December 10, 2013

Redesigning The Heart Of Chinatown (Portsmouth Square)

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Originally a dirt plaza that served as the civic and commercial hub of the settlement of Yerba Buena and the site of San Francisco's first City Hall, Portsmouth Square along Kearny Street between Washington and Clay has evolved into the unofficial "heart of Chinatown."

Nestled amidst office towers and neighborhood shops, Portsmouth Square provides a much-needed relief from the crush of people on nearby streets – Chinatown is the most densely-populated urban area west of Manhattan, and accessible parks and open spaces are in limited supply. The Square provides a gathering space where residents can build a sense of community through an array of cultural, recreational and social activities – everything from tai chi and Chinese line dance lessons, to informal socializing with neighbors, to active play at the playgrounds, to afternoon card games. In addition to the critical role the square serves for local residents, Portsmouth Square continues to attract visitors from around the region and the world, hosting frequent walking tours, festivals, and other special events.

Last redesigned in the 1980’s, Portsmouth Square and the buffer blocks from Sacramento to Jackson are about to be "reimagined" by San Francisco's Planning and Recreation and Parks Departments with a goal of creating "an enhanced public space and streetscape that is dynamic, multicultural, adaptable to diverse users and events, and reflective of local culture and history."

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A feasibility study for the Portsmouth Square Area Project will be drafted over the first half of 2014 with concept designs to be developed in the second half of the year. A detailed design, review and approvals for the project are slated for delivery in 2015.

First Published: December 10, 2013 7:30 AM

Comments from "Plugged In" Readers

Not clear what they're intending here. The Square itself already seems well utilized. Always struck me as a little heavily built up for an "open space", but it seems to meet the neighborhood's needs (that said, as a nearby office worker in 505 Mont'y, I never felt the urge to visit, nor felt "drawn in" when I walked nearby).

To the extent Parks & Rec is instead talking about the surrounding streets and sidewalks - hard to imagine what the city itself can do to improve those. Kearny's a busy street, and you certainly can't take lanes away from the narrow Clay, Lum and Washington on the other sides of the Square. And to the extent the Square and the surrounding streets feel a little gritty and uninviting, well... that's more the nature of the businesses and the lack of private building maintenance, not the city infrastructure.

Posted by: Sierrajeff at December 10, 2013 11:07 AM

This would be a great opportunity to make Kearny two-way and a complete street...

Posted by: Henry at December 10, 2013 12:04 PM

^^^
Why?! Kearny regularly backs up as it is - and Mont'y one block to the east is already one-way south.

Besides which, one-way streets are immenently more efficient in a dense urban grid (greatly simplified signaling and turning, for instance).

Posted by: Sierrajeff at December 10, 2013 12:51 PM

Agree with SierraJeff. Henry must be visiting from Streetsblog :)

Posted by: MorganDriver at December 10, 2013 1:15 PM

Sounds like some planner is itching to do to Portsmouth what happened to the Powell/Market chess games.

Posted by: EH at December 10, 2013 4:30 PM

The best thing to do would be to focus on the sky bridge from the Hilton. Because it does not have easy access to the street on the hotel end, it is useless to most people, and it extends a good distance into the square, dividing it up and taking up valuable space. Addressing those issues would open up some interesting opportunities. Don't remove it, make it better.

Posted by: Adam at December 10, 2013 4:30 PM

Sierrajeff, stop trying to make Mont'y happen. It's not going to happen.

Posted by: HBF at December 10, 2013 7:01 PM

Yet another case of fixing what ain't broken. Park and Rec should not be allowed to do another "study" of "plan" until they prove they can maintain the parks they have.

Posted by: spruce at December 10, 2013 7:46 PM

Bread and circuses. What this city government spends time "fixing", and what problems it ignores is fascinating. We are now known for our homeless problem, slow public transportation, absurd housing costs, and civic narcissism.

Posted by: FedUp at December 10, 2013 8:04 PM

Portsmouth Square is a great success despite its overbuilt design. The porousness to the west on Walter Lum could be improved, but this is currently one of the most genuine community gathering places of its kind that I've seen in North America. Only Mexican zocalos and a few squares in NYC can compare.

Posted by: James at December 10, 2013 10:31 PM

I agree with Adam, get rid of the bridge as it provides no real, everyday value to the public.

Would definitely be nice to remove the fencing and open up the park along WUL Alley; Should incorporate the alley into the redesign while they're at it. The park, aesthetically, feels uninviting as it was first redesigned in 1962 to accommodate the underground garage. Other than the residents of Chinatown who live nearby, SF residents and tourists wouldn't go out of their way to visit the park. It isn't an established tourist destination like Union Square, which has a less noticeable (besides the entrance) underground garage.

As heavily-traffic Kearny is, there is no reason why a one-way thoroughfare designed to primarily accommodate private autos needs to exist in a mostly residential neighborhood. Bulk of the rush hour drivers heading back to the Marina and Marin County use Kearny to avoid Bush and Van Ness.

Posted by: Jim at December 11, 2013 4:35 AM

HBF - what? Am I missing some joke?

Posted by: Sierrajeff at December 11, 2013 7:59 AM

In my dreams I would like to see Portsmouth Square given more historical respect for being the original heart of San Francisco. There are so many fascinating stories about what has happened around there. I hope that there are imaginative people working on this project, and we don't end up with a recycled, common design. Most of the time, it seems like the collaborative planning process creates real mediocrity.

Posted by: Tomcat at December 12, 2013 1:01 PM

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