Concern over plans by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to make major changes to Polk Street has stepped up, with more meetings, petitions, and community organizing taking place to sway opinions in the neighborhood and among city leadership.
SFMTA is planning to remove potentially hundreds of parking spaces along Polk Street and replace them with measures including parklets, better protected bike lanes, and increased sidewalk space. But by pitting the area’s drivers and many businesses against bicyclists and mass transit activists, the SFMTA has created a situation that at present appears to be leaving no one happy.
Dan Kowalski, owner of Flipp on Green and Polk and leader of the Save Polk Street coalition, said the businesses his group represents support bikers and green city policies; but he said they are being made out to be the bad guys because they are worried about possible damage to their businesses from less vehicular traffic on the street, and he said the city’s leadership — including the mayor’s office — is siding with bike activists against small businesses.
But he is not completely pessimistic. “Our small group has met with the SFMTA on three separate occasions, two of them formal workshops, as they would call it, and one was an informal drop-in meeting at the SFMTA to take a look at what they’re proposing,” said Kowalski. “The engineers at the SFMTA that we’ve been working with seem to be pretty great. They’re working like engineers trying to solve the problem. They’re taking our workshop list in mind to come up with a plan that doesn’t remove as much parking on Polk Street, at least north of California Street.” He said he thinks they might still have big plans for removing more south of California.
But that good working relationship doesn’t necessarily apply to the rest of SFMTA. “They’re still trying to show us less [info] and get us to follow their lead,” said Kowalski, “and our response has started to be [that] we’re not going to move forward until we have detailed drawings for Polk Street from Union to McAllister.”
SFMTA scheduled two “open house” Polk Street Corridor Improvement Project Public Meetings at First Congregational Church (1300 Polk Street at Bush) to discuss the pros and cons of its Polk proposals; the first was scheduled to be held Saturday, April 27, from 5–8 p.m.; the second, with an identical agenda and time, was scheduled for Tuesday, April 30.
Kowalski says those meetings will be a good time to see if SFMTA is serious about considering his group’s suggestions or if it will short-change the ideas. Save Polk Street and supporters of the SFMTA’s original plans — which got a raucous reception at a March 18 community meeting, as reported last issue — are urging their members and friends to attend the open houses to make their views heard.
Meanwhile, efforts by proponents of the plan continue to expand. The board of the Community Leadership Alliance unanimously passed a measure in support of the original SFMTA proposal, with two restrictions. First, the nonprofit group said “rent-paying residents” of the Polk Street corridor should have the opportunity to get permitted parking on alley streets between Larkin and Van Ness. Second, Muni’s number 19 bus should have a frequency of 15-minute intervals from 9 a.m.–7 p.m.
David J. Villa-Lobos, the executive director of CLA, made the suggestions in a letter to SFMTA director Ed Rieskin April 17. Villa-Lobos added that the CLA “believes that the aforementioned SFMTA Polk Street/corridor plan/proposal will prove to be a great boon to the community’s safety and local economy, and contributing greatly to the revitalization efforts of the Polk corridor’s community leadership.”
Folks for Polk is gathering signatures on a petition to Mayor Ed Lee and other city leaders to support the SFMTA plans for “widened sidewalks, protected bikeways, calmed traffic, safer intersections, landscaping with seating.” The group’s website also criticizes “a small group of vociferous locals [who] are trying to stop the plan by making false claims that scare people in the neighborhood.”
Madeleine Savit, a private architect and an organizer of the Folks for Polk group, has also been canvassing local businesses, sharing her view that the changes to the street could be a boon to their businesses. She said that most of the businesses opposed to the plan don’t know its details, and they are open to hearing her arguments. Folks for Polk has started a list of businesses that back the plan as a way to urge supporters to visit those businesses. She stressed that it is not a boycott and “was initiated to avoid one.”
For updates on the Polk Street situation, see the SFMTA’s page at www.sfmta.com/cms/opolk/PolkStreetCompleteStreets.htm; Folks for Polk at www.folksforpolk.org, and SavePolkStreet at www.savepolkstreet.com.