Almost three years after the initial vote on the redesign proposal for Harvey Milk Plaza, a jury of local art experts endorsed the latest design for the public park in the city’s LGBTQ neighborhood of Castro.
At its September 20 meeting, the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Civic Design Review Committee unanimously voted 5-0 in favor of the current changes to the project. Committee members praised the new design as a “breath of fresh air” and an “amazing” change from what they had previously voted on.
“You have chosen to use the space much more actively than passively. I applaud the entire effort,” said Paul Woolford, gay art commissioner. “I think it’s remarkable and a place people will go to to experience the Harvey Milk phenomenon.”
Commissioner Abby Sadin Schnair added that the revisions “are such a turnaround. I’m blown away. Whoa!”
The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza unveiled their new proposal for the entrance area of Castro Muni station in June after another round of community meetings to get feedback on their plans. As the Bay Area Reporter noted at the time, the site would be redesigned to make it more accessible to people with mobility issues. A new spiral podium would be erected at the entrance to the square at the junction of Castro and Market streets.
A smaller staircase to the subway station is to be built. A pink, transparent overhang over the escalator that leads to the MUNI station is intended to protect it from rainwater.
The color scheme is derived from the red and white megaphone that the square’s namesake used to gather residents of the neighborhood and the city’s larger LGBTQ community during the protests on the site and during the marches that went out from there. The late supervisor Harvey Milk became the first gay man to be elected to public office in San Francisco and California.
He was shot dead in town hall on the morning of November 27, 1978, along with then-mayor George Moscone, by disgruntled former boss Dan White after eleven months of his first term in office. City officials named the square in 1985 in honor of Milk, a vocal advocate of local public transport during his lifetime.
Quotes from Milk would be embedded all over the place. A memorial grove with 11 trees of different kinds symbolizing Milks 11 months in office would stand at the entrance to the square from Collingwood Street. In the same area would be a “Hope Grove” symbolizing the candlelight vigil that brought the mourners from Castro to City Hall after Milk and Moscone were murdered.
“We have a space today at Harvey Milk Plaza that should never be a place and is never meant to represent a major civil rights leader like Harvey Milk,” said Brian Springfield, a gay man who is the interim director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Place .
Crispin Hollings, a gay man who lives near the square, confirmed in an email to the art committee that he initially had concerns about the planned renovation. But the latest design he said addresses those concerns and is “visibly appealing” and will be a “functional” addition to the neighborhood.
The square and the Muni station were first opened on June 11, 1980. Howard Grant, who was married to the mother of his children at the time but later turned out to be gay, designed it with its signature curved brick staircase and sunken gardens. Grant and others have been vehemently opposed to any major remodeling of the square, arguing that minor cosmetic changes could be made instead to provide the best user experience and an improved memorial for Milk.
Grant submitted a three-minute video for Monday’s meeting outlining her concerns. The square turned out to have historical significance worth preserving and some parishioners are demanding that it be a landmark in the city.
Art historian Paul V. Turner, a former Stanford professor who was friends with Milk and his lover Scott Smith, called the square a historic feature of the Castro that should be kept in an email to the Art Committee. Turner, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1973 and frequently uses the transit station, argued that none of the renovation proposals “justified the destruction of the existing space”.
He added, “Every time I go up and down the stairs I enjoy the innovative design,” especially its “graceful curves” and warm brick material.
Alan Martinez, a gay man who served on the city’s heritage preservation committee, spoke out against moving forward with the redesign of the square. He warned that much of the glass in the design would likely be damaged, and wondered how the repairs should be paid for, if they are.
“If the project doesn’t have a huge foundation every year to fix it, it gets sad,” he said. “It’s going to be a mess.”
But there have long been complaints that the square is difficult to navigate for people with mobility issues and that the windswept area is a less desirable place for the public to congregate. Over the past few decades, neighborhood leaders have tried to curb use by the homeless and drug users.
Leaders of the Plaza Friends group continued to press for approval from the city for the renovation project. The cost remains unknown, although earlier iterations were estimated to have taken at least $ 10 million.
Gay State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has secured 2.5 million US dollars in government funding for the project since 2019. He asked the art committee to approve the design changes.
Neighborhood groups also sent letters in support of the latest design, including the Castro / Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association, the Castro Merchants Association, and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District Advisory Board. Long-time Castro resident Cleve Jones, a gay rights activist friend of Milk, also praised the Plaza Friends Group for listening to the issues people like him had raised about the previous plans.
“I love it,” Jones said of the latest design, saying it was “really nice” and fixing the current staircase that leads into the train station, which he called “a death trap.”
The plaza friends group has commissioned the SWA Group, an international office for landscaping, architecture, planning and urban development, to work on the revised plans for the site. The inspiration for the design came from the concept that without action there is no hope, explained Daniel Cunningham, a gay man who is a landscape architect with SWA Group.
“The community is looking for a memorial that represents Harvey and the movement he was part of and which continues to this day,” said Cunningham, the redesign project leader for the square. “It’s more narrative to tell the story of Harvey Milk.”
It has yet to get approval from the entire arts commission once the final draft is complete, and several other city agencies and regional public transport regulators need to get involved. The costs for the redesign of the square have not yet been secured.
As part of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Castro Accessibility Project, a new four-stop elevator is being installed in part of the sunken garden area of the plaza near the entrance to Muni station. SFMTA’s website for the project states that construction on this $ 14.5 million project is scheduled to begin this fall and is expected to be completed in 2024.
The new plaza design envisions an oculus that centers a square in front of the elevator entrance that brings sunlight into the underground hall of the transit station. It indicates that Milk runs a camera shop at the Castro, from which he ran his campaigns for public offices.
“Now that the elevator project is underway, it is time to honor Harvey Milk and do the right thing for Harvey,” said Springfield.
To find out more about the planned redesign of Milk Plaza, click here.
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