Let’s reclaim The City’s troubled Civic Center 

click to enlarge Civic Center Plaza could use an improvement, something akin to what has been shown by the success of the Friday Night Market in U.N. Plaza. - CINDY CHEW/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • cindy chew/s.f. examiner file photo
  • Civic Center Plaza could use an improvement, something akin to what has been shown by the success of the Friday Night Market in U.N. Plaza.

The U.N. Plaza Friday Night Market has proved a huge success. Yes, it needs more free activities and some less costly food options. But consider the big picture: how many people ever spent any time in U.N. Plaza after 5 p.m. prior to the Friday Night Market? A U.N. Plaza that people have long tried to avoid has become -- against all odds and expectations -- a destination.

Can the rest of the long-troubled Civic Center also be reclaimed? Or to put it more accurately, why stop with U.N. Plaza when we have an adjacent public space that cries out for more use?

The space from U.N. Plaza's eastern border on Seventh Street to the City Hall steps on Polk Street offers both an opportunity and challenge. The opportunity is to finally match the historic City Beautiful-designed architecture of Civic Center with usable outdoor space befitting this beauty. The challenge is obtaining the resources to make it happen.

Let's start with the parking lot-traffic connector between Eighth and Larkin streets that divides the Main Library from the Asian Art Museum. If a first-year architecture student submitted that design use for a class, they would get an F. Who in their right mind would take a large public space adjacent to a museum and library, a block from where thousands of employees work, and turn it into primarily a parking lot for trucks?

Yet incredibly, this is how San Francisco has long used that space. And surprisingly, I am not even aware of any mayor holding a design competition for alternative uses, or any serious effort to redesign this poorly used public area whose transformation could benefit thousands each day.

I'm no architect, but it's rather obvious that this space could be an exciting greenbelt-lunch area-music space that would help attract people to nearby cultural institutions. It should not be dedicated to parking.

Because this area has no positive purpose for those without cars, it often serves as a homeless encampment. This exists right next to the Main Library and across from a city-backed museum.

I have no explanation for why The City offers activities in Civic Center designed to attract this population to hang out near the library and the Asian Art Museum all day. But if you haven't been by the Main Library or seen the activity around nearby Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, this presence helps explain why more people working nearby are not spending lunch hours in the area.

The FRIDAY Night Market Model

The Friday Night Market proved again that people will come to an area deemed undesirable if there is something desirable going on there. If this can work at U.N. Plaza, it can work at Civic Center Plaza.

It's great that a destination playground will soon be constructed in Civic Center Plaza Park. But we also need after-work activities for adults. The large turnouts for World Cup games on the big screen show that if something positive is offered, people will come.

It's the Field of Dreams approach to urban development. If you create an attractive destination, people will come. And if you do nothing, they won't.

Thanks to the Department of Public Works' Mohammed Nuru and the Market Street Association's Carolyn Diamond, a U.N. Plaza space thought to be hopeless has been reclaimed. Who will step up to do the same for the rest of the Civic Center?

Randy Shaw is director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and editor of the online daily BeyondChron.org.

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