Locals Show Interest, Optimism At Van Ness/Polk Improvement Open House

Even the Giants’ win-or-go-home playoff game wasn’t enough to keep nearly 200 residents and businesspeople from attending Wednesday night's open house on the repaving, redesign and utility upgrade work that is about to start on Van Ness Avenue and Polk Street.

The Van Ness Improvement and Polk Streetscape projects have drawn plenty of skepticism, but the comments from people who spoke with Hoodline at Wednesday’s event at the Tenderloin Community School, which was sponsored by the SFMTA and SF Public Works, were mostly favorable.

Wednesday’s event bypassed a formal presentation and Q&A for an art exhibit-type display of renderings and laptop videos, showing what Van Ness and Polk will look like once the projects are completed. SFMTA and DPW representatives were stationed around the room to chat face-to-face with attendees, most of whom were cautiously optimistic. 

“I understand it’ll be a little rough on businesses for a bit, but in the long run I think it’s going to be a good thing,” said Roger Mathey, assistant general manager of the Opal Hotel at the southeast corner of Van Ness and Geary.

With the boutique hotel undergoing its own renovation caddy-corner from the in-progress California Pacific Medical Center building, “we’re getting used to construction," Mathey said. “I think we’ll survive it.”

Other attendees expressed their enthusiasm for the BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes that the Van Ness corridor will soon receive. “We have supported BRT for the last several years,” said James W. Haas, board member and planning committee chair of the Civic Center Community Benefit District.

Though some have criticized the BRT project's elimination of left-turn pockets at most Van Ness intersections and the removal of historic streetlamps, Haas, who lives in the 400-unit residential building at 100 Van Ness, believes BRT will make local commutes easier, which he says is important for operators, employees and patrons of performing arts venues. His organization has also been advocating for improved lighting, to make sidewalks and streets safer at night.

Opinions varied on how well the city handled outreach for the project. Bob Lockhart, a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Van Ness Improvement Project, said he had voiced a suggestion from the panel that yellow-curbed zones for commercial vehicles be established along Van Ness, to enable freight off- and onloading without trucks double-parking. “I felt they heard us—or heard me,” he said.

But Christy Waters, a retired psychiatrist living at Opera Plaza, said city agencies had done a poor job of letting the community know about the Van Ness and Polk projects. She added that city representatives at Wednesday’s open house gave no answer when she asked them if they had considered redesigning Polk exclusively for pedestrians and bicycles.

“I think at some point, you have to say, ‘You have to get out of your automobile,’” she said.

Neal Patel, livable streets project liaison for SFMTA, told Hoodline that this had, in fact, been weighed, and that planners had decided against it—for the time being, at least. Keeping motor vehicles off Polk would make it difficult for businesses to receive merchandise, he said.

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Locals show interest optimism at van ness polk improvement open house