San Francisco’s Civic Center Plan to Spearhead Creation of “Social Infrastructure”

San Francisco, Civic Center Plaza, Kennerly Architecture and Planning, CMG Landscape Architecture, CMG, Hunters Point Family Stewards
Image prepared by CMG Landscape Architecture with Kennerly Architecture + Planning

By Meghan Hall

San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza should be the city’s pride and joy — a gathering spot for major demonstrations and events, ones that drive constant activity and life into the neighborhood. However, public outreach and civic engagement initiatives have found the Civic Center Landmark District to be underutilized and far from the community hub the City sought to create more than 100 years ago with the 1912 Beaux Arts Plan. Now, after more than 100 years, the City of San Francisco, in partnership with almost a dozen other public entities and 10 consultants, is nearing the completion of an inter-agency effort to create a concept plan that unifies the public realm to reactivate the plaza.

“Historically, it’s a place of gathering; it’s the space in the city for exercising your first amendment rights,” explained Owen Kennerly, of Kennerly Architecture and Planning, one of the consulting architecture firms on the project. “So that’s important. But people also know that the district is not very well used, and there’s a sense of derelict-ness, in a way. People perceive it as a venue for a lot of urban problems that exist throughout the city.”

The project team for the vision plan also includes CMG Landscape Architecture, the leading consultant, as well as numerous City entities such as the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department and Planning Commission. Its goal is to build upon the original Beaux Arts Plan, drafted around 1912, which laid out the development of the district after the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fires destroyed City Hall and multiple other municipal and private buildings that originally composed the district.

While the development of some portions of the Civic Center, including the completion of the War Memorial Complex in 1936, were completed, the majority of the Beaux Arts Plan was never realized. The Great Depression and World War II drove development to an initial halt, while other bureaucratic factors kept the plan from moving forward in the decades that followed.

“The Civic Center has always been at the edges and at the transition between neighborhoods and other districts,” said Kennerly. “They all split the Civic Center. Rather than being at the center of anything, it is this aggregation of edges from adjacent neighborhoods, so until recently it was hard to get anything done.”

Additionally, Kennerly noted, it can be very difficult to keep the momentum up after decades of planning.

“A project this complex and large, it takes a long time. So, it’s hard to build advocacy for it over the long-haul,” stated Kennerly. “It is something that has to be woven into the consciousness of everyone working on it. What our job has been is to try to get people to realize the potential. To get all of the different stakeholders and constituents excited about it would be an incredible thing.

The 17 acres included in the new Civic Center Realm Plan sits just north of Market Street between Franklin Street and 7th Street. It is surrounded by several neighborhoods, including South of Market, Western Addition, the Tenderloin and the Financial District. Most of the city’s major government and cultural institutions call the district home, from City Hall and the San Francisco Public Library to the Opera House, United Nations Plaza and the Asian Art Museum. The goal of the plan is to create a unified public realm by accomplishing three design goals: creating a landmark district, a flexible, accessible gathering spot as well as a plaza that invites everyday use.

“Our ambition was to acknowledge and honor the Beaux Arts Plan, which is founded on symmetry, axial relationships and grandeur,” said Willett Moss, partner at CMG. “The design and planning challenge is that you have to have a lot of open space for people to congregate, but those people are not there daily. We had to find ways to invite daily life and complement the open space with smaller, intimate spaces and programs that would attract people on a regular basis.”

The plan will work to connect, Civic Center Plaza, United Nations Plaza and the block of Fulton Street that connects the two. At the Civic Center, garden rooms framing new terraced lawns and playgrounds will create a frame for large gathering space centered outside of City Hall. The nearby Gardens of Delight and the Gardens of memory feature long-running playful benches to help create separation between new plantings and pedestrian spaces.

Additional pavilions, some containing café’s and retail, another containing an information booth and office for Hunters Point Family Stewards, will help to activate and bring energy to the plazas. Leavenworth Street, nearby, will be transformed from an alley into a neighborhood park with a dog park, fitness amenities community message board and game tables. U.N. Plaza’s existing fountain will be revamped and a promenade will be created in commemoration of the UN charter and the history of the Civic Center and surrounding neighborhoods.

“there are so many architectural aspects to the plan that involve existing built structures and spaces that have to be worked into the plan,” said Kennerly. “We’re not just repairing portions of the site that are not very well used; we are actually taking the opportunity to improve and activate and bring energy to the plaza.

Current iterations of the Civic Center Public Realm Plan are under environmental review, which is expected to wrap up in the summer of 2021. Plan Adoption hearings will occur in the Fall of 2021. In the meantime, however, there are numerous other related efforts working to revitalize the Civic Center District, including the Civic Center Common Initiative, spearheaded by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, the Better Market Street Program, the Central Market and Tenderloin Strategy and Muni Forward. The programs intend to enhance the public life and safety of the district, and, once the Civic Center Public Realm Plan is passed, to create what Moss has deemed as much-needed social infrastructure.

“Social infrastructure is one of the most important things in city building to date,” said Moss. “The fact that we produced a plan that is so ambitious is significant, and if the city could fulfill that vision, that would be incredible. We want Civic Center to be something that we’re proud of, that evokes a sense of pride and a sense of stable, institutional identity for the city at large.”

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