Outdoor Stairways Make the Hill More Pedestrian Friendly

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The San Francisco Bay Area’s many publicly-accessible outdoor stairs not only provide scenic views and a good aerobic workout, they help community members and visitors navigate the often undulating terrain of their neighborhoods. This is particularly the case in Potrero Hill and Dogpatch, where hills compete with Interstate 280 and Highway 101 to make the area challenging to negotiate by foot.

“When you’re living on a hill in a disconnected grid, the stairs provide a healthy way to get around without a car and provide a good connection for the neighborhood,” said J.R. Eppler, Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association president.

Notable stairways include a short but peacefully landscaped flight at Carolina and 20th streets, which connects a dead end residential area on Carolina Street with the International Studies Academy a short walk away. A more rough and tumble pathway stretches from what would be 19th Street, connecting Rhode Island and De Haro streets.  Near Highway 101 and the Potrero Hill Community Garden, a series of steps adjacent to McKinley Square run alongside the crookest part of Vermont Street, along with a few short staircases that provide access to the park. Two short staircases connect Southern Heights Avenue with Carolina Street, and where Carolina Street branches near 23rd Street. At the area’s southern end there’s a stair connection accessed on Cesar Chavez Street by the 101 ramp.

A staircase that may soon be improved is located at 22nd and Wisconsin streets. Twenty-second Street runs west to east beginning at Potrero Avenue, reaching Pier 70 alongside the Bay, divided along the way by 101, the Potrero Hill Recreation Center, and 280. Existing stairs run west to east along 22nd Street, and connect Wisconsin and Arkansas streets before turning into an undeveloped length of trail between Arkansas and Missouri Streets, passing Connecticut Street through the Potrero Hill Recreation Center.

Hill residents Jennifer Serwer and Lisa Tehrani, board members of Friends of the Potrero Hill Recreation Center, feel that the trail from Arkansas to Missouri streets is too steep and unsafe for general pedestrian use. They’re part of a group of community members working on a proposed stairway that would connect this route to the staircase between Wisconsin and Arkansas streets, and create accessible pathways to Texas Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Right now you can’t walk from Missouri to Pennsylvania because there’s a fence there,” said Serwer. “In two years you should be able to go from 22nd Street in the Dogpatch all the way up to Potrero Hill. That’s what we’re working on as a neighborhood group within the Parks Alliance.”

Serwer, who is the founder of Hibiscus Studio, an architectural design firm, worked pro-bono alongside Tehrani and Kara Portnow to develop a stairway design. The plan’s current rendering details the top of the staircase at Connecticut Street, ending at Missouri Street. In addition to a staircase, the project would add significant landscaping, with native species plants, vegetable beds, a worm farm, and a meadow for pollination, with a native bee refuge. The plans present two options for the placement of garden planters along the stairway’s length; representatives from the nearby Connecticut Friendship Garden want the gardens to be placed on one side of the stairway instead of in a bed running down the middle. Overhead and ground lighting would be added for safety. Construction would incorporate decomposed granite, permeable pavers, and Corten Steel weathering risers to protect from rust.

“It’s still in a very preliminary stage of planning,” Tehrani clarified. “We’ve heard from the community that they want lighting and garden space in the design. There will be a lot of stairs and landings given the length of the site. We’ve also met with Planning, DPW, and Recreation and Parks, and they’ve all expressed support for doing this. We hope to make it beautiful and provide greater pedestrian accessibility while being as supportive to all the different stakeholders in the community as possible.”

The proposed stairway is in the vicinity of the coming 790 Pennsylvania Avenue development – a mixed-use project with 251 units and 47,800 square feet of commercial space – and would provide pedestrian access for its future residents. Funding sources for the project have yet to be finalized, but those involved are hoping groundbreaking will occur within the next year and that total costs will be under $750,000.

“The freeway blocks our access to other neighborhoods both mentally and physically,” remarked Serwer. “It would be nice to have a pedestrian pathway to connect the neighborhoods with no cars on it. From my perspective, it’s really important to have a beautifully connected pedestrian option for 22nd Street.”

“They provide better pedestrian connectivity to different areas. We are very excited about connecting Dogpatch to the Potrero Rec Center; and Potrero Hill with Pier 70 and the Bay,” added Eppler.