OP-ED New Islais Creek Bus Facility Not Living Up to its Promise

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This year, the long planned main building of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s bus facility is under construction on Islais Creek’s north shore.  When Muni conceived of the project, its then project manager approached Friends of Islais Creek – which for 30 years has worked with other community groups to create public activity spaces along Third Street, particularly in and around Islais Creek – for support.  That was in 1990, when Bayview residents were objecting to City Hall’s locating nearly all its industrial facilities in the 94124 zip code. 

People were weary of industrial activities, and wanted housing at Islais Creek.  But Friends learned that Muni’s new facility was going to be state of art, and that most of its 300 workers would live in District 10.  In addition, residential developers who had been invited to view the Creek were reluctant to invest.

On the promise that its facility would have community space and its workers would provide eyes on the Creek, Friends agreed to support Muni at the Planning Commission and neighborhood meetings.  That was before the Planning Commission’s implementation of an Industrial Protection Zone, which prohibited residential development in the area.  The Planning Commission accepted Muni’s proposed use.

When Muni had to win approval from the Bay Conservation & Development Commission it once again asked Friends for support.  By then Friends had been joined by the Copra Crane Labor Landmark Association, founded by union retirees who were affiliated with San Francisco State University’s Labor History Archives.  Union retiree Archie Green, PhD, observed that Friends had assembled a coalition of environmentalists, artists and labor, groups not usually cooperative with each other. 

With BCDC’s approval at stake, Green got Muni’s project manager to agree to provide space within the new facility for the artistic display of the area’s labor history and flora and fauna.  With support from BCDC and the San Francisco Art Commission, that proposed space became a two story entry lobby with monumental staircase, elevator, public balcony overlooking the Creek and a wall of glass facing the water, within which would reside banners, labor artifacts and stories of endemic species. 

Friends and Labor spoke in support of Muni’s project at multiple meetings of BCDC and the San Francisco Art Commission, which had purview over the facility’s use, amenities and appearance.  Commissioners were impressed by the community support, and applauded Muni’s incorporation of a significant public benefit within its building.  The Art Commission was unanimous in its praise for the building’s design and orientation toward the Creek, which had been mandated by BCDC. 

The Labor retirees viewed the facility as their gift to future generations, who might not otherwise appreciate that the portion of Islais Creek located in 94124 was carved out of landfill and created by laborers for industrial uses.  Three retirees spoke at all of Muni’s community and agency review meetings.  Green, a labor historian, communicated the importance of Muni’s public space for cultural and social reasons.  Bill Ward, who had assisted Harry Bridges achieve landmark labor milestones, talked about the legacy for San Francisco’s waterfront.  Don Watson, who brought big labor’s support to the fledgling United Farmworkers of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, envisioned a connection between Muni’s two story lobby and the resurrected Copra Crane, which is awaiting restoration in the Creek, the last surviving labor-powered mechanism in the Port.

Now Muni’s project is finally under construction.  But the public benefits have been omitted.  The two story lobby has been covered over.  The staircase has shrunk; it and the elevator no longer support community uses. The wall of glass to view the Creek has become a solid wall with small windows.  The Art Commission, whose purview is civic design, is puzzled that Muni would make such significant changes without its approval.  In the decade since they fought for approval of the project, Green, Ward and Watson passed away, believing Muni would honor its promise to them and to labor.  It’s ironic and sad that the main street front for Muni’s new facility is named for labor leader Cesar Chavez.  

View readers should contact it or Muni – 311; 415.701.2311 outside SF; Tweet at sfmta_muni – to urge Muni to honor its promise to the community. Because it’s under construction, making changes may cost more, but the facility will serve the community for decades. Muni might not realize how much the neighborhood has changed in the past two years; how much happened around its 40 year-old Woods Division bus facility, which seems to be off-limits to the public.  Imagine Islais Creek in 10 or 20 years, with workers, paddlers, students and visitors, and how much goodwill Muni could generate for itself by welcoming them.