Potrero Hill is like an island. Bound by Highway 101 and Interstate 280 and natural topography – hills are a great barrier for people and fog – the community is visible from adjacent streets and other peaks. But like an isle it’s hard to get to, or out of.
Once there was an access point between the Hill’s 101-lined side and what’s now called “Mishpot:” the 25th street footbridge, also known as the 25th Street pedestrian overcrossing, or POC. The bridge has been gated shut since the 1990s. Why it was closed, and by whom, isn’t clearly known.
According to California Department of Transportation spokesman, Steve Williams, access to POC was shuttered at the request of the San Francisco Police Department because of a crime wave in the early-1990s. “I guess it was the perfect escape route,” he said. Now, he admitted, “There’s just a lot of kicking the can between us, the residents and Police Department.” If Hill residents collaborate with the San Francisco Department of Public Works and SFPD and request that Caltrans reopen the bridge, Williams said it’ll likely open on a “trial basis.”
Reopening the overcrossing would promote walking, and make it easier to get to transit hubs, as well as 24th Street businesses, restaurants, bars and merchants, and the only pharmacy for many blocks and hills. As a loyal public transit rider, I’ve spent many hours and miles walking to the 24th Street Bay Area Rapid Transit station and the bus stop at the corner of Potrero Avenue and 24th Street in the nearly six years that I’ve lived a block and a half away from the bridge. Instead of trekking over to the 23rd Street car and pedestrian overcrossing to get across the freeway and off the Hill, the open bridge would be highly convenient.
Walk SF executive director Nicole Ferrara said her pedestrian advocacy group supports reopening the bridge. “We always love opening up walkability,” Ferrara said. She pointed out that the bridge is between two schools, and that Walk SF encourages walking and biking opportunities. She acknowledged community concerns, such as proper lighting. “How it can be opened in a way that makes people feel safe?” she considered.
At a community meeting held last spring, one longtime resident was adamant about keeping the bridge closed. She cited an unpleasant incident from almost 30 years ago, when she heard people at her door in what seemed to be an attempted break-in, who fled on the then-open bridge.
Since that time, the neighborhood has changed. My parents, who moved in two blocks from the bridge in the mid-1980s, when it was still open, tell me stories about desolate streets and nary a stroller in sight, let alone a good park to take the baby in that rare stroller. Now the Hill is considered a family neighborhood. According to real estate site Trulia, “Potrero Hill has low crime relative to the rest of San Francisco County.” It’s not a particularly dangerous area anymore, especially compared to other neighborhoods, such as the Tenderloin, and parts of the Mission, Bayview, and Visitacion Valley. Sure, crime happens, mostly in the form of property thefts, which is occurring across the City. But the bridge isn’t located in the slums or an abandoned industrial zone. There are public housing complexes a few blocks east, but cutting off those residents seems an absurd way to co-exist in the growing neighborhood.
The bridge infrastructure is already there, and has been maintained. No significant renovation would be required to make it accessible, only modest improvements, many of which DPW has mapped out. Although a few calls to SFPD yielded minimal answers or help on the topic, at two community meetings in the past few months DPW laid out its proposed improvements. On the Vermont Street side, it plans to modify the concrete wall and remove some trees for sightline issues. A bigger change would be to alter the ramp’s steep grade to meet modern accessibility codes. On the Kansas Street side, Eucalyptus trees would be removed and fencing would be fixed and redesigned. The gate would be pushed closer to the street; as it is now the permanently locked entrance is deep onto the path. The issue of even having a gate is up for discussion; other pedestrian bridges, such as the 18th or 22nd street footbridges, also along the freeway, aren’t gated.
DPW is ready to take on the easy upgrade project. It’s not often a public project can happen with practically the opening of a gate. We should seize this opportunity for a low-cost and low-resource improvement effort. By so doing, issues prompted by the decades-long closure would be resolved. Instead of loitering at the closed gates, and trash collecting at the bottom of the ramp, we could make the large concrete wall a public art spot, with landscaping. The bridge can become a vibrant, active part of the community. Look at the bottom of the 18th Street bridge and ramp, an enjoyable, beautified urban space. Think of the homemade heart-carrying 101 freeway overcrossing dancing man; he can get a new a new spot over the freeway to spread the love. DPW has presented mural ideas, fence designs and other artistic opportunities. Let’s seize upon them.