Neighborhood Open Space: Why Nice Community Ideas Don't Always Work Out in Real Life

SOMA’s Tutubi Plaza and Annie Alley pavement-to-plaza-and-back-to-pavement sagas show how the best of intentions and wonderful ideas are just not enough. Successful, clean and safe public spaces also need full-time responsible managers to succeed. And so do public parks.

Tutubi Plaza (Tagalog for “Dragonfly”)

Tutubi Plaza

In coming weeks Tutubi Plaza’s lovely “streetprint” art and tiles embedded in the pavement of Russ Street alley between Minna and Natoma Streets – will be torn up and replaced with plain asphalt. Tutubi Plaza was a community-generated project built in 2011 through the South of Market Redevelopment Project. It also included an adjacent mural and fencing cut-out sculptures that will remain, but an adjacent wall sculpture was already taken down several years ago.

The community vision was to close this short part of Russ Street alley to auto traffic and add a new public amenity space for the immediate neighborhood’s residents, especially the kids, next to the small fenced private playground belonging to the affordable family housing development on Minna Street alley that was built several years earlier as part of the Redevelopment Project. It was hoped grants would be found to hire a youth worker for both the playground and Plaza to organize programs after school and during the summertime. And that perhaps other groups would organize block parties and other events in the Plaza.

But those hopes never materialized. No one had the funding, and no organization ever took on the project. In the last few years the Department of Public Works evaluated sponsoring food trucks with entertainment at the Plaza, but the number of potential customers for this isolated location was far too few.

Instead, over time the Plaza became a hangout for local street folks, and an occasional spill-over location for drug dealers – it was just a half-block away from Sixth Street. Trash and dumping became routine, along with frequent piss/poop. Residents of the block felt much less safe, and kids used the adjacent fenced playground even less than before. In response, DPW scaled up efforts to keep it clean, and the Central Market Community Benefit District added daily service even though it was outside their boundary (TODCO provided $7500 toward funding this). But after several years of controversy between Tutubi Plaza’s original proponents and the residents, DPW finally decided to open the street back up to cars early this year.

Unfortunately the in-pavement artworks were not designed for cars to roll over them. So they will now have to be torn up.

Annie Alley

Annie Street Plaza

Just four blocks east, in the dramatically different Yerba Buena Neighborhood, the Annie Street Plaza was demolished and Annie Alley re-opened to auto traffic last September. It was also a community-generated project built in 2014 by the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District. It closed Annie Alley between Mission and Jessie Streets and the CDB installed attractive arbors and benches. The YBCBD did take responsibility to clean Annie Plaza everyday – which was certainly necessary – and sponsored frequent events and entertainment there to “activate” the space. A food truck often parked on Mission Street at lunchtime, and the space was popular with local workers and a few residents during the day in good weather. The CBD spent almost $400,000 total on building the Plaza and its two-year operation.

But it was also popular with local street folks at all hours, which concerned many residents of the block who eventually came to oppose the project. None of the adjacent business took responsibility to monitor the Plaza. And closing the alley worsened the evening rush hour traffic jam caused by cars exiting the adjacent Hearst Garage. This became acute when additional traffic from the Four Seasons garage across the street was forced last Fall to also detour via Jessie Street due to construction of the Museum Tower project, causing further opposition.

The Plaza’s City permit was for a temporary two-year test period, and ultimately the Department of Public Works determined last Fall not to extend it for these reasons.

Lessons Learned

Both Tutubi Plaza and Annie Street Plaza sounded great to their local communities at first, generating real enthusiasm for their installation. Because – unlike TODCO – local folks are not professional property managers with years of experience handling trouble as well as the “fun stuff.” They just don’t realize that unless there is an immediately adjacent responsible party – property owner, landlord, or business – to monitor and manage any Central City public open space, and keep it clean and safe, it will devolve at least to some degree into a local nuisance spot. The Annie Plaza sponsors also failed to anticipate the traffic problem that would result, even though they relied on a professional landscape firm, CMG Associates, for guidance throughout the whole process. Which shows that even high-priced consultants cannot be trusted to really know what they are doing for tricky projects like this.

Because Public Spaces also need property management “street smarts” to succeed. Which design-oriented CMG evidently did not possess.

Good Successful Examples – “POPOS”

Just three blocks away next to Lapu Lapu Alley off Harrison Street, TODCO has operated its popular Alice Street Community Gardens (with about 300 gardening beds for local residents) as a local public park since 1985 – 30+ years – without any serious problems. This is because the 24/7/365 staff of TODCO’s adjacent Mendelsohn House senior housing maintain and monitor it, including multiple security cameras. And the Gardens are locked up everyday at dusk, overnight until 7:30 AM (opening then for the many early-morning gardeners). Technically, our Gardens are a “privately-owned public open space” – a POPOS. This enables management to post and enforce reasonable rules for all users (no sleeping, no dumping, no drinking/smoking, no dogs, etc). The former Redevelopment Agency granted ownership of this 18,000 property to us in 2011, with the specific requirement that it remain in this use in perpetuity.

Not far away up Rincon Hill near Harrison Street is a more typical POPOS, the recently renovated large plaza open space for the very large 305 Second Street office complex. It is now a very popular weekday amenity for many local workers, bordered by several chain food shops and restaurants. Kilroy Reality Co., the office building owner, rigorously keeps the space clean and secure all the time.

5M Project

Hopefully, the future small community park that will be built between Minna and Natoma alleys (just one block away from Tutubi Plaza) as part of the giant 5M Project at Fifth and Mission Streets will also prove to be the clean and safe neighborhood open space that the residents of nearby Sixth’s Streets many residential hotels have needed for decades. It too will be a POPOS, maintained and managed by the 5M project property managers. Maintaining security without duress in this location while making SRO tenants fell welcome will be a challenge. The 5M developer, Forest City Development Co., has pledged to work with the local community for its plaza’s design and management planning.

Looking Ahead: The Central SOMA Plan

Adding several more attractive and active local open spaces has been a top goal of the Department of City Planning’s much-delayed Central SOMA Plan from the start in 2012.

TODCO’s own Central SOMA Community Plan, developed in parallel to DCP’s over the same period, immediately identified multiple future POPOS that could be developed as part of the several very large office developments the DCP Plan calls for. Our Plan outlines how this would be the most successful approach to achieving that goal, for all the reasons outlined above. Initially DCP recommended a new City Park Department open space instead, but now has accepted the POPOS approach too.

We’ll detail these new community-building open space opportunities and their critical requirements soon in a future post.