San Francisco’s Minna and Natoma Streets to Become an Art Corridor

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Minna and Natoma Streets highlighted in orange to show the location of future streetscape improvements in downtown San Francisco. (Courtesy SFDPW)

It’s not often that major overhauls to San Francisco’s downtown streets also involve the careful selection of artist-designed bike racks. Or colorful asphalt art inlaid into newly paved thoroughfares. But a new streetscape project, a collaboration between city departments, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District plans to turn about 800 feet of Minna and Natoma Streets into an arts corridor, with help from designs by five local artists.

Estimated to be finished by the fall of 2023, the Minna Natoma Art Corridor hopes to transform the narrow streets into a “unique pedestrian destination,” as well as an appealing alternative to busier east-west routes like Mission and Howard.

Models of benches chairs and sculptures.
An image from Jesse Schlesinger's SFAC proposal for Natoma street furniture. (Courtesy SFAC)

The five artists selected by a San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC)-organized committee will design large-scale street murals (to be made with colored thermoplastic) and street furniture (benches, chairs, bollards and bike racks). Oakland painter Muzae Sesay’s proposal for the two stretches of Natoma Street resembles a stack of cozy homes with arched front doors. Sculptor and woodworker Jesse Schlesinger is in charge of Natoma’s street furniture; his designs use natural elements like salvaged old-growth redwood to connect the green space atop the Transbay Transit Center with Yerba Buena Gardens.

On the longer stretch of Minna Street, two artists will take over the asphalt art. Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, known for her supergraphics, has proposed a pattern of red-booted legs angled to cleverly denote the traffic direction and pay homage to one oft-repeated story of how the street got its name (hint: sex workers). The neighborhood’s history and current population (the project is located squarely in SOMA Pilipinas, San Francisco’s Filipino Heritage District) also informs Mel Vera Cruz’s proposals, which feature designs inspired by Filipino baníg mats and hablon (hand-woven fabric in colorful plaids). Masako Miki’s sketches for Minna’s street furniture draw from Filipino myths, creating simplified, three-dimensional forms based on boulders, the sea, sun, moon and stars.

Red legs form a series of arrows pointing to the right.
An image from Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's proposal for Minna Street's asphalt art. (Courtesy SFAC)

Jill Manton, the SFAC’s director of special initiatives and the Public Art Trust, says the fact that Public Works thought to integrate artworks into infrastructure improvements is by itself an achievement. While many downtown construction projects trigger the city’s 2%-for-art requirement, streetscape upgrades are exempt from that rule.

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And yet the Minna Natoma Art Corridor Project has encompassed both functional and aesthetic considerations from its very start, evocative of the city departments involved: the SFAC, Planning Department, Public Works and Municipal Transportation Agency. “I loved that our colleagues [in other departments] are now sort of art advocates,” Manton says. “[They] are now recognizing the benefit and value of having artists’ involvement.”

Image of woven pattern on street.
Part of Mel Vera Cruz's proposal for asphalt art on Minna Street. (Courtesy SFAC)

While the actual fabrication of the asphalt art and street furniture will be carried out by general contractors and other professionals, the artists will be part of every step leading up to final installation, approving mock-ups, materials, colors and placement on the street. Each artist will receive $30,000–$35,000 for their designs.

Further phases of the art corridor may include stand-alone artistic interventions (like murals, window installations or light projections) that could be commissioned on both public and private property, depending on fundraising. Manton is excited for the current streetscape improvements to inspire future projects. “We hope that this created sort of a nexus in these two very long blocks,” she says. “I think there’s great potential there for other activations.”

Previous projects like Sites Unseen have used private funding to install public art in the same vicinity. Hank Willis Thomas’ neon piece Love Over Rules lights up over Annie Alley, Barry McGee’s paintings adorn the Moscone Center Garage, and Leah Rosenberg’s colorful niche seating already lines a section of Natoma Street near the corner of New Montgomery. (Manton says as far as she knows, Rosenberg’s piece will remain in place when this project is complete.)

Images from Masako Miki's proposal for Minna street furniture. (Courtesy SFAC)

But missing from those previous efforts to enliven public space was the added transformative power of—wait for it—infrastructure. The Minna Natoma Art Corridor aims to create a more pedestrian-friendly route through SoMa with widened sidewalks, new pedestrian “bulbouts,” raised crosswalks, and new mid-block traffic signals and crossings on 2nd Street and New Montgomery. Furthermore, the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District has volunteered to maintain the artworks after their installation.

While the Minna Natoma Art Corridor will definitely yield a more attractive—and safer—route between the Transbay Transit Center and the hub of cultural institutions surrounding Yerba Buena Gardens, Manton has even loftier goals for the site and its integrated artworks: “I think hopefully it might become a destination instead of just a pass-through area.”