San Francisco Looks to Ease Disruptions During Major Street Renovations

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Bus rapid transit on Van Ness Avenue is scheduled to begin construction in March.  (Rendering courtesy of SF Public Works, Building Design & Construction)

San Francisco plans to keep up its pace of street renovations in 2016 as long-awaited transit and safety projects begin construction on some of the city's busiest and most dangerous corridors for traffic deaths and injuries.

This spring and summer, work is scheduled to get underway on Van Ness and Masonic avenues, and Polk, Second, Broadway and Irving streets. Construction is already underway on Mansell and Potrero.

Many San Franciscans have become begrudgingly accustomed to the disruptions and detours caused by the city's ongoing construction boom. The message from public works officials to residents and businesses on upcoming street work is that the short-term pain will be worth the long-term gain.

Rachel Gordon, a spokeswoman for San Francisco Public Works, said city officials are about to begin door-to-door outreach to merchants in business districts where construction later this year is likely to cause some pain.

"They’re not going to be happy with us, but we want to make it so they’re not angry with us," said Gordon.

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On some streets, such as Van Ness Avenue, the renovations will take up to two years, but public works and transportation officials hope to minimize the impact by tearing up small segments at a time. Crews will also be replacing century-old water and sewage pipes.

The projects will likely cause disruptions for Muni riders and drivers, along with ongoing construction. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is working on traffic and transit management plans in an effort to lessen delays.

Gordon said city officials plan to work with residents and merchants to address concerns before, during and after construction, similar to the process used during the renovation of Castro Street.

Crews work on the Castro streetscape project in 2014. City officials say lessons learned during this project will inform future efforts to help merchants deal with disruptions during street construction.
Crews work on the Castro streetscape project in 2014. City officials say lessons learned during this project will inform future efforts to help merchants deal with disruptions during street construction. ( torbakhopper/Flickr.)

Daniel Bergerac, president of Castro Merchants, said public works officials were "very responsive and went the extra mile to make concessions and work around the merchants' schedule."

"Most of my business and merchant members feel that the construction was long and arduous, but the payoff is that we have beautiful sidewalks," said Bergerac. "I like that we've reclaimed part of the streets from cars for the pedestrians."

City officials have already heard from many concerned merchants along the corridors, said Joaquin Torres, deputy director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

Torres said the city has a program to offer some assistance, such as loans and grants to merchant or neighborhood organizations for a marketing blitz that lets customers know businesses are open during construction. He said city officials are trying to improve the process with each new street project.

"If we're coordinating in the right way, if we're supporting in the right way and we're responsive in the right way, we can make it go a little faster and make the experience a little bit better," said Torres.

The main issue for many merchants is parking, said Henry Karnilowicz, the president of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations. At least, that's what he said he's hearing from some merchant groups on corridors scheduled for work.

"If people can't shop and can't park, then most of the time they'll give up and they'll go somewhere else," said Karnilowicz, although he acknowledged that many people don't drive to shop.

On Polk Street, a 2013 survey found that a majority of people walk, take Muni or bike to get there.

Madeleine Savit, a safe streets advocate who fought for the Polk Street improvements and heads up the group Folks for Polk, said the city should help merchants develop business plans and potentially provide low-cost loans and other financial support.

"There's no single aspect of this project or other projects that will make or break the vitality of the corridor. It's an accumulation of changes, and the more median and long-term planning we can do, the stronger that will be," Savit said.

One of the most anticipated projects will be along a 2-mile stretch of Van Ness Avenue, where construction is scheduled to start in March on bus rapid transit, which has been in the works for nearly a decade.

When it's complete, new low-floor Muni buses will glide along red transit lanes in the center of the street, next to a landscaped median, free of car traffic. Transportation officials say it will reduce travel times by 32 percent, and boost the number of riders from 16,000 to 22,000 a day.

The makeover is also expected to transform the dangerous corridor into a much friendlier street for pedestrians. Over the years the busy, wide avenue has been the scene of a number of fatal and serious injury collisions involving pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.

2nd Street rendering
Second Street is scheduled to get raised, protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks. (San Francisco Public Works )

Many of the projects are on streets that have been identified as high-injury corridors under the city's Vision Zero program, which has a goal of ending all traffic deaths by 2024. Along with wider sidewalks, enhanced crosswalks and new lights and landscaping on some streets, busy corridors like Masonic, Polk and Second will get some protected bike lanes.

Safe streets advocates say they are excited projects are finally nearing construction after being mired in red tape for years. When crews break ground on Masonic Avenue in July, it will have taken more than a decade to see the hard-won project become a reality.

"Making Masonic safe means fixing a deadly street, and it's long overdue," said Chris Cassidy of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. "We're hopeful that safety improvements slated for Second and Polk Streets don't also fall victim to our city's tradition of bureaucratic delays."

Some of the most recent delays have involved appeals by groups opposed to the removal of trees along Van Ness and Masonic avenues.

Nicole Ferrara, executive director of Walk San Francisco, said the organization will be excited to see these projects come to life.

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"They're really fantastic examples of how we can re-envision our streets as shared public spaces for everyone to enjoy," said Ferrara. "These projects will demonstrate that multiple benefits -- from safety, to walkability, to transit reliability -- don't have to be at odds."