Is a Better Market Street Just 5 Years Away?

At the end of last month, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the launch of the Better Market Street Project. Market Street, one of San Francisco’s largest thoroughfares, is at once both a main artery of the city and one of its biggest messes. Congested traffic and mass transit, confusing pedestrian and bike crossings, pathetic (PATHETIC) street trees and a mix of luxury and failing businesses, Market Street is something of a study in contradictions.

Starting at the Embarcadero on the Eastern (bay) side of San Francisco, Market Street cuts a straight southwestern line through the city, for three miles, to the Twin Peaks neighborhood. 

It is lined almost the entire way with London planetrees, most of which were planted in the 1970s around the time the subway system was being constructed. By that measure most of them are somewhere between 30 and 40 years old now, although to look at them you wouldn’t know it.

Market Street itself was constructed in the late 1800s and intended as a grand boulevard whose unique diagonal position was different from other thoroughfares and meant that it provided access to diverse parts of the city. Yet today if you walk down Market Street, more than anything it feels like a missed opportunity: bustling national chains side-by-side with shuttered storefronts. Entangled cars, delivery trucks, mass transit and bicyclists. A few notably empty public spaces. Spindly trees waving anemically at sometimes truly unbelievable angles. 

Nonetheless, an average of nearly a quarter of a million people travel up and down Market Street every day. Love it or hate it, it’s nearly impossible to avoid passing through.

The word “legacy” comes to mind here. What do we want Market Street to be?

The Better Market Street plan aims to transform this important axis through a series of long-term infrastructure upgrades that will make it more accessible, walkable, transitable (you know what I mean!), attractive, and an overall more pleasant place to be for individuals and businesses. 

This stretch, for example, is much closer to we what we’re envisioning:

Like surely everyone else in San Francisco, we would like to see Market Street meet the grandness of its proportions and be a safer and more pleasant thoroughfare. And on an infrastructure level at least, this project represents a huge opportunity here to help meet those goals.

The value of using trees, soil and stormwater to improve the function of the built environment on an ecological, social, and economic scale is gaining increasing recognition. A thoughtful tree planting plan must, must, must be a part of any better Market Street — a Market Street that should have less crime, more pedestrians, and more small businesses. Although the current stated goals of the project are necessarily broad — “anchor public spaces,” “sustainable and enjoyable place to be,” “a place to stop and spend time” — the attention paid to the Market Street trees will  be a powerful predictor of the overall success of the redevelopment.

The City of San Francisco is soliciting public and stakeholder comments as the first stage in the project. Please chime in with your own comments and suggestions and make sure that they don’t miss the point on trees. If you live in San Francisco, outreach meetings (facilitated by design firm Perkins + Will) are set to begin in Spring 2011.

Images: Ju_li_a, Wouter Kiel, Jamison Wieser and Marcin Wichary

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