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San Francisco narrowly votes to rename Justin Herman Plaza

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Replacement names include noted Fillmore photographer David Johnson

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San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department voted Thursday to remove the name of influential-yet-controversial urban designer Justin Herman off the titular Embarcadero plaza. But the department may have to hold the vote again.

Back in September, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 11-0 to rename the public space, but Recreation and Parks is the body with the ultimate authority to change the moniker.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin originally sponsored the renaming resolution after longstanding grassroots disgruntlement came to bear again this year.

Speaking to the parks commission on Thursday, Peskin said, “This is in no way about demonizing Justin Herman,” calling his opinion of Herman “nuanced and evolved,” but concluding that it’s “time to turn the page” on the issue.

Fillmore photographer David Johnson seems to be a favorite to get the new plaza name, although that will be a separate process if and when the time comes.

“Right now it’s time to open the door,” Johnson’s son told the commission Thursday. “Just like Ansel Adams opened a door for [my father] and many things happened, many spirits, many stories of the city were preserved, because of that opportunity.”

The fountain at Justin Herman Plaza. Photo by Bill

Some San Franciscans don’t care whose name the plaza bears so long as it’s not Herman. Nadya Williams wrote in an email to Peskin:

What an insult [...] to have that plaza bear the name of the Destroyer Justin Herman! I remember him well, smirking and trying to flirt with us in the hall outside Supervisors’ Chambers after we testified to the imminent destruction of our homes and communities, and to our collective efforts to prevent it. All these years I have refused to use that name when guiding fellow activists to rallies and protests in the plaza.

Some did step up to Herman’s defense, like former Herman Redevelopment Agency colleague Arthur F. Evans, who opined that “a steady stream of unanswered attacks on him has created the current picture of him as an ogre” and claimed that public opinion was “warped and distorted.”

“I have complete mixed feelings about this,” said Commissioner Larry Mozzola before casting the final vote, finally coming down in favor of renaming after the unanimity of the Board of Supervisors vote impressed him.

In the end, commissioners seemed to have voted 4-3 in favor of a name change—or so it appeared. Hours later, the San Francisco Examiner reported that Commissioner Eric McDonnell, though appearing to favor the resolution, left the meeting before technically casting his vote.

That made the vote a tie in the end, essentially throwing the whole thing out. The commission won’t meet again for another four weeks.

Justin Herman Plaza with the Ferry Building clock tower in the background. Photo by Sue Stokes