Streetsmart on both sides of the Bay

The last couple of days saw some great news for Bay Area pedestrians and all those who enjoy car-free European-style city centers.

As John King reports in yesterday’s SF Chronicle, Center Street between Shattuck and the UC Campus in Berkeley is poised to become an oasis for urban living. After literally decades of going through an elaborate planning process and jumping through every last hoop there finally seems to be consensus among all the powers that be that having a one block pedestrian plaza with parts of Strawberry Creek daylighted will be beneficial to all residents, both human and non-human. Kudos to the diligent and tireless advocacy and footwork by Ecocity Builders’ Kirstin Miller and Richard Register, and hooray to landscape architect Walter Hood who came up with a plan that everybody likes.

Writes John King:

Hood fuses ecological symbolism and smart urbanism. He understands that a seductive urban space can be a catalyst that makes the future come alive.

On the other side of the bay, Rachel Gordon’s Cafes get more sidewalk under North Beach plan in today’s Chronicle calls attention to a new plan that will convert curbside parking spaces on Columbus Avenue in the heart of North Beach into Cafe seating:

“It’s the city formally saying that they want to convert space now used just by cars for other activities,” said Rachel Hiatt, senior transportation planner for the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

The project is expected to get the green light after the authority’s governing board – made up of San Francisco’s 11 supervisors – reviews it in two weeks. I think what’s most encouraging about these projects and shows just how far we have come in the last 10 years is the support they get from local merchants and businesses. I remember not too long ago when the mere mention of car-free zones drew almost apocalyptic reactions from business owners who insisted that their customers would simply stay away unless they could drive right up to the store. This is what they say in 2010:

Hanna Suleiman, who owns Caffe Greco on Columbus near Vallejo Street, is eager to get started. “There are a lot of merchants in North Beach who would like to see this happen. Having more sidewalk tables will bring more people to the neighborhood, make it even more lively,” he said.

The idea that pedestrian zones would be bad for business is, of course, just that — an idea. And you can’t even blame people when they’ve never seen car-free commerce. That’s why pilot projects like Sunday Streets or the Market Street closure are so important and advocates like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition or Livable Streets who push for them play such a huge role in transforming our cities. I mean, do these guys sound like they’re longing for the good old traffic days?

Suleiman was one of a handful of North Beach restaurateurs who participated in a daylong trial in September in which they could place extra tables and chairs in the parking space in front of their businesses. “People loved it,” he said.

Caffe Roma, down the street, also participated in the one-day test run. “My business was up 30 percent,” said the owner, Anthony Azzollini. “Talk about economic stimulus.”

So congratulations to all those who’ve worked for so long so tirelessly on showing that what’s good for the environment is good for the wallet, and most importantly, good for the soul. Of course, the struggle to change everything from our perception to our infrastructure is far from over. These two victories are not certain yet, and — if and when they are — will only be small milestones in a much larger race to re-imagine the way we live together. But more seeds are being planted every day, we just have to make sure we water them.

I’ll leave you with a few European street scenes from my trip last year.

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