Community Amenities Shrunk at New Islais Creek Bus Facility

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The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) opened its Islais Creek bus facility last month and, if promises are kept, neighborhood groups hope that the long-neglected area will soon have a landscaped promenade featuring displays honoring the creek’s waterfront labor history.

“Going forward a maintenance plan will be executed to ensure this space is welcomed by nearby residents and visitors,” reported Adrienne Heim, SFMTA spokesperson. She indicated that over the summer the agency will be landscaping and, from funds once earmarked to restore the old Copra Crane to the site, develop signage paying homage to the creek’s history.

The facility, located on 8.4 acres at the end of Indiana Street, is SFMTA’s first new bus yard in 29 years.  It’ll house and provide maintenance for 166 hybrid busses. Development of it was more than a decade in the making; years ago, when the permit process was underway, SFMTA made several commitments to the community, including establishing a meeting room and lobby that’d serve as a museum of sorts to labor history. Budget challenges slowed the project, however; many of the pledges were abandoned.

Ten years ago, SFMTA developed Shoreline Park on the promenade that runs beside the creek, from Indiana Street to Interstate-280. But, over the past decade, the walkway became overrun by homeless camps, graffiti and garbage.

“That was their responsibility from when BCDC gave them the permit,” said Janet Carpinelli, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association member, referring to the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. “The property, they were supposed to be maintaining it and they never did. They didn’t seem to be working on it until we pointed it out.”

Three contentious meetings with neighborhood representatives over the past year ultimately resulted in creation of a community room that’ll be accessible to the public by appointment during weekdays from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. There are also restrooms and a second floor overlook of the creek that SFMTA has designated a public lobby. Heim stated that the Agency is committed to providing “visuals, including artwork in the community room that truly represents the neighborhood’s rich history.”

As a result of DNA advocacy, the homeless camps have been removed, garbage along the promenade cleaned up, and graffiti on a modern art sculpture erected five years ago painted over. Carpinelli pointed out that the park still has no trash cans, handicap parking or bike locking racks.

“If we were in North Beach or Noe Valley, it wouldn’t be in this condition. It would be clean,” said nearby resident Dennis Montalto.

Islais Creek is far way from North Beach or Noe Valley. It’s a long-forgotten area that thus far has been bypassed by the City’s development boom. Across the street from the SFMTA facility is a graveyard for old streetcars; in an adjacent yard the 54-ton Copra Crane that once stood five stories in the creek lies rusting, disassembled into six parts. The promenade sculpture, by artist Nobuho Nagasawa, it itself a ghostly fixture, designed to suggest old ships that once were built and operated on the creek.

In the 1990s an effort was launched to restore the crane, which workers once operated by hand to load livestock feed, resulting from crushed copra, onto ships. The Copra Crane Labor Landmark Association, led by labor activist Archie Green, raised awareness of the endeavor.  In 2013, the Port of San Francisco, which is in possession of the crane, was able to secure a $616,534 grant from the California Coastal Conservatory to restore it. According to Harvey Schwartz, curator for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the restoration estimate is now $1.4 million. Schwartz said CCLLA was consisted mostly of retirees, many of whom have died. Only he and Archie’s son, Derek, remain; they have little capacity to raise additional funds.

According to David Beaupre, senior waterfront planner for the Port, the plan to restore the crane in full is essentially dead. Instead the Port is diverting $235,000 to assist the SFMTA in ensuring the interpretive program comes to fruition; the SFMTA having only set aside $10,000 of its own budget for the historical homage.Another $375,000 is being spent to remove derelict piles in the creek, which was built into the original grant. Three hundred piles have been removed thus far. The current plan for the crane is to break it into smaller artifacts to be used as part of the heritage display.

“We stepped back and said this is still a good use of public funds,” Beaupre said. “It’s not a happy ending but I think we have come to a good compromise.”

Islais Creek’s was one of 10 Bay Area sites included in the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge, an initiative funded by a $4.6 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to address climate change impacts on the shoreline. Two international urban design and architectural firms, Danish-based Bjarke Ingels Group and Netherlands-based One Architecture, as well as San Francisco’s Sherwood Design Engineers, were part of the Islais Creek team. Final design concepts largely looked at ways to bring “the existing ecosystem into the next economy” and proposed restoring native landscapes around the creek, adding open space east of Third Street, finding ways to best utilize industry to create jobs while mitigating rising sea levels, and making the creek “a walkable destination.”