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Taking Back the Plaza 

Neighbors of BART's seedy 16th and Mission station hope a new look will give it new life

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
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Luis Pardo has lived in the Mission District long enough to know that talk of cleaning up the infamous 16th Street BART plazas, long synonymous with transients, drug dealers, and prostitutes, is usually just that.

Over time, Pardo and his neighbors have watched BART bureaucrats respond to the plazas' problems with one bad decision after another. Gradually, the pleasant-looking, if crime-prone, green spots -- the neighborhood's only open space -- were transformed into barren, almost militarized zones with an incompetence that was stunning in its knee-jerk efficiency. For example:

  • putting spiked fences around tree planter boxes to prevent homeless people from sleeping in them;
  • filling the planters with concrete to stop drugs from being stored in them;
  • and -- after a drunk impaled himself on a spiked fence after falling out of a tree a few years ago -- cutting down the trees and leaving the spikes untouched.
By the time officials got done, Pardo recalls, "all that was left was the concrete." And, of course, the drug sellers, panhandlers, and prostitutes.

Now a coalition of neighborhood groups, nonprofits, and city and BART officials has come up with a new plan to deal with the station's problems -- a total redesign of the southwest plaza, backed by federal, city, and BART funding. This time, however, Mission residents, including Pardo, are convinced the plan just might work -- even though it is purely cosmetic and does little to address two persistent issues: the quality of policing and the mismanagement of nearby single-room-occupancy hotels, which many believe draw an undesirable crowd to the plazas.

The plaza's primary problems, everyone agrees, are that 1) it's ugly, 2) it feels unsafe, and 3) it is unsafe. The forces behind the renovation are betting $2 million that eliminating the first two problems will go a long way toward solving the third.

And besides, as neighbor and project proponent Ethel Newlin pointed out, "an improvement in a pile of shit still improves the nature of the pile of shit."

Specifically, the plan -- given a green light by the BART board of directors in April -- is intended to warm up the plaza by doing away with the spiked fences, reducing the size of the enormous round entrance that reminds many people of a toilet, reintroducing seating, upgrading lighting, planting new trees, incorporating public art, and providing space for vendors and a stage.

Those who devised the plan say they want to make the plaza a less convenient place for criminal activity by improving visibility and introducing legitimate uses other than transportation. In the short term, at least, that might only mean drug dealers walking across the street to the northeast plaza, which -- although less used than its neighbor -- is in no better shape. BART is planning to apply in December for similar funding to renovate the second plaza, which, if all goes well, could be finished shortly after the first one in early 2002.

The redesign will not, however, increase policing or security to help protect the multimillion-dollar investment, although many Mission police officers -- who have a secondary jurisdiction over the plazas -- did attend planning meetings. BART's police department has the primary responsibility for the plazas. Currently, a team of two officers rotates among 16th Street and two nearby stations, which means, residents say, that officers come above ground at 16th Street about once an hour. BART chief H.E. Taylor explains that because the department is primarily concerned with "crimes against people," the types of illegal behavior most associated with the plazas are less of a priority.

The plan also does not address the SRO hotels that occupy most of the west side of Mission Street between 16th and 17th streets. Residents have long complained that mismanagement and the questionable business practices of many SROs -- such as deliberately evicting renters before they acquire tenants' rights and renting rooms by the hour -- have contributed to the area's high rates of homelessness and prostitution. Advocates of the plaza renovation agree the SROs cast a shadow over the project and express hope that the City Attorney's Office will crack down on those buildings much the same way it sued two Tenderloin SROs in April.

"It's unreasonable to expect a design to completely change the way a space functions in the city," says the Mission Housing Development Corp.'s Doug Shoemaker, whom many credit as the point man behind the project's planning. "But we're going about this as holistically as possible."

Concerted planning of BART stations, it turns out, is a relatively new concept at the transit agency.

"When I first came to BART, I asked about station area planning, and I was told that there were people here who did that," BART Director Tom Radulovich says. "It turned out there weren't."

Before BART's Station Area Planning department opened last year, planning was basically juggled by a number of departments whose primary responsibilities were elsewhere. That was compounded by what Radulovich calls an "incoherent" approach to streetscape planning by the city. "The reason why all this took so long is because we basically had to reinvent planning," Radulovich says. "And on the city side, it's still very badly fragmented."

Whether or not the new design can cure all of the station's ills, most residents are relieved something is being done to one of the most troubling areas of their neighborhood.

"It usually takes a murder or some crisis to get people to come together for anything here," Pardo says. "This was proactive, not reactive. And that's a change."

About The Author

Jeremy Mullman

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