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Vote on Milk Plaza Benches Postponed

by David Duran
Saturday Sep 22, 2012

The future of the benches at Harvey Milk Plaza is still being debated, as the board of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District agreed to postpone a vote regarding their permanent removal.

The overall tone of the board members at the September 13 CBD meeting was frustration.

"Those of us who have lived here know that people will make noise, defecate, and urinate in the plaza - even before the benches were there, and I know nobody wants to hear that," said board President Gustavo Serina.

The board agreed to postpone a vote and instead revisit the idea of making adjustments to the benches.

"It's gone on this long - another month won't make a difference," said Serina.

Possible changes that were discussed included removal of the benches that are most hidden or used by the transient population, as well as installation of armrests on the benches to discourage sleeping on them. Another possibility was to put in planters, but it was later agreed that an engineering study by the Department of Public Works would need to take place first. DPW has increased cleaning crews, and there are more police patrol units in the plaza.

According to CBD Executive Director Andrea Aiello, preliminary estimates for bench removal were approximately $7,000 and modification of adding armrests totaled approximately $9,600.

The Arts Commission, which had to approve the benches' design when they were installed a couple of years ago, previously rejected armrests.

While it was the CBD that initially installed the benches, the group may have changed its mind.

Aiello, in an email to the Bay Area Reporter , explained the CBD's thinking behind the benches. She said that in 2008 the group engaged the community in developing a streetscape plan for the neighborhood. The CBD, she said, decided to focus first on Harvey Milk Plaza.

"The design at Harvey Milk Plaza has always been a problem," Aiello said. "The design allows people to be hidden from view and the planters are low, encouraging people to climb in, sleep, defecate, urinate, and otherwise trash the plants and the plaza in general."

Without having access to several million dollars to really create a true plaza out of the space, Aiello said that the CBD opted for what she called "small improvements without major changes."

"The decision to put in benches was guided by the CBD's streetscape plan and was combined into an overall project to beautify Harvey Milk Plaza," she said.

Aiello noted that many of the CBD's initiatives are "experiments" and pointed to the Jane Warner Plaza as an example of a CBD project that was successful.

"The overall beautification efforts at Harvey Milk Plaza have been successful, while the installation of the benches ... has been less so," she said.

She added that it's important to understand "that there are a significant number of people who appreciate the seating and use it appropriately."

In a related issue at the CBD meeting, the impact of the removal of the Milk plaza benches on nearby Jane Warner Plaza was also brought up, with many voicing concerns.

"I think people who sit at Milk plaza will just migrate over [to Jane Warner Plaza]," said Aiello.

Currently, residents and business owners are concerned about the homeless population that gathers at Milk plaza, usually to sleep. The large purple benches that are there are big enough to have someone fully stretch out and sleep on. Many of the homeless occupying parts of the plaza appear to be queer youth.

"I've lived on Castro Street in between Market and 18th for nine years and I am 100 percent opposed to these changes, and I'd also like to go on record saying that I have not once been inconvenienced, harassed, or bothered by the street kids sitting on the benches at Harvey Milk Plaza," longtime activist and former Castro resident Jason Villalobos told the B.A.R.

Villalobos, who recently relocated to his hometown of Lompac, is frustrated with Supervisor Scott Wiener's previous statements about Harvey Milk Plaza being "for everyone."

"His version of 'everyone' excludes poor, transient queer youth and others who seek public places to rest, socialize, and belong, namely the very people that one might venture to guess the plaza's namesake would have wanted using it," said Villalobos.

According to both Wiener and Mayor Ed Lee's homeless policy adviser Bevan Dufty, attempts by outreach groups to assist the homeless who frequent Harvey Milk Plaza have been unsuccessful.

Some Castro merchants and residents, among others, feel the plaza is an unsafe environment. Some of the complaints they cite are noise, filth, inappropriate behavior, intoxication, and drug use. Tourists visiting the Castro neighborhood are often not looking to have a seat in the plaza, but are still wary of their safety when exiting the Muni station.

"It's a beautiful spot, having the large rainbow flag flying above, and being named after a historical LGBT leader, but it's not a place I would have a seat to drink my coffee and enjoy the views," said Portland resident Denis Rhodes, 44, who was in town last week on vacation.

The next discussion about renovation of the plaza, including possible removal of the benches, will take place in November.

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