Can Supes Break SF’s Better Market Street Logjam?

by Randy Shaw on June 17, 2013

When I wrote last week that San Francisco’s Mid-Market Street had “turned a corner” —and the last remaining troubled site at the former Hollywood Billiards was reported sold the next day —I did not address the lack of progress in the transit/public space/streetscape proposals for the area. These are incorporated in the remarkably ambitious, $250 million plus Better Market Street Plan to improve biking, walking, and transit on Market. The Plan was originally set to begin in 2013, but has been pushed back to 2017— at the earliest. The Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee holds a hearing on the Plan today, and activists will be testifying about ways to break the logjam and jump start the Plan’s implementation. The hearing’s timing is perfect. With much of Market Street under renovation, the time is now to take several incremental actions. The Board has waited long enough for the Better Market Street process to right itself, and should take greater leadership in both ensuring immediate implementations and in formulating the broader Plan strategy.

San Francisco’s Better Market Streets Plan is either government at its best or its worst.

It is government at its best for its brave ambition to dramatically transform a century-old roadway that has resisted improvement for decades. It is government at its worst for being so overly ambitious that issues like cost and the feasibility of implementation have gotten lost.

But despite apparent gridlock, there is surprising consensus on how to move forward. And given San Francisco has a Mayor who knows how to get things done, a DPW head with a track record of accomplishment, a Land Use committee that understands Market Street and its transit/bicycling/pedestrian safety challenges, and a large number of grassroots activists committed to improving Market Street, the logjam holding up the Plan’s implementation can be broken.

And the process for breaking it can begin today.

Begin Implementation Now

It is widely believed that Better Markets Streets is a victim of its grand vision and that key features of the Plan can and should be implemented now. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has proposed a number of specific ideas to improve bicycling, public transit, and pedestrian safety on Market that require no construction or expensive funding.

These ideas, which range from expanding required right turns for cars to testing a bikeway on Market east of 8th Street involve either no money or limited funds. This strategy incrementally improves Market Street’s overall streetscape now rather than delaying all improvements until the ambitious $250 million plan can be implemented.

Some plans for Market, such as Willie Brown’s proposal back in the late 1990’s for a “car-free” Market Street downtown, will always be controversial. But testing this plan on a single block, such as Market between 4th and 5th Streets, would help all parties understand the impacts of a broader closure and provide guidance for the broader Plan.

Develop Three Scenarios

The Better Markets Street logjam is a product of multiple stakeholders (DPW, Planning, MTA, CTA on the city/county side alone), multiple public approval bodies, a $250 million funding goal without a dedicated funding source, and the very complex engineering challenge of fitting segregated bike lanes, two lanes for Muni, and private cars in a curving thoroughfare poorly designed from the start.

When you consider the Planning Department delays for processes it controls (the rezoning of the Eastern Neighborhoods took eight years), or that MTA controls (the Geary BRT will take at least eighteen years from first being proposed), it should have been foreseeable that combining these agencies with DPW and multiple private stakeholders would produce gridlock on a Better Market Streets Plan.

I like the idea to get out of this gridlock suggested to me by Gabriel Metcalf, the Director of SPUR. Metcalf believes the city needs to “develop three scenarios with different price tags and funding strategies” and then let our elected officials decide among them.

The best part of this strategy is that if forces the city to address an uncomfortable fact that continues to be overlooked: proposals for Better Market Street have been unconnected to funding sources or economic realities. We’ve all been at meetings where ideas for change are tossed out irrespective of funding, and effective activists never let the ability to finance good ideas get out of sight.

But in trying to be bold, ambitious and visionary, San Francisco has allowed Market Street proposals to ignore financial realities. By creating three scenarios that force stakeholders to connect plans to dollars, we may find that the policy debates about what should be done instead focus on what fiscally can be done.

Supervisors Expanded Role

DPW is formally in charge of the Better Market Streets process. But, in light of the many public and private stakeholders and approval bodies, it has understandably taken a “tell us what to do” attitude. When DPW has tried to put its stamp on the plan—as when it promoted shifting bicycles from Market to Mission and buses from Mission to Market—-it unleashed a public firestorm.

DPW is bringing in a highly regarded planner from New York City to head its Better Market Street program, and he starts in late July. But given the overlapping jurisdictional problems, what’s most needed at this point is for the Board of Supervisors to take greater leadership in moving portions of the Plan forward.

Last February Supervisors Avalos and Wiener publicly expressed concern about Better Market Street’s delays. Supervisor Kim has highlighted delays on the pedestrian safety portions of the Plan. Supervisor Chiu has been urging the implementation of pilot projects on Market since 2011.

It’s clear that the Board “gets” what needs to be done. Now its activists job’ to support the Board taking a greater role in ensuring implementation.

The Time is Now

Now is the perfect time to begin incremental implementation of Better Market Streets because so many Mid-Market buildings are under renovation and/or closed. This includes three of the four corners at Seventh and Market alone. On the other hand, if the city does nothing until 2017 it will be experimenting with transit changes on Market just as these building renovations are completed; owners will then have heightened concerns over the potential business impacts of such changes.

Market Street has attracted substantial private investment and made remarkable progress in the past two years. It’s time for the transit/pedestrian/bicycling/public space part of Market Street to join the area’s revival.

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