba Buena Street Life Plan is the culmination of a 14 month community design initiative, led by the landscape architect consultants, which will serve as a map for public realm improvements over the next 10 years within the Yerba Buena District in SOMA, San Francisco. The focus of the improvements is the public Right Of Way: streets and sidewalks, which comprise a full 25% of the public land within San Francisco, yet rarely are designed for maximum public benefit. Through surveys, public meetings, community input, charrettes, and a long-term needs assessment, the landscape architect articulated broad community principals from which 36 distinct projects designs were developed.
At the outset of the project in 2010, there was little binding the distinct pockets of the Yerba Buena District together despite geographic proximity within the 12 city blocks and 11 miles of streetscapes. The historically industrial neighborhood is plagued by broad transportation-oriented streets and banal streetscapes that neglect human scale, yet there are many noteworthy assets that have turned the district of warehouses and auto shops into one of the most enterprising neighborhoods including small businesses, major corporations, and site of both the dot-com and current tech booms, complete with numerous hotels, bars, and restaurants. The district boasts the city’s highest concentration of museums and art galleries, and institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Moscone Convention Center, and Metreon and Westfield Malls. Simultaneously, the residential population includes senior, international, affordable housing, luxury residences, and a constant rotation of tourists for Moscone Convention Center’s conferences and the proximate cultural destinations.
THE STREET LIFE PLAN
In an era where funding for public landscapes is diminishing, communities are more than ever required to develop new methods to contribute to the design of their public landscapes. Landscape architects can play an important role in leading citizen groups towards increasing the democratization and amount of public open space, both in the planning and the activation. The Yerba Buena Street Life Plan is a new standard for district-level planning, funded through a community benefit district, and a unique approach to empowering local community organizations to participate in improving their public realm. Projects range from small-scale improvements to district-wide strategies, to major open space projects, all of which can be implemented independently, and were vetted by the community. As a result, the projects reflect the broad values and principles about the public realm that were voiced by the community. The community process and Plan has established a model for community improvement that can be replicated by other professionals, neighborhoods and benefit districts. The project was awarded an ASLA-NCC Award for Research, Analysis, Planning, & Communication in 2012.
PLANNING FOR IMPLEMENTATION
The publication strategy, also led by the landscape architect, included a large exhibition at the SPUR Urban Center. This publicized exhibit, an endorsement by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and local District Supervisors at the unveiling, and in the document itself, and news articles all helped to facilitate the link between the final product and the intended audience, adopters, and future stewards. The Plan’s impact was almost immediate; as soon as it was released, City of San Francisco Agencies were toting copies to meetings, and projects were further legitimized when they were folded directly into the City’s long-term planning efforts and EIR assessment for the Central Corridor project.
Several priority proposals have completed or commenced design. A street-to-plaza proposal has been funded for a two-year temporary conversion to test its viability. Several proposals surrounding the Convention Center at the heart of the district are being implemented as part of the Convention Center expansion. The CBD has hired the landscape architects to design cast iron bike racks and benches that now dot the District, with more customized designs by commissioned artists due in coming years. Other projects include stormwater LID’s for secondary streetscapes in the districts’ vast hardscape, installing solar docking stations, adapting unused spaces as dog runs, and developing the physical landscape with qualities that host and strengthen street life. By structuring the product to assist with implementation of the proposals, several projects have gained a momentum that would otherwise take far longer to achieve.
The Street Life Plan was conducted with the ultimate goal of implementing a multitude of small initiatives with the binding cause of nurturing public, urban life in the remnant open spaces amongst the hard landscapes of this district. The projects are meant to transmit a character for the district and prioritize comfort, delight, and sociality.
A COMMUNITY DESIGN PROCESS
In the first phase of the design process, the consultant team established the groundwork for the design by evaluating existing conditions of the public realm. This involved field study as well as soliciting community input through mapping and discussion at two public meetings and an online survey to assess neighborhood identity, pedestrian experience, safety, social activity, the use of alleys, and physical attributes such as street trees. The team met with city and community stakeholders to understand concurrent district plans and projects. Community meetings also focused on defining characteristics of a good public realm and, based on these values, identified challenges and opportunities in the district.
To begin the second phase, the consultant team held a design charrette to capture ideas in an initial list of potential improvement projects. In an iterative process of research, design studies, outreach, and multiple steering meetings, the team refined and developed conceptual proposals for 36 projects and initiatives. Preliminary designs were presented at a public meeting and displayed on an interactive website where community members were able to discuss and comment on the value of the proposals. Two “mobile public displays” circulated the district.
Through the seven months of outreach, the initiatives gained strong support from the community and Board of Directors. The focus of the final phase was to prioritize and refine the proposals and develop implementation strategies for each. Critical to future implementation, over the course of several meetings, each project was assigned and appropriate role for the YBCBD, implementation steps, and partnerships.
The result was a menu of achievable projects, supported by a great deal of research and implementable information. Projects are responsive and opportunistic to a city context that is always changing, yet if one project becomes obsolete, the Street Life Plan retains its relevance because of the development of clear, foundational values and strategies.