As if by civic design, the rainclouds that have dogged the city for most of the past week parted over North Beach’s Washington Square Park on Wednesday afternoon, just in time to christen its new incarnation.
The park had been closed since June and was expected to re-open at the end of December. But SF Rec and Park gave North Beach, Chinatown, and Telegraph Hill neighbors an early holiday surprise, completing work a few weeks ahead of schedule.
Well over a hundred onlookers cheered on the ribbon-cutting ceremony, including representatives of the North Beach Business Association, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, Friends of Washington Square Park, the Chinatown Community Development Center, and North Beach Neighbors.
“This was the best gift we could’ve been given by the city," said one attendee. "The park just glistens during the holidays, and attracts shoppers to our local businesses from all over the Bay Area. It seemed wrong to have a holiday season with our very centerpiece — the place North Beach is most known for —fenced in.”
“55 years ago, this park was slated to become, like Union Square and Portsmouth Square, the roof of a parking garage," District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin reminded attendees in his speech.
The fate of the park was left to the Board of Supervisors, who voted 6-5 to build the underground garage, forever altering the character of the park.
“I will not out who was on the six side and who was on the five side,” Peskin said. “But the mayor at that time, Jack Shelley, vetoed that legislation.”
In 1999, Washington Square Park became City Landmark #226, ensuring its protection in perpetuity.
Peskin also thanked Rec & Park for the $3 million project's timely completion.
"[General manager] Phil Ginsburg keeps telling me that he’s done much more complicated, much more expensive projects with much less hassle," Peskin noted. "[The project managers] promised that it would be done within six months and would be on-budget, and their promise wasn’t true — they came in early and on-budget!”
The biggest changes to the park are its new irrigation and drainage systems. According to Paula Kehoe, director of water resources with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the new systems will save two million gallons of drinking water each year, and contribute to a drier, less muddy experience for picknickers.
Other new additions to the park include drought-tolerant landscaping and accessible paths for people with disabilities. But the city's goal was to keep changes minimal.
“As you can imagine, even making small changes to such a beloved and historic park is a daunting task," said landscape architecture manager Jennifer Cooper. "The design team really took that seriously — they just took the bones of the park and the heart of the park, reframed and refined it, and made it more durable for the next generation."
Assemblymember David Chiu spoke of the myriad meanings the park has to its visitors, from romantic first dates to informal weddings and receptions to the early-risers in Chinatown who have graced the park with their predawn tai chi practice just after dawn.
"[San Francisco has] the least amount of open space on the West Coast, yet the densest neighborhoods outside of Manhattan," Chiu noted. "This is the most important thing we can do to be investing in who we are as a city.”
A traditional Chinatown lion dance and choral performances from the Salesian Boy’s and Girls Club rounded out the outdoor portion of the joyous and umbrellas-optional ceremony. Afterwards, revelers poured into the Italian Athletic Club, across Stockton Street, for a community dinner.
While North Beach is sometimes notorious for its small-town-style bickering and micro-politics, getting its “living room” back sooner than expected — with minimal changes and no extra expenses — proved to be a real fence-mender, just in time for the holidays and a new year. The cheer was palpable.