Community Resistance Blocks North Beach's 'Poets Plaza'

Courtesy: Piazza St. Francis, the Poets Plaza
By Romalyn Schmaltz - Published on October 11, 2017.

Last week, SFMTA's Board decided not to study a proposal to create a plaza on Vallejo Street between Grant and Columbus avenues in North Beach. After the sponsor's presentation and nearly three hours of public comment, the Board concluded that community resistance was too overwhelming to move forward. 

In her public comment, Poet's Plaza's major sponsor, Angela Alioto said the project's developers have done everything required to legally permanently close off one of Telegraph Hill’s main entrance and exit arteries. 

Section of Vallejo Street that would have been closed. 

“If any of you wants to know about my relationship to North Beach—which goes back 125 years or more—I’ll be happy to answer any questions,” she said.

The project’s co-sponsor, poet and City Lights Books owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, sent a video voicing his support. He focused on the untenability of vehicles in North Beach, describing the situation as “carmaggeddon.” 

Another stakeholder present was Fabio Giotta, son of the late Caffè Trieste founder Papa Gianni. Giotta sits on the Board for Piazza St. Francis, and explained that his father supported the idea of turning the street outside his eatery into a gathering place for the community.

His sister, Sonia Pantaleo, countered that their father suffered from Alzheimer's disease for much of his later life, and that before passing away in June of 2016, he expressed “confusion and concerns” over the details of the project. Papa Gianni’s granddaughter, and daughter-in-law, Adrienne Giotta Erickson, also spoke against the plan.

The Archdiocese commented that it was neutral on the project, provided that its property remain untouched and accessible. However, the design proffered by Alioto removed their adjacent parking and obstructed access to their garages.

Guided by neighborhood group SOS Vallejo, local opposition was sufficient to chill SFMTA board support: of approximately 75 commenters, 47 were vehemently—some in tears—against the closure of the street, a feature Alioto wanted to retain, despite the group's reported willingness to work toward a plan that allows vehicular access.

Most concerns related to fears of traffic congestion, with some speakers alleging that the developers misrepresented the depth of community support.

A map of neighborhood businesses indicated that more than 20 businesses in the area opposed the Piazza, including the adjacent Caffè Trieste, Buster’s, The Saloon, Al’s Attire, and The House. The North Beach Business Association, along with the Telegraph Hill Dwellers and the Chinatown Community Development Center, also voiced their resolved dissent to any street closure.

Some attendees leveled accusations of nepotism and NIMBYism, but the most common assertion was that those in opposition live on Telegraph Hill and North Beach, while supporters overwhelmingly do not.

Sunny Angulo, Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s Chief of Staff, explained that many constituents were gravely concerned with traffic, congestion and quality of life already. “For the first time in recent memory, Chinatown and North Beach are united about their concerns over closing this street," she said.

After public comment, Brinkman invited feedback from Board members. While most were silent, a few offered their perspectives, some in favor and some opposed.

Ultimately, chair Cheryl Brinkman concluded that she could not “impose our will on this one block” and that they would not offer staff to study the project further. 

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