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Fisherman's Wharf needs sidewalks, not asphalt

Posted on in Jefferson Street News
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San Francisco is preparing to see if a street can be made to be both ceremonial and intimate - and in the chaotic realm of Fisherman's Wharf, no less.

Two blocks of Jefferson Street will be recast by June 2013 to favor people on foot, rather than motor vehicles of all sizes, shapes and license plates. It's an adventurous experiment in urban design. It's also a departure from the norm that can't be done half-heartedly, or the result could be a well-intentioned waste of time and money.


The focus of attention is the stretch between Hyde and Jones streets - an encapsulation of what the wharf was and what it has become.

On the north edge are restaurants but also such marine-related businesses such as a fish wholesaler and a seller of lifeboats, with a sidewalk that barely exists in some spots. It's architecturally nondescript but ragged and real.


The south side is a whole different world. One block consists of the shop-lined, historic brick Cannery, the other contains the could-be-anywhere Anchorage shopping center. The sidewalk is an obstacle course of street vendors and past efforts at beautification, including street trees that resemble thick trunks topped by fright wigs.

The idea is to keep the southern sidewalk the same 15-foot width, but remove the trees and parking meters and other public clutter to open things up. The sidewalk on the north, by contrast, would become a promenade: 30 feet wide, with 15 feet reserved for pedestrians and the half that's closest to the buildings available for cafe seating and retail displays.


The roadway would shrink from 37 to 22 feet wide, stripped of parking and redone as a single lane in each direction. Cars and tour buses approaching from the Embarcadero would be required to leave Jefferson at Powell Street, leaving only local traffic to use those two blocks.


In time for the Cup

The time hook is the America's Cup. The waterfront between Pier 39 and Aquatic Park will be a popular viewing area, and streetscape improvements in-between could do wonders for the easy flow of people back and forth. But design efforts to improve the larger district's ambiance have been brewing since 2008 at the city's planning department.


These two blocks are an ideal place to start for a variety of reasons. There are no streetcar lines to work around, as is the case to the east. It also is the most disjointed stretch of Jefferson, the weak link in the well-traversed terrain that is an obligatory stop for many tourists.

It's a test case, in many ways - and that's why it needs to be done right.


The plans earlier this year envisioned the street and sidewalks on the same level, paved entirely in granite. Pedestrians and cars would be separated by design cues rather than standard six-inch-high curbs.


The shared street is no more, in part because of safety concerns related to the Americans With Disabilities Act. And when the project went to the Board of Supervisors last month, concerns about steering another sizable capital investment toward the Embarcadero made city officials decide to trim back the budget from its original $8 million price tag to the $5 million range.


No high style here

This isn't necessarily a bad thing: the wharf's heritage is blue collar, not high style. Well-textured concrete or concrete pavers can set a tone without breaking the bank.


"The setting and crowds and building tenants provide the color we need," points out urban designer Nick Perry of the planning department, which has been working on the design details with landscape architects from the Department of Public Works and the firm ROMA Design Group. The latter has been involved in the area dating back at least to the "Fisherman's Wharf Action Plan" ... of 1981.


The danger is that in the rush to hold down costs and start construction this fall, the changes will be too timid.


If the southern sidewalks were left as is, plugged with fresh concrete as necessary, the scene would look even tawdrier than it does now. The same if today's asphalt remains in the roadway, or if today's freeway-scale lighting isn't replaced by the park-scaled lamp posts now planned. The north sidewalk can't feel like it's a mistake.


The blocks need to send an enticing message - not just to tourists, but to the Bay Area residents who dismiss the wharf as a schlock-saturated grind.

Theme-park excess aside, there's a reason that the wharf stays on the must-visit list. It's a jostle of cultures and characters accentuated by can't-be-anywhere-else views, including the new Bay Bridge tower on the horizon to the east.


If a simple but strong new pedestrian landscape lets visitors discover this on their own, they'll want to come back. So will we. And the city will more than recoup an investment that's long overdue.


John King is The San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic. Twitter: johnkingsfchron. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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