San Francisco Looks to Redefine Civic Center, Create Inclusive Space for All

Civic Center, San Francisco Planning Department, Civic Center Public Realm Plan, UN Plaza, Civic Center Plaza, Fulton Street, Asian Art Museum, Main Library, Farmer's Market, Civic Center Plaza, Golden Gate Avenue, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, War Memorial Opera House, Orpheum Theater

By Michele Chandler

More than 2,000 people have responded to recent calls from San Francisco Planning Department officials for ideas about how to make the city’s Civic Center downtown area more vibrant and inviting.

The Civic Center Public Realm Plan aims to unify plazas and streets in three public open spaces—UN Plaza, Civic Center Plaza and Fulton Street between the Asian Art Museum and the Main Library—into a unified space that offers regular community programs.

“These spaces are accommodating a multitude of activities and people; from [the] Farmer’s Market to citywide marches, from tourists to neighborhood residents,” said Gina Simi, communications manager at the Planning Department. “Our goal is to better accommodate these uses and to create an inclusive, enjoyable and beautiful place for all.”

A freshen-up is sorely needed, according to city officials. The area’s most recent plan for that section of the city is nearly 20 years old, passed in 1998. An interagency team that is led by the Planning Department is striving to coordinate any long-term upgrades for the Civic Center area with other development efforts that are going on elsewhere around the city, she said.

“The Public Realm Plan is part of the City’s larger Civic Center initiative to improve the area as both a neighborhood gathering space and a public commons for all San Franciscans,” said Simi, who added that the plan “is only one portion of the overall effort.”

The centerpiece area slated for improvement surrounds Civic Center Plaza and is roughly bounded by McAllister Street to the north, Larkin Street to the east, Grove Street to the south and Polk Street to the west.

The entire area slated for a refresh stretches beyond Civic Center Plaza, cutting an irregular path that heads north to Golden Gate Avenue, south to Fell Street, east to Market Street and west to Gough Street. Important landmarks along the route include the Asian Art Museum, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the War Memorial Opera House and the Orpheum Theater.

The first public open house to solicit public feedback about the Civic Center Public Realm Plan was held last November. In addition to reaching out for input online, responses were collected in-person through surveys at the city farmer’s markets and during other neighborhood events.

City officials have developed their preliminary design options based on that first round of community feedback. Their plan will be presented during a second Community Open House, which is scheduled for Tuesday, April 24 from 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium’s Polk Hall. An overview of the plan so far will be presented at 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The area is already a hub for groups large and small. Schoolchildren play soccer games at Civic Center Plaza. During the summer, local bands and vendors appeared there during monthly gatherings that featured free live music, food trucks, beer gardens and other family-friendly activities. The mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development spearheaded that effort.

Upgrades for the Civic Center area could include more trees and lighting, according to a draft of the plan. Also under consideration are pedestrian, transit and bike facilities.

An effort to determine how to best use the space came about after both City Hall and the Civic Center celebrated their centennials in 2015. The Planning Department has began drawing up a blueprint, conducting its effort in partnership with other city agencies as well as neighborhood groups.

The design team for the Public Realm Plan is being led by CMG Landscape Architecture. That team also includes Gehl Studio, HR&A, InterEthnica, Kennerly Architecture + Planning and Lotus Water. Structus, M. Lee, JS Nolan, architecture + history and HRA Engineering are also involved.

Other city agencies involved in the effort include the San Francisco Public Works, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Recreation and Parks, Real Estate Division, Public Utilities Commission, Arts Commission and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

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