This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.
Balboa Park Station may be the busiest transit hub in San Francisco outside of downtown, the terminus for the J, K and M streetcar lines, crossroads of the 29, 43, 54, 36, 47 and 8 bus lines, as well as a BART station and transfer point to San Francisco International Airport, but what it is probably recognized most for is its utter bleakness.
People go there because they have to go somewhere else on public transit, either by being dropped off at the derelict kiss-and-ride loop or hazarding treacherous sidewalks and crossing freeway ramps with dubiously marked crosswalks.
The fuller Balboa Park experience includes stepping off the M streetcar line into oncoming traffic, anxiously slipping past the notorious utility-pole “pinch points” that partially block safe pedestrian access and force the path of travel on to the J and K streetcar lines, or the sensation of standing in the middle of a tiny concrete island in a sea of angry, aggressive cars while waiting for the green light to cross Geneva Avenue to catch the M line.
And don’t forget the constants of overflowing garbage receptacles, urine streaked bus shelters, blowing trash and pervasive street potholes. Nearby, the vacant boarded-up Victorian-era Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse looms ominously over the scene of urban blight.
It’s pretty bad, but some credit must be given to San Francisco’s elected leaders for acknowledging that there is a problem. A comprehensive planning effort to develop guidelines for the future of the station area resulted in the adoption of the Balboa Park Station Area Plan by the Board of Supervisors in 2009, BART has slated nearly $8 million for station improvements, and a competent non-profit called Friends of the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse has prepared architectural plans to restore and adaptively reuse the historic landmark for an arts and cultural center.
Somewhat overlooked in the scheme of things is the Balboa Park Station Area Citizens Advisory Committee, a nine member local resident board appointed by the Board of Supervisors with the charge of taking a critical look at proposed improvements within the geographic boundaries of the plan and the various proposals’ consistency with station area plan guidelines.
Ironically, and despite all the work needing to be done, during its first two years the committee has had difficulty recruiting and keeping residents to serve. There are currently vacancies in four areas of interest: Muni rider; students, faculty and staff; youth and families; and, pedestrians and bicyclists.
So what gives?Why this apparent lack of interest? Here is a crucial community hub, what should be a vibrant neighborhood asset with a sense of place that both locals and through-travelers can identify with some pride, but the actual characterizations of it by those who frequent it are usually of it being a no-man’s land, or a traffic sewer dumping commuters onto I-280 freeway.
Perhaps a partial explanation for this lackluster community engagement lies in the confusing myriad of public agencies that are responsible for daily operations and implementing improvements—BART, SFMTA, and Department of Public Works primarily, but Park and Recreation Department too as owners of the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, and also the Mayor’s Office of Housing as they stand poised to take site control of the upper yard to build affordable housing.
Each agency plans, budgets and implements their own work programs independently, even though they are claiming that lately they regularly meet together to better coordinate their projects.
The all more often case is that items are placed on the CAC agenda for public update and what ensues at the meeting itself is a presentation on some aspect of Balboa Park Station, say bus shelter design on Geneva Avenue near the BART entry for example, without so much as a word about how the shelter might be impacted by reconfiguring bus stops, or how affordable housing at the kiss and ride loop at Geneva and San Jose Avenues will effect vehicle circulation and pedestrian traffic right next to it at the M line terminus.
Committee members are often left feeling out of the loop on big issues and left to ponder individual, less consequential, details. Call it the spoon-feeding approach. The glacial pace of seeing actual results is also disheartening, as presentations about project schedules are made only to have timelines routinely slip.
The skeptic inside begins to ask, “Now, just when again is it that the streetcar platforms will be transformed into a seamless “transit first” operation from BART onto clean, well lit sidewalks radiating outward from the station along accessible paths of travel?”
It’s hard not to get cynical and start thinking that public officials don’t really want community input and spuriously throw barriers in the way of thoughtful comment, but there is evidence that says otherwise.
For example, this past Spring the County Transportation Authority was concluding a controversial area traffic circulation study that looked into the notion of closing or reconfiguring I-280 freeway on and off ramps at Geneva and Ocean avenues. Not surprisingly, community sentiment over the various options presented by the CTA were in conflict.
Staff pressed the committee for a recommendation, and when one wasn’t forthcoming—shock would be a fairer assessment of what committee members and residents actually felt—project managers were prepared to move ahead with their own recommendation.
But that didn’t happen because the CTA governing board was unwilling to accept the report or its recommendations until the Balboa Park Station Community Advisory Committee clearly voiced in a resolution its overall views and recommendation. What ultimately came about was a pretty thorough airing out of the staff recommendation, both benefits and drawbacks, and partial adoption of their proposal.
Pretty good public policy formation even though it was a bit messy. Here’s another example: After hearing a litany of complaints about the lack of cleanliness, lighting and safety in and around the station area, Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru announced he would take the lead in organizing a team of maintenance personnel from Public Works, MTA and BART to ostensibly meet and think through ideas for improving service.
It remains to be seen if this will be effective; nevertheless, it is a start and now it’s up to the CAC to ask Director Nuru and the team for periodic updates on their inter-agency progress. These are good indicators that somewhere, somehow, someone is listening to the community and wants and rightfully deserves our active participation in the decisions and choices that need to be made.
The broader view is this: changes at our Balboa Park transit station will happen. The question is, will we as a community be at the table to organize station area priorities, provide our valuable insights as end-users of the facility about what it should look like and how it might better function, or will these decisions be made for us?
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