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Better Market Street

Transportation Nation

Back Story: How San Francisco's Market Place Came to Be

Thursday, September 13, 2012

This is part 2 of 3 on re-thinking SF's Market Street. Check out part1 and part 3 as well.

(Audrey Dilling -- San Francisco, KALW) Market Street begins, or ends – depending on how you see it – down by the bay.

At 4:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon, streams of people pass through this public space. Many of them carry briefcases and look like they’re in a hurry. Nick Gaffney, who’s on his way to the ferries, says his commute to the Financial District puts him on Market Street more often than he would like.

“I don’t understand why people drive down it quite frankly, because all you can do is take a right,” says Gaffney.

Of course, people do drive on Market Street. They also walk, ride their bikes and take the bus or streetcar. One third of all Muni lines operate on or under Market Street and about a quarter-million people board these lines each day. That’s according to Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with San Francisco-based transportation planning firm Nelson/Nygaard.

“Market Street is unique in many ways -- unique in the world and how important it is in the functional aspect of the transportation network,” says Tumlin.

Tumlin looked into the history on behalf of the Better Market Street project, a joint effort of some city planning agencies. One of the things he found was that efforts to improve Market Street are nothing new.

“About every 10 years or so there has been an effort to do a major redo of the street. And about every 50 years, someone has succeeded in a major effort,” says Tumlin.

One of Better Market’s goals is to turn a street that people use to get places into a street that people want to get to. Tumlin says it’s not there yet. “Throughout history, Market Street has had challenges in its role as a place.”

Back in 1847, around the time Market Street was first imagined, San Francisco looked a little different.

“Pretty much the entire downtown was blowing sand and some scrub,” explains Tumlin. “If you go up to Point Reyes Station, up in Marin, that’s about what San Francisco looked like in 1847.”

San Francisco hadn’t even been called San Francisco for very long. The port town was known as Yerba Buena up until 1846, when American Captain John Montgomery showed up and seized it from Mexico.

Also in 1847, everywhere from the Embarcadero to Montgomery Street didn’t exist yet. It was all water.

“And so the beach, the bay, came all the way into Montgomery and Market and made what was sort of a gentle curve,” Tumlin continues.

There were two major settlements camped out beside the Bay. The total population of the remote and developing town was about 500 people.

“And even then, the arriving Americans had such ambitions for this scruffy little settlement that they knew they needed a plan,” says Tumlin. “And so the job of laying out the plan for San Francisco was given to a hard-drinking Irishman named Jasper O'Farrell who was 26 years old at the time.”

O’Farrell had a vision. The street would run directly between the two camps. He picked the most prominent landmark west of the settlements, Twin Peaks, and imagined the street pointing directly toward it. Tumlin explains what happened next:

“And in a town of 500 people with no source of fresh water, no overland connections to anywhere else in the world, six months to any point of civilization, [O’Farrell] decides to make the street 120 feet wide. And he names Market Street after Market Street in Philadelphia. And Market Street in Philadelphia is only 100 feet wide, but because San Francisco is going to be even more amazing than Philly, Jasper O'Farrell says, ‘No. We're going to make this one of the grandest boulevards in the world.’”

And so it is – at least size-wise. And over the years all the city’s public transportation came together on this one boulevard.

A little more history: The 1906 earthquake and fire tore down most of the buildings on Market Street, but the street had mostly recovered by the 1920’s.

“Between the 1920s and World War II, big chunks of Market Street were kind of a small-scale equivalent of Broadway in New York,” says Tumlin. “All of the theaters were there. It was the place that people went out to at night. It was the place for large-scale entertainment and very much the place to see and be seen.”

Most of those theaters were located here, in the Mid-Market district.

Today, this part of town is not so much a place to see or be seen -- or so says local resident Joe Robinson.

“I think it's crazy. I think it's wild. I think everything goes on Market Street. I mean if you really had a magnifying glass to see what was really going on, you'd be amazed,” says Robinson.

Tumlin actually traces the trouble to the creation of San Francisco’s subway system in 1967. “The final decision to do the Muni Metro subway and to do the BART subway created dramatic change in the street," he says. "One impact was very negative, which was that for four years, Market Street was a big hole in the ground.”

And that, Tumlin, says wasn’t good for business. But then, he adds, Market’s never been quite the draw Jasper O’Farrell thought it would be. “Throughout history, Market Street has had challenges in its role as a place. And part of that has had to do with thinking about the accommodation of the automobile in the third quarter of the 20th century, but I think more fundamental to that is its width.”

It’s just one theory, but Tumlin says city planners have learned over time that people prefer smaller, more intimate streets over grand boulevards.

“And so streets that work as a single space are generally not wider than 80 feet. And, in fact, 30 feet is a heck of a lot better. So that’s one of the challenges we face. Like how do we create a street that people do want to linger on?” Tumlin asks.

That’s a question the city’s been trying to answer for about 50 years. Which makes now just about the right time for a solution.

This story originally aired on October 10, 2011.

This is part 2 of 3 of KALW's series on re-thinking SF's Market Street. Check out part1 and part 3 as well.

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Transportation Nation

Rethinking San Francisco's Main Drag

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Market Street (photo by Benjamin Dumas via flickr)

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on re-thinking Market Street. Check out part 2 and part 3.

Around 250,000 people use Market Street every day— and in every way. They take the bus, ride BART, walk to work, shop... even live.

In 2016, the entire road, between Octavia and the Embarcadero, will be torn up and repaved. So city planners figure it’s the perfect time to reshape and re-imagine San Francisco’s main drag.

San Francisco’s transportation director Ed Reiskin says it’s a good opportunity for the city to do more than pour concrete.

“If we're going to go through the expense and disruption to repair the surface and infrastructure of Market Street, let's not just put it back the way it was, let's really fix it,” Reiskin says.

The Department of Public Works is in charge of the project. They’re working with a variety of city and county agencies to draw up a set of plans that balance the practical needs of the street with the vision of a wide variety of stakeholders.

The public is a part of the process, too -- the most recent public meeting was standing room only.

On the table is everything from a total ban on private cars to dedicated bike lanes; from fewer MUNI stops to more sidewalk cafes and parklets. The city anticipates the redesign to cost around $250 million. Funding for repaving is already in place.

I went out to Market to ask some of the people behind these ideas about their vision for the street.

At the corner of 3rd and Market, map-wielding tourists shiver in shorts and tank tops. A man sits on the sidewalk with his dog. The sign in his lap says ‘Anything helps.’ Throngs of office workers walk right by him, eyes fixed intently on the screens of their smartphones. Bikes squeeze in between buses and the curb, dodging taxis and delivery trucks.

Up ahead I see Mohammed Nuru. He’s the director of Public Works in San Francisco. He’s agreed to meet me here to talk about the street. “It's a pretty busy intersection, as you can see,” says Nuru. “It's busy all the time from about 7 o'clock in the morning until almost 10 o'clock at night.”

Standing next to him is Kris Opbroek. She manages the Better Market Street project.

“I think Market Street is the city's Main Street in a sense. I think it always has been, actually,” she says. “I think its identity is our parade ground, and our real civic space is still here. I think where it falls short a bit is in the day to day use.”

Nuru and Opbroek spend their days watching this street. They’re overseeing Market’s redevelopment. And they’re trying to pin down what is, and isn’t, working here.

Traffic is a big issue. Right now private cars, taxis, delivery trucks, paratransit, and bikes all share the road with streetcars and buses.

Leah Shahum is the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Her office is at 5th and Market. She says another thing on people’s minds is how to make Market safer and more inviting for bicyclists. Bike riding is on the rise, and Market is most used bike corridor in the city.

“I talk to a lot of people who are confident riders. They're people who bike elsewhere in the city,” Shahum says. “They’re adults who really are comfortable bicycling, but they say, ‘Wow, I don't want to bike on Market Street because I'm really scared about it.’”

Right now, most of the bike lanes on Market are painted lines on narrow pieces of pavement shared with buses and trucks and cars. Only about six blocks of the street have a physically separated bike lane.

“What we hear from people is: ‘Wow, for those six blocks, I feel calm, I feel safe, I feel comfortable. This works,’” Shahum says.

She wants that kind of comfort to extend the along the entire length of Market Street.

But the road isn’t just for wheels.

Elizabeth Stampe is the executive director for Walk San Francisco. She says that, ultimately, everyone is a pedestrian. Her office is a block from Shahum’s, at 6th and Market.

“This is the place where the most pedestrians have been hit by cars in the whole city,” she says, as we stand at the busy intersection. “And you can see it's a long crossing for folks with wheelchairs and canes, of whom there are many right here. You don't really get enough time.”

Stampe says that expanding the sidewalks at corners like this would help shorten the time it takes for pedestrians to get across the street and slow down the cars fighting to get through the intersections.

Making it safer to cross the street or ride a bike might seem obvious. But there’s always a trade-off. Solving one problem creates another problem somewhere else, or else pushes it a block farther down the road.

“Market Street is a special street,” says Stampe. “It's the spine of the city. And it's a gathering spot. It’s also a little bit magnetic. Both in the sense that it attracts people, but some parts of it still repel people.”

She says the corner where she works is a good example of Market’s confused identity. “It’s about a block from the mall, but it could be a world away.”

She compares the blocks along Market to islands in a stream. In this case, one island is the upscale shopping and tourist district around Powell Street. The next is lined with abandoned storefronts. Many people are either homeless and living on the street, or live in tiny rooms in nearby SRO hotels.

San Francisco’s transportation director, Ed Reiskin, works a few blocks away at Market and Van Ness. We walked through the Civic Center and talked about the street.

“For a lot of people, this is their living room and it should continue to serve that function,” he says. “If you or I had that space, we would also want to spend more time outside than inside.”

The city estimates that about 6,000 people are without shelter on any given night in San Francisco––many on Market Street.

“There may be some undesirable activity, some criminal activity, or unsafe situations that the city wants to address regardless of what happens design-wise on Market Street,” says Reiskin. “But I don't think we want to lose the character of Market Street or push anyone off of it. We want to make it a nice place for more people to be in.”

During the day the street has different feelings. Some new businesses have moved in, joining art spaces like the Luggage Store. But compared to the bustle just a few blocks away, the street here feels empty.

At Market and Van Ness, traffic hits the city from both major bridges. It’s a gateway to San Francisco – but instead of a grand monument marking the spot, there’s a car wash and a donut shop.

“It's not just infrastructure,” says Reiskin. “It's not just design. It's economic development. It's economic vitality. So I think there's more to it than just how we lay out the streets and how we paint the lines.”

That economic vitality is an important ingredient in a complex process. Money for repaving the street is in place. But coming up with the $250 million this project is expected to cost still has to be worked out. Back at 3rd and Market, Mohammed Nuru says some of that money could come from businesses that stand to benefit from the street’s upgrade.

The intersection of 3rd and Market (image via Google Street View)

“We’re bringing the right partners onto Market Street, bringing the Twitters in, bringing the new businesses in, bringing the restaurants in, all that adds to the vitality of a street,” Nuru says. “And they contribute and they partner with us, so together we’ll try to figure out what the bill will look like.”

Ultimately, though, the project isn’t just about the street’s physical condition––it’s about its character. And that’s a big part of what city officials are considering as they re-imagine Market. What does the street mean, and what should it be?

Nuru says it’s a great opportunity to think big. “I think what this process has done is woken everybody up and made them say, ‘Wow if I had an idea, this is the time to get it in because it could happen.’”

Another public meeting is planned for the fall. Get there early—it’s likely to be standing room only.

For more information on the Better Market Street project, click here.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on re-thinking Market Street. Check out part 2 and part 3.

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