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Architect of original Harvey Milk Plaza responds to criticism of his work and concerns over new plaza

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Not everyone is thrilled with the upcoming redesign

Photo via SF Public Works

Elated over all that is shiny and new, many people, including your editor, championed the winning submission for the Harvey Milk Plaza redesign by local firm Perkins Eastman. The plaza’s new look will include, among other things, a raised amphitheater and a timeline of former supervisor Milk’s life.

But not everyone is atingle with the plaza’s pending look. Among the chief criticisms lobbed at the new design: The entrance will be moved away from Castro onto Collingwood and the amphitheater could wind up yet another spot for chronic loitering.

The plaza’s original architect, Howard Grant (who also designed Civic Center BART, Van Ness, Church, and West Portal Muni metro stations) replied to our critique about the old plaza, as well as offering his concerns over the new design.

Grant graciously allowed us to publish his thoughts:

Friends brought your March 31 article for San Francisco Development News to my attention since I was the architect and designer of the Castro Street station and plaza ... I am a gay man who has been proud of these projects, especially Castro Street station. Your piece is very critical of the plaza and promotes the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza's hope to demolish it and install in its place a street level "gathering space." Your obvious contempt for the design springs partly from misinformation.

You wrote, "His legacy has been honored with many tributes, but the aforementioned corner where he stood received the most baffling one—a dark, dank, sunken garden just outside the Muni station." The station and plaza were designed in the early 1970s and became operational in 1982. They were under construction when Harvey mounted his political campaign for supervisor, so his bullhorn rallies were held on the corner of Castro and Market Street.

Photo by miss_millions

The plaza was paid for under the BART bond issue because it was a transit plaza meant to bring light down to the mezzanine level and views of greenery and buildings as one exited. It was hoped that the plaza would provide a pleasant transitional space, integrating the subway station strongly with the neighborhood.

Indeed, as one ascends the stairs or escalator, the iconic Castro Theater is immediately evident. This was later amplified by the glorious addition of the flagpole and Gilbert Baker's huge rainbow flag which crowns the northwest corner of the plaza grounds.

Ten years after completion, the Friends of Harvey Milk convinced SFMTA to dedicate the plaza in memory of Harvey. In the following 30 years, the extent of their memorial has been putting his name on the bridge to Collingwood, a bronze plaque on a column, and 3 panels of photographs attached to an unfortunate metal fence installed later by MUNI (presumably to discourage the homeless from urinating in the planters). So, if the experience of honoring Harvey is underwhelming, you can look to the Friends, not the plaza designers.

Winning design for new plaza.
Renderings via Perkins Eastman

All three finalists in the design competition to "reimagine" the plaza as a street level gathering space (not a transit friendly design) call for demolition of the plaza. Not only is this expensive and a great inconvenience to the thousands of Muni metro riders (50 percent of whom are commuters hurrying to and from work), but the bulk of the money will go to demolition and construction that have nothing to do with honoring Harvey. The actual memorials in the designs are underground and could for the most part be accomplished with the present plaza.

One only has to look across the street to the Jane Warner Plaza to see what empty expanses of paving look like. The CBD has been determined to discourage the homeless population in its public spaces, so the cedar benches I designed for the serpentine wall along Market Street were removed, and the only seating at Jane Warner is provided by a restaurant which brings out tables and chairs in the morning and takes them away at night! The expanse of paving looks, in your words, unwelcoming. Does the Castro really need both corners dedicated to empty paving waiting for the random public gatherings envisioned by the competition?

You quote Andrea Aiello, Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza chairperson, as saying, "The sunken garden is such a disaster." I think we have seen what a disaster looks like in the recent weeks. Hyperbole like that only clouds a rational evaluation of the issues at stake. Every news release related to the plaza competition that included her name has contained a negative characterization of the present design. It has been called "dated, underwhelming, wind swept, forlorn, and now, a disaster! These appellations don't square with feedback that I have received over the course of the past 40 years.

A memorial in 2013 was held at the corner of Castro and Market to mark the 35 years since Harvey's assassination. The Gay Men’s Chorus filled the upper sidewalk that connects with the bridge, the organizers were standing where Harvey did with his bull horn, and the large crowd filled Castro Street. If there had been additional paving as envisioned in the competition, the assembly would not have looked much different. We have always taken to the streets for our protests and candle light marches: Castro, Market, the street in front of City Hall.

Spending $10 - $15 million to destroy and replace the transit plaza at Castro will not change that.