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A Digital Journal - San Francisco Public Works

In the Works

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April 2021

Pictured above: The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps have landed on the world’s map of stunning stairways not be missed. San Francisco is the proud home of many more whimsical public sets of steps. In this month's digital journal, we feature four of our favorites.

FEATURE STORIES

 

Stairways to Heaven

We’d like to introduce you to four of our favorite public stairways in the City – just a sample of the many unique staircases San Francisco has to offer. 

A Modern Twist on Mid-Century Playground

A beloved Mid-Century playground in San Francisco’s Diamond Heights neighborhood reopened after a 1½-year makeover designed to expand accessibility and spark creative play for big and little kids.

Coast Live Oaks Make A Lot of Census to Plant in SF

The Coast Live Oak is the most common San Francisco native street tree species, and our Bureau of Urban Forestry is surveying each of the Coast Live Oaks to assess their health and growing conditions.

Say It Loud and Proud:

Refuse Refuse!

Vince Yuen, a resident of the Inner Richmond, decided to start picking up the litter he saw accumulating in his neighborhood with a community group called Refuse Refuse SF. 

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This majestic view is worth the 163-step climb to the top of the Moraga Steps.

Stairways to Heaven

You may be missing your favorite museums right now. Maybe you feel out of shape because you haven’t been to the gym in more than a year. Or you’ve been thinking about an unexplored nature stroll but haven’t gotten to it yet. What if there was a way to accomplish all three at the same time?

 

In this month’s journal of In the Works, we’d like to introduce you to four of our favorite public stairways in the City – just a sample of the many unique staircases San Francisco has to offer. They feature vibrant artwork, accompanying gardens and enough steps to help you shed those pandemic pounds.

 

As you’ll see, each staircase project was the result of a community-driven labor of love realized through collaborations among neighbors, nonprofit organizations and City agencies.

Public Works and Staircases

Public stairways can be found throughout San Francisco – from the Sunset, the Castro and Potrero Hill to the Bayview, Noe Valley and Pacific Heights. In fact, find a neighborhood with a hill and there’s a decent chance you’ll come across a staircase. Some are blocks long; others are quite short. With rare exception, they are built out of concrete or wood, with treated Douglas Fir the lumber of choice for its resiliency, followed by redwood, which is sturdy and beautiful but pricey. 

 

In all, there are 183 staircases under Public Works jurisdiction, meaning they’re routinely inspected by our engineers and maintained and, when needed, repaired by our skilled trades workers. At least 13 other public stairways in San Francisco are considered “unaccepted” because they weren’t built to code. Their upkeep falls to the adjoining property owners, though they still are available for everyone’s use.

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Left: A Public Works engineer performs a geotechnical review of Telegraph Hill at the base of the Filbert Street stairs. 

Right: Our crews installed tiles to what would soon be named the Quesada Gardens Tiled Steps in the Bayview.

Some stairways, such as those on Telegraph Hill in North Beach, provide the only access to hillside homes. Others guide people to open-space gems, where those hardy enough to make the climb can take in spectacular views – unless the fog has rolled in. One staircase is famous for inspiring the fictional Barbary Lane setting in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. You can find them on Russian Hill leading to the true-life magical Macondray Lane.

While stairs may be an efficient means to get people on foot from one elevation to another, don’t forget that the journey itself may surprise, delight and inspire.

16th Avenue Tiled Steps

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Meet Natasha and Nosa. Natasha Reed, a Professional Engineer with a master’s in business administration, is a native San Franciscan. She is an Associate Engineer with Public Works' Construction Management, working with our Project Controls and Assurances team. Nosakhare Ikponmwonba, who is known as Nosa, has a master’s in public administration and a Master of Science and serves as our Student Internship Coordinator for the Public Works Summer Student Internship Program. He conducts outreach and recruits diverse groups of students, helping to guide them towards engineering, architecture and other public service careers.

Sometimes the most captivating things in life are the ones we cannot fit entirely into our view. We tell people, “You had to be there” and “The picture just doesn’t do it justice,” while we scroll through the photos we took and wonder why they don’t measure up. There’s a good chance you’ll feel that way about the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps when you stand at the foot of this amazing staircase and try to take in its whole world.

 

Yours eyes likely will start the 163-step mosaic journey at the bottom of the sea and then travel through gardens, valleys and a burst of stars before ending at the warm glow of the sun, whose rays fill every tile of the last flight of steps leading to the top.

 

The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, also known as the Moraga Steps, is certainly the most well-known and visited mosaic staircase in San Francisco. It connects Lawton Street to the intersection of 16th Avenue and Kirkham Street, which borders the Golden Gate Heights and Inner Sunset neighborhoods.

 

It took two years of planning and construction to get the staircase to what we see today. The project kicked off in 2003 when nearby residents Jessie Audette and Alice Yee Xavier started a grassroots effort to beautify the area; neighbors funded the work by sponsoring tiles. In addition, Public Works put $100,000 of work into the project, which included the reconstruction of a retaining wall, an additional flight of steps, gutter improvements and erosion control.

 

Artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr worked on the design of the mosaic panels and were inspired by the Selarón Steps (Escadaria Selarón) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Not only are the stairs alive with color, but they’re also nestled between two strips of vibrant gardens full of wildflowers. 

 

And if it happens to be sunset and you find yourself sitting on the steps, gaze out at the Pacific Ocean – it will be like looking into a mirror.

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Arelious Walker Stairs

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Meet Rachel and her dog Stanley. Rachel Alonso has been with San Francisco Public Works for more than eight years, most recently as a project manager. Her latest projects include the Potrero Yard Modernization joint development, Animal Care & Control rebuild, Bayview SAFE Navigation Center, Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center and others. Stanley is a Tibetan Spaniel mix who likes the finer things in life and stopping to smell the flowers. He was adopted from San Francisco Animal Care & Control, arriving as a stray after he was found in Bernal Heights in 2014. Typically, he doesn’t like having his photo taken by the pupparazzi but made an exception for his staircase shoot!

If you haven’t heard of Dr. Arelious Walker, you should know this remarkable champion of the Bayview community, particularly through his role as a pastor in the True Hope Church for more than 50 years. He has been a tireless leader, dealing with issues around homelessness, drug abuse, rent control, job creation and much more to improve the lives of many in his community.

The 87-step staircase that bears his name today is a fitting honor for the pastor. Located at the intersection of Arelious Walker Drive and Innes Avenue in Bayview-Hunters Point, it connects Innes Avenue to Northridge Road and bridges the gap between a public housing complex and open green space at India Basin Park.

 

The project was truly a collaboration among the community, nonprofit organizations and the City. Public Works did a complete rebuild of the staircase to provide safer access for residents.

Artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher designed the mosaic, titled “Flights of Fancy,” which the San Francisco Arts Commission oversaw. Tiles came from tile-making workshops held at the Willie Mays Boys and Girls Club. Our tile setters worked with young adults in the San Francisco Conservation Corps who installed the tiles and learned setting skills; the young workers also cleared and cleaned the surrounding hillside and planted wildflowers and other native plants to beautify the area.

 

The dazzling design is based on decorative patterns drawn from various cultures around the world, including Adinkra cloth from Ghana, Native American painted pottery, woven materials from Central America and Middle Eastern tile patterns, and fabrics from Japan and Indonesia.

Rachel does the Stairway Shuffle while Stanley looks on.

Athens Avalon Stairs

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Meet Cristina and her daughters. Cristina Olea is a Civil Engineer and Project Manager who has worked at San Francisco Public Works for nine years. She bikes, walks, drives and takes transit on the streets she sets out to improve – so she knows firsthand their challenges and potential. Her daughters love walking, biking and running up the City’s stairways.

Overgrown Scotch broom taking over. Invasive weeds wrapped around discarded chairs and trash entangled in the stems. Abandoned cans of house paint leaked onto the gloomy concrete steps. Neighbors of this neglected parcel of land in the Excelsior District had enough. So, for nearly a decade, together with the San Francisco Parks Alliance and Public Works, they slowly transformed this blighted hillside at the intersection of Athens Street and Avalon Avenue into an urban oasis, which had its official ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 24, 2017.

 

The focal point of the Athens Avalon Greenspace is, of course, the rainbow-colored mosaic steps that lead up to Valmar Terrace from Athens Street. Funded by a combination of grants, donations and garage sales – and designed by the artist Iran Narges – the steps are a magnificent complement to the lush gardens and terraced spaces.

 

Ever since its Wizard of Oz-like transformation, the staircase has drawn hundreds of visitors every month looking to fill their Instagram feeds with vibrant color or check off their list of San Francisco stairways to visit. 

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Tompkins Stairway

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Meet Ellen and Fosco. Ellen Wong is a Muni Forward Project Manager at San Francisco Public Works. She manages several transit improvement projects intended to create a safer and more reliable experience for pedestrians both on and off transit. Fosco, a Belgian Malinois, loves to tug, fetch and cuddle. His favorite treats are bully sticks.

Another eyesore-to-Eden story, the uphill journey of the Tompkins Stairway Garden was not easy. In 2007, neighbors secured one of the City’s coveted $15,000 Community Challenge Grants to landscape the hill. But without access to water and the improvement work getting underway at the beginning of a lingering drought, the location soon deteriorated. 

 

But, in 2016, things began to look up when the community sponsors partnered with the San Francisco Parks Alliance to secure a $100,000 grant that included funding for irrigation, landscaping and a redesign of the staircase. In addition, Public Works supported repair of broken tiles, assisted community-led gardening, supplied tools, removed debris and organized community cleanups. 

 

Today, drought-tolerant, native Californian plants flank the multicolored, zigzag-tiled staircase designed by Architect Andre Rothblatt. He was inspired by Steps to Peace, a project painted by young folks in the Syrian town of Deir Atiyah.

 

Located in the southeast corner of Bernal Heights, the Tompkins Stairway Garden serves as a resplendent backdrop to the neighborhood and as an example of how residents, the nonprofit sector and City agencies can come together to create something beautiful and beneficial to the community. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to celebrate the transformation on June 8, 2019.

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Ellen and her fiancé, Jason, enjoy hiking and exploring remote locations throughout California. But these colorful steps offer an urban adventure closer to home. 

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The playground makeover incorporates natural elements, such as seating made from tree trunks, that make inviting spaces for human – and reptilian – visitors.

A Modern Twist on Mid-Century Playground

A beloved Mid-Century playground in San Francisco’s Diamond Heights neighborhood reopened after a 1½-year makeover designed to expand accessibility and spark creative play for big and little kids.

Mayor London Breed led the April 28 ribbon-cutting on the George Christopher Playground renovation. Public Works designed and managed the project on behalf of the Recreation and Park Department and in collaboration with neighbors and community groups who helped drive the design. 

The new play area includes swings, a people-powered whirl ride and an imagination garden with a bridge and playhouse. Also included is a dry riverbed nature area for young explorers.  Landscape Architect Jasmine Kaw integrated fixed and loose natural elements, such as logs, tree stumps and stones, to inspire creativity both in the nature exploration area and across the park.

“Integration of a large nature exploration area within the playground footprint is a first for a City park,” Kaw said. “Imaginative play is encouraged alongside structured play equipment with seamless transitions between the two, giving children more play choices at George Christopher.”

 

A showcase feature of the remodeled playground is a modernist sculpture garden that represents the experimental Creative Play Design movement in vogue when the playground opened in 1971. Kids are welcome to climb on the pieces.

 

Improvements to the playground, which borders Glen Canyon Park, include new pathways, landscaping, lighting, drainage and irrigation systems. A small amphitheater has been transformed into an accessible plaza with views of the playground. The restroom also was made more accessible.

 

The $5.2 million project, which broke ground in late 2019, was funded largely through a voter-approved parks bond and shaped by feedback gathered through neighborhood meetings, community surveys and electronic voting.

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Welcome to Snapshots: Still We Risea podcast produced by San Francisco Public Works.

 

This series is part of a digital time capsule that documents the experiences of our employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Check out a few of our episodes below.

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Earth Day falls on April 22 every year and provides an opportunity to support environmental protection and take stock of how we individually and collectively can do better. Here in San Francisco, we have a long history of leadership when it comes to environmentalism and sustainable living. 

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Jacari Jacobs, a Public Works intern, surveys a magnificent Coast Live Oak on Sanchez Street.

Coast Live Oaks Make A Lot of Census to Plant in SF

Earth Day falls of April 22 every year and provides an opportunity to support environmental protection and take stock of how we individually and collectively can do better. Here in San Francisco, we have a long history of leadership when it comes to environmentalism and sustainable living. 

Both local government and residents have been early adopters and innovators of practices geared toward limiting humankind’s impact on nature. But this dedication to environmentalism goes far beyond commendable recycling rates and cutting vehicle emissions. 

 

As the global climate crisis and its impacts become more apparent, San Francisco Public Works and our partner agencies have doubled down on our efforts to make San Francisco a cleaner, greener and more sustainable city through various initiatives.

For example, we’ve renewed our emphasis on increasing San Francisco’s biodiversity by fostering plant and animal species that are native to the region. This was spearheaded in 2018, when the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution that requires each City department to look into ways they can promote and support biodiversity. For Public Works, this meant diversifying the City’s urban forest by planting a wider variety of tree species, prioritizing native species and expanding San Francisco’s tree canopy through a neighborhood equity lens.

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This old Coast Live Oak, growing adjacent to a public staircase, gets the once-over so it can be properly catalogued.

The board approved the Biodiversity Resolution right as the Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry was beginning its Street Tree Census – an ambitious effort to catalogue all 125,000-plus of the City’s street trees. With this new directive to nurture native plant species, we decided to pay special attention to them during the survey. 

Of the more than 500 street tree species that can be found in San Francisco, 62 are native to California and only 12 are native to San Francisco, so there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of restoring or at least replicating San Francisco’s natural environment. The Coast Live Oak is the most common of these 12 native San Francisco species, with 454 of them located throughout the City. 

What, exactly, makes native tree species so much better for San Francisco’s environment than non-native species? Generally, since plants and animals adapt best to the climate and environment where they evolved, native species are more likely to be able to cope with extreme weather when it occurs.  The Coast Live Oak have historically thrived in the open, hot plains that characterize much of the California coast and Central Valley. They are naturally tolerant of heat and drought; their large canopies provide ample heat-tempering shade in the summer; and they even sequester more carbon out of the atmosphere than most other common species.

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The Coast Live Oak survey included samples of leaves, which serve as good indicators of a tree’s health.

But before we planted more Coast Live Oaks, we decided to learn as much as possible about the ones already growing in San Francisco – how they’re faring in a densely-populated urban setting, what precise conditions they thrive in and what we can do to ensure that each tree we plant in the future lives a long and healthy life. 

This process began when Jacari Jacobs, a Public Works intern, surveyed and catalogued 95 Coast Live Oaks throughout the City in the summer of 2019. Using an iPhone equipped with special GIS (geographic information system) mapping and surveying software, Jacobs took notes on each tree’s appearance and immediate environment to gain some insight into how they’re doing. The ultimate goal of this study was to determine what environmental factors help Coast Live Oaks become successfully established, grow to a healthy size and live full, long lives. The census tracked such factors as tree location, amount of growing space, sun exposure and wind exposure.

 

From this initial survey, we found that San Francisco’s Coast Live Oaks appear to be doing better in areas with more space for their branches and canopies to grow without interference, as well as deeper, more expansive soil. These spaces tend to be along medians, on hillsides and in open spaces rather than in sidewalks, where space is more constrained. Of the surveyed trees that were growing in sidewalks, only 50 percent had full canopies. Meanwhile, 83 percent of those growing in places other than sidewalks had full canopies.

 

We learned some important lessons from this initial survey that will help Public Works’ Bureau of Urban Forestry plant and nurture many vibrant Coast Live Oaks in the years to come. We’ll be taking an even deeper dive into this topic this summer, when two other interns will spend two days a week surveying the remaining Coast Live Oaks in San Francisco. We’ll let you know our findings.

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Vince Yuen and his daughter, Colette, pick up litter on their Richmond District block.

Say it Loud and Proud: Refuse Refuse!

This past year has been exceedingly difficult for many of us. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing hellacious global damage, it has been difficult not to feel hopeless and helpless at times. To combat these feelings, many people used their time and talents to try and make a positive impact — some sewed and donated homemade masks, others volunteered at food banks or made it a point to check in with isolated seniors.

Vince Yuen, a resident of the Inner Richmond, decided to start picking up the litter he saw accumulating in his neighborhood. 

Yuen, a sales consultant, has lived in the City for almost 20 years. He has wanted to get more involved in his community for a while, but never knew exactly how.

Over the last year, he’d noticed just how numb he and many fellow San Franciscans had become to seeing litter around the City and decided to confront this complacency head-on. He started off small, making the rounds picking up sidewalk trash in his neighborhood with his two children, ages 4 and 6. 

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Colette, a first grader, wields the picker tool like a pro.

The community response was positive from the start, and soon he had a handful of volunteers willing to help him in his efforts to clean up their slice of San Francisco. Realizing this, he began formally organizing and promoting neighborhood cleanup events and even started a community group called Refuse Refuse SF. 

The name Refuse Refuse SF is bit of a tongue twister, but its message is clear. Playing off of the two definitions of the word “refuse”— as a verb it means to be “unwilling to accept.” As a noun it means “the worthless or useless parts of something.” The name communicates the group’s refusal to accept and live with the refuse on the streets of San Francisco. 

Our Community Engagement team at Public Works got word of Yuen’s inspiring mission and reached out with an offer of assistance by supplying Refuse Refuse SF volunteers with all the cleaning equipment they need, including trash and compost bags, pickers, brooms and dustpans. We also provide safety vests and masks.

With Public Works’ partnership, Refuse Refuse SF has been able to expand its efforts beyond the Richmond with volunteer cleanup events in Hayes Valley and Lower Pacific Heights. So far, the results have been impressive. In the span of just five organized events, 310 gallons of litter have been collected and placed in bags for proper disposal.

Yuen and his fellow volunteers have begun cataloguing the different kinds of items they find – cigarette butts are the most ubiquitous – and where they’re finding them in order to get a clear idea of where to focus their time and resources. Vince says he does this because he knows how little free time most people have, and he wants to assure that even if a volunteer only has an hour to spare, they can make a noticeable impact. 

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Yuen said he’s heard from plenty of people who grumble that they shouldn’t have to pick up someone else’s mess, or that street cleaning is solely the government’s responsibility. But he said, the problem is not the government’s alone to solve, given limited resources. And although people should make their voices heard, casting blame on others does little to solve the issue. 

“Wouldn’t it be great if everyone helped out just even a little?” he asked. “Imagine the difference we’d see.”

He made his point during a lunchtime cleanup on both sides of his own residential block this week. At first glance, his street looked pretty clean. But he and his first-grader daughter deftly used their pickers and got to work, filling a portable trash bin with cigarette butts, door-hanger advertisements that landed on the sidewalk, plastic bags, pistachio shells, plastic bottle tops, fast food wrappers, a sock, a page from a newspaper, plastic straws, latex gloves, empty cigarette packs, facial tissue and even a carton of broken eggs and two yellow onions.

As he picked up other people’s trash, he showed no anger nor frustration, only a determined pride in helping to keep San Francisco clean.

What is most rewarding about cleaning up your neighborhood, Yuen said, is the sense of camaraderie that it builds with your neighbors, something he has experienced firsthand.  While out on cleanups, he’s met and spoken with neighbors and local business owners who were strangers before. One appreciative neighbor gave him a jar of homemade peach jam as a thanks. Others have asked how they can pitch in. And that makes Yuen the happiest. 

“San Francisco is a beautiful city and keeping it clean is up to all of us,” Yuen said. “We have to make that part of our culture.”

If you’d like to join in on the action, you can sign up to volunteer with Refuse Refuse SF at www.refuserefusesf.org. Public Works also organizes several other volunteer cleanup initiatives for residents, businesses and schools. More information can be found here.

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Excelsior

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Neighborhood Dream Team

Armed with power washers, brooms, paint brushes, weeding tools, rakes, scrapers, mechanical sweepers and flusher trucks, our crews delivered deep cleanings in three more San Francisco neighborhoods this month as part of our special CleanCorridorsSF operation.

Each week, we send a large contingent of street cleaners to a different commercial corridor to provide a coordinated deep-cleaning blitz to create a more inviting environment for residents, merchants and visitors. April’s targeted neighborhoods: Polk Gulch, West Portal and the Excelsior. 

The news blog SF Minute joined our April 22 cleanup in the Excelsior. Check out the coverage here. More information about CleanCorridorsSF can be found here.

West Portal

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Thanks for reading!