Residents Call for City, Developer to Proceed with Promised Rec Center Staircase

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For almost a decade, residents have advocated for development of staircases from the point where 22nd Street turns onto Texas Street, next to The Landing at 1395 22nd Street, past the Potrero Hill Recreation Center, ending at the park entrance on 801 Arkansas Street. An abbreviated stairway at 22nd and Texas streets currently runs past The Landing and ends in a pile of dirt, unconnected to Missouri Street. 

The hoped-for staircases would connect Dogpatch to Potrero Hill, giving Hill residents better access to the 22nd Street Cal Train station and Dogpatch inhabitants improved passage to the Recreation Center. In 2015, the stretch of envisioned staircases was termed “the Serpentine Steps,” because they’d follow the winding path of serpentine rock in the area. 

“The one piece of staircase we currently have between 22nd Street/Texas Street, which leads to nowhere, is a dead-end walkway that serves no one. The developers and the City need to fulfill their commitment to the community and finish the connection,” said Katherine Doumani, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association (DNA) president.

According to Rachel Gordon, San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) spokesperson, while DPW is responsible for the land on which the existing path traverses, the trail is an unmaintained “unaccepted street.” Unaccepted streets don’t meet requirements to be fully municipally adopted, including a minimum 40 feet right-of-way and roadway width of at least 26 feet from curb to curb. Although it’s a public right-of-way, the dirt path isn’t open to automobile traffic and has no sidewalks or drainage. 

Gordon said DPW assigns responsibility for unaccepted rights-of-way based on the center line of the right-of-way. 

“Consequently, adjacent owners are responsible to maintain to the center line of the right-of-way adjacent to their property. If an adjacent property owner or an independent third party seeks a permit to develop all or a portion of the unaccepted right-of-way with a stairway, street, improvements, or any other type of encroachment, the permittee is responsible for the entire encroachment no matter where it is located on the unaccepted right-of-way,” said Gordon. 

The entity, public or private, that constructs the staircase will be responsible for its upkeep. The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (RPD) owns the property adjacent to the dirt path. It wouldn’t be accountable for maintaining a staircase unless it builds it.  

In addition to the lower staircase ending in a mound of soil before Missouri Street, there’s no staircase between Missouri and Connecticut streets. The dirt path between Connecticut and Arkansas streets is rough and steep, but not as difficult to traverse as the Missouri to Connecticut streets portion. According to Maulik Shah, Friends of Potrero Hill Recreation Center Park co-director, the section between Missouri and Connecticut streets is rocky, steep, and filled with debris like broken glass. The path is especially rough after a hard rain. 

Doumani said that the path is “an absolute nightmare.” She’s tripped in the area. Jennifer Serwer, Friends of Potrero Hill Recreation Center Park co-director, said she’s spoken with two people who slipped or injured themselves walking on the hill. The City Attorney’s Office said no lawsuits or claims related to trail.

Shah said a staircase between Missouri and Connecticut streets could be an exercise amenity.

According to Serwer, community advocacy efforts to build the staircases began eight years ago. Sherman Little, The Landing’s initial developer, agreed to construct the section from 22nd/Texas to Missouri Street. In 2015 real estate websites, such as The Registry SF, reported that The Landing was committed to installing a 181-step public staircase on approximately 6,300 square feet of outdoor space along the north side of the planned residential complex. In part due to this pledge The Landing was granted a key Eastern Neighborhoods Plan-based exemption from having to complete a detailed environmental impact report. 

In 2015, Little sold the project to Align Real Estate, a City-based developer. The Landing opened in 2019, without provision of the full Serpentine Steps. In 2019, Julian Marsh, Align Real Estate principal, wrote Doumani that Align was eager to complete the staircase’s last section but was waiting for approval of the necessary major encroachment permit. 

“The application was submitted in June 2017, it has been approved by all City agencies, but needs final approval by the Board of Supervisors,” Marsh wrote. “I am hoping this will be soon. Once the permit is issued, we will complete the work.” 

In November 2022, Doumani notified Marsh that DNA had been informed that the Serpentine Stair encroachment permit had been approved. Doumani requested that Align share the schedule to complete the project. Align didn’t respond. Align also didn’t reply to an interview request. 

In 2015, Little also promised $1 million for community open space projects. The staircase from Missouri to Connecticut streets would’ve been an obvious use of these funds. Little later asserted that this liability had been transferred to Align as part of its purchase of the project. 

“Align commented that they were surprised by the $1 million that they acquired along with the project. Yet when Align assumed control of the project in 2015, it communicated with Friends of the Potrero Hill Recreation Center Park. Align stated it would help the Friends of the Potrero Hill Recreation Center Park with funding the second staircase,” said Serwer. 

In 2017, the University of California, San Francisco became aware of a lapse in communication between Align and Friends of Potrero Hill Recreation Center Park and provided a $500,000 construction grant for the staircase. UCSF will release the funds once the project is started.

In 2018, MOHCD awarded $100,000 to Friends of Potrero Hill Recreation Center Park to draft staircase construction documents. In 2021, the nonprofit issued a request-for-proposal for a staircase between Missouri and Connecticut streets. Bids for a concrete stairway were submitted by Plant Construction and Yerba Buena Engineering. 

“The cost for a new concrete staircase is about $2.5 million. We are now considering building a trail staircase with the $500,000 we have from UCSF. This would consist of a series of steps edged with wood material and filled with gravel and permeable pavers,” said Serwer.

Julie Christensen, Dogpatch-Northwest Potrero Hill Green Benefit District (GBD) executive director, favors using the UCSF funding to construct a trail stair between Missouri and Connecticut streets. 

“This would be a huge improvement over current conditions,” said Christensen. 

According to Shah, in 2021, Friends of Potrero Hill Recreation Center Park reached out to RPD and DPW in the context of applying for grants. 

“Some…could have been used for the staircase from Missouri Street to Connecticut Street. The grant requires a government agency to apply for the grant. We had follow-up emails and calls with them in January 2022. But RPD and DPW both declined to take responsibility, so we missed the opportunity,” said Shah. “We have no plans to currently apply” for the 2023 Clean California grant cycle. “We need RPD or DPW to submit the application. Until they commit, there isn’t anything we can do.” 

Last month, as this article was being developed, Friends of Potrero Hill Recreation Center re-engaged with RPD.  

“The next step would be finalizing a plan and securing more funding, if necessary,” said Tamara Aparton, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department spokesperson. 

Christensen said San Francisco’s southeastern neighborhoods haven’t benefitted from bursts of civic infrastructure construction over the past 100 years. 

“Our area has a disproportionately high number of unaccepted streets and neglected rights-of-way, places where there should be City-engineered streets and stairways. The dirt path along 22nd Street could connect Potrero Hill to the waterfront and SFMTA’s T Third Street Line and Dogpatch to the Potrero Hill Recreation Center. Though neighbors on the Hill pay their taxes like everyone else, they get less. The City won’t take responsibility for bringing these car and pedestrian links up to code. They put insurmountable hurdles in the path of neighbors who try to do it themselves,” said Christensen.

Doumani said community groups shouldn’t be continually asked to fundraise for neighborhood improvements, relieving the City of its obligations. 

“The City isn’t funding community amenities like the staircases. It encourages the community to do it. After the community raises funds, the City does not act. As the project stalls, the costs shoot up. Later, when the community tries to fundraise again, donors express frustration. They feel projects go nowhere. City agencies need to work together to solve problems so projects get completed,” said Doumani.