A Digital Journal - San Francisco Public Works
In the Works
Every year on April 18, at 5:12 a.m. – the date and time the devastating 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco – City officials and history buffs gather at Lotta’s Fountain to mark the anniversary of the disaster. And every year, our crews make sure the historic landmark sparkles, shines and is in good working condition for the annual commemoration.
Electrician John Aguerre, left, and Stationary Engineer John La Monte check on the condition of Lotta’s Fountain prior to the anniversary event.
Early on a recent brisk and clear April morning, with angry car horns blaring, bleary-eyed schoolchildren shuffling to class and Muni’s trolley buses huffing from stop to stop, one of San Francisco’s oldest landmarks patiently waited for its annual dress rehearsal.
Plumber Chris Lopez meticulously cleans the basins and spigots.
Perched atop a granite base on a pedestrian island at the bustling intersection of Market, Geary and Kearny streets, Lotta’s Fountain – gifted to the City by its namesake, the famous Golden Era theater star Lotta Crabtree – was just a few days away from being thrust into the spotlight to commemorate one of San Francisco’s darkest hours and serve as a reminder of the City’s resilience and grit.
Entertainer and philanthropist Lotta Crabtree gifted the fountain to the City of San Francisco in 1875.
But at a century-and-a-half old, even the sturdiest of drinking fountains needs a regular checkup, which is why Public Works’ skilled plumbers, electricians and stationary engineers arrived early that morning for a thorough cleaning and inspection of the cast iron fountain, its 8-foot column, inner workings and embellished light fixture.
“The big significance of Lotta’s Fountain is that during the 1906 earthquake it was the only source of water in this area, not just for the people but for the horses – and the horses were running everything at the time,” said John La Monte, a Public Works stationary engineer who helped with the inspection that morning.
The landmark also served as a meeting point for San Francisco residents after the violent 7.9-magnitude quake rattled them awake and left much of the City decimated to rubble, fires raging for days.
Much of San Francisco lay in ruin after the 1906 earthquake but Lotta’s Fountain survived.
Every year on April 18, at 5:12 a.m. – the date and time the devastating earthquake struck – City officials and history buffs gather at the fountain to mark the anniversary of the calamity. And every year, our crews make sure the historic landmark sparkles, shines and is in good working condition for the popular event.
“We all come and take care of this fountain and make sure she’s in great shape and she still is,” La Monte said, adding that the fountain’s pump was replaced last year.
Among those readying Lotta’s Fountain for the big day was Public Works electrician John Aguerre.
Crews from the Public Works Bureau of Building and Street Repair make sure everything is in working order.
To examine the fountain’s innards, Aguerre – donning his Public Works reflective vest and knee pads – poked his head through the inconspicuous opening, secured via a lock, beneath one of the four basins that adorn each side of the fountain. Inside, a power source energizes the light atop the structure and runs a circulating pump that feeds the fountain with water from its 35-gallon reservoir.
After the close-up examination and subsequent walk around the fountain, Aguerre was satisfied.
“I have energy, check. I have the working light, check. I have good voltage and a functioning pump coming off of our power receptacle, check,” he said. “That is basically what we’re looking for.”
With its spark back, it was time for Lotta’s Fountain to shed a year’s worth of dust, debris and gunk.
Armed with an assortment of plungers, drain snakes, cleaning products, brushes and a heavy-duty hose, Public Works plumber Chris Lopez was up for the task.
He made sure none of the spouts were blocked, funneled drain snakes down the four drains to dislodge any debris and meticulously scrubbed down the four semicircular fountain basins, along with the spigots – shaped like a griffin’s head – and the metal drain covers that rest in the basins.
Running a hose to a water source across the street, Lopez – who used to detail cars – also sprayed down the whole fountain.
“This one drained pretty good,” he said while working on one of the fountain basins.
Plumber Chris Lopez scours away the gunk and dirt that builds up in the plumbing system over the year.
Others required a bit more elbow grease. Much like unclogging a toilet or sink at home, Lopez used plungers, both small and large, to tackle the most deep-seated blockages, sending the grimy, dark gray water swirling down the tube.
Plungers are used to clear out any drain blockages in the historic fountain.
While the pump circulated water through the fountain, Lopez poured enzyme cleanser into each basin.
“The enzyme’s working,” he said as he watched snow-white bubbles climb out of the drain.
After spraying down the basins again, Lopez placed the scrubbed-down drain covers back inside.
“Once I get all the suds out, I think I’m done,” he said.
The anniversary draws a big crowd, including many folks outfitted in early-20th-century garb.
Refreshed and rejuvenated, Lotta’s Fountain was ready for the limelight. And a few days later, on the 117th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, Lotta’s Fountain solemnly welcomed City leaders, including Mayor London Breed and former Mayor Willie Brown, public safety officials and dozens of revelers – many of them clad in early 20th-century garb – to the annual ritual.
At exactly 5:12 a.m. on April 18 of every year, San Francisco Fire Department sirens sound near Lotta’s Fountain to mark the anniversary of the Great 1906 Earthquake and Fire.
Public Works crews were on hand, too, for the pre-dawn event to make sure everything ran smoothly and to troubleshoot any problems that might pop up.
The fire sirens sounded at 5:12 a.m. and the crowd broke out in song, serenading Lotta’s Fountain with “San Francisco.”
Mayor London Breed joins Public Works staff at the pre-dawn anniversary event.
Firefighters extinguish flames that erupted when a large Marina District apartment building collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.
Building a More Resilient
For more than a decade, San Francisco has strategically allocated a collective $1.4 billion in funding to make seismic improvements and upgrades to City-owned public safety facilities – from revamping aging police stations to building cisterns for the City’s emergency firefighting water network.
Fenced in by major fault lines, it is only a matter of time until the next life-altering earthquake strikes San Francisco. The infamous quakes in 1906 and 1989 caused death and destruction and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there is a 72% chance an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater will rattle the Bay Area by 2043.
“After the Loma Prieta Earthquake in ’89, the City, obviously with that having happened, said, ‘Well, what is the status among all our facilities as to their worthiness in successfully surviving an earthquake,’” said Charles Higueras, acting director of project management at Public Works’ Building Design and Construction Division.
This photograph by Arnold Genthe shows Sacramento Street and the approaching fire after the 1906 earthquake.
With some of the City’s public safety infrastructure decades old and in need of upgrades to better withstand violent quakes, City leaders put San Francisco on a path to systematically revamp its most critical assets relied on by first responders.
The need resonated with San Francisco residents. Three times, in 2010, 2014 and 2020, voters gave strong support to a series of proposed funding measures known as Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) bonds. Public Works has been involved with the ESER program since its inception, providing design, project management and construction management services. Our trades workers also have worked on the projects.
ESER 2010 and 2014 funded upgrades to neighborhood fire stations, district police stations and the Emergency Firefighting Water System – a high-pressure water supply system dedicated to fire protection.
(Left) The old Fire Station No.16, at 2251 Greenwich St. in Cow Hollow, was seismically vulnerable. (RIght) The new Fire Station No.16 meets today’s seismic safety standards.
The specialty water-delivery system – a network of reservoirs, tanks, pump stations, pipelines, tunnels and cisterns – is designed to spring into action if the City’s regular domestic water system is damaged as a result of an earthquake. It was first installed in 1913 in response to the 1906 earthquake and fires that ravaged the City and is owned and operated by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
The first two ESER bonds also funded construction of new facilities, such as the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the Public Safety Building and fire stations No. 16, in the Marina District, and No. 5, in the Fillmore.
Among the undertakings funded by the most recent ESER bond – passed by voters with 82% approval during the March 2020 election – are the Ingleside Police Station Replacement project and the new Fire Training Facility.
Constructed in 1910, the Mission Revival-style police station – located in Balboa Park –originally was built as a place for the Police Department’s horse stables, said Public Works project manager Samuel Chui. It now serves as a full-service neighborhood police station, serving such areas as Bernal Heights, Glen Park, Visitacion Valley, St. Francis Wood and the Outer Mission.
Ingleside Station is in the queue for a major renovation.
“In the case of a major event, the police will not be able to immediately reoccupy the building in the way that they need to serve the public and to serve the citizens,” Chui said. “You can imagine, that’s a time when you absolutely need first responders to be ready and available and have the resources they need.”
The $53 million project is currently in the early schematic design phase. Public Works’ Bureau of Architecture is designing the project and construction is expected to begin in April 2025.
The goal is to rehabilitate the existing building with minimal disruption to the architectural aesthetic and historic features while at the same time making the necessary seismic upgrades. Another structure will be added to meet the growing needs of the neighborhood station.
“That's kind of the Rubik's Cube of a project that the design team is working on,” Chui said.
And while the idea is to design an efficient, hardened police facility that meets modern-day policing needs, a big focal point of the project is also to create an inviting space for the community, said SFPD Capt. Dave Falzon.
“We don’t want to build a fortress. We don’t want to build a police station that intimidates the public where they don’t want to come into it, either for the community room or for police services,” he said.
The vision is to show real community policing in action and treat the community room – which is dated and currently requires the public to enter secure spaces – as the centerpiece of the station.
“We're actually designing a community room and then building a police station around it,” Falzon said. “We've never done that before.”
For San Francisco’s firefighters, meanwhile, a new training facility is much needed.
To date, the San Francisco Fire Department has been using a training ground on Treasure Island, which it inherited from the Navy in the 1990s. But efforts are underway to close that training facility to make way for parklands as part of a development plan. The department’s other, smaller training facility in the Mission District can’t serve the agency’s 21st-century training needs on its own.
“So we need a replacement facility,” said Assistant Deputy Chief Darius Luttropp. “It’ll meet all the needs we have currently, we’re trying to build for the future, but it’ll just be good to meet those objectives of consolidation, modernization and have a safe place to train.”
The roughly $150 million project – which will be built on 8 acres off Carroll Avenue in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood – is expected to enter the conceptual design phase in the coming months. In addition to housing firefighter exercises, it also will be used for EMS (emergency medical technician) training. Its design will ensure that it doesn’t just survive an earthquake but can continue to operate afterward without disruption as an emergency response facility.
Firefighters preforming a fire-rescue training simulation at the Treasure Island training facility.
The new training grounds also will allow for more live fire exercises – right now the department is limited in its ability to do so on its current site – and give recruits the ability to conduct driving training outside of the public space.
“Currently we have to borrow parking lots or find an open space and those are dwindling in the City,” Luttropp said.
And in a city where its unique topography and relatively old housing stock can present a special kind of challenge for firefighters, the goal also is to offer the most realistic training possible.
"It would be kind of doing a disservice to the training facility for it to not mirror the city that we work in,” Luttropp said.
That means different types of buildings with different grades and slopes.
“Particularly the ability to fight fire in high-rise buildings, the ability to fight fire on a downgrade,” Luttropp said. “And then, obviously, being residents of the City, there are places with super tight clearances on the streets... So we'll simulate a lot of that with the training environment, too.”
In a bid to make the surroundings as lifelike as possible, the plan calls for building some training structures with features that intentionally are designed to not meet code, such as too-narrow hallways and doorways, said Public Works project manager Scott Moran.
That way, he said, “the firefighting trainees can actually train in conditions that will be similar to what they experience in the City now.”
While there is a slew of other projects that fall under the ESER program umbrella, there is still a need for future bonds to continue to methodically prepare San Francisco for the worst-case scenario. The next ESER bond is slated to be on the ballot in 2028.
"There’s still much work to do,” Higueras said.
Learn more about the ESER bond program.
An architectural rendering of the new all-gender restroom at the City’s 1 South Van Ness Ave. building.
While political debate rages in parts of the country over gender identity and bathrooms, San Francisco just started construction on a 21-stall all-gender restroom – the largest one yet for a City building.
Most of the political rancor has been over whether transgender, nonbinary and gender non-conforming people can choose a bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Some conservative lawmakers and governors advocate restricting people’s choice to restrooms that correspond to their sex at birth.
All-gender restrooms are intended to be used by anyone.
The new restroom is being built on the second floor of 1 South Van Ness Ave., the City building that houses several departments, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the Department of Technology, the Department of Human Resources and the 311 customer service center.
The architectural schematic of the bathroom design.
The second-floor bathroom, available for City employees, is the only one available for public use, as well. To access it, visitors first will have to check in at the security desk in the lobby, which is required no matter what floor they’re heading to.
The new all-gender restroom, which will replace two existing single-sex bathrooms last renovated in the 1980s, will be constructed by knocking out the wall that separated them. It will use most of the existing plumbing and mechanical connections and floor drains to save on costs, but all the toilets, sinks, toilet partitions, flooring and the like will be new.
The Public Works Bureau of Architecture designed the project on behalf of the City’s Real Estate Division.
“Providing privacy was the utmost concern,” said Jane Chan, the project architect.
The doors and partition walls for the stalls, for example, come to within one inch of the floor, and the top of the 7-foot-tall doors and walls almost reaches the ceiling. The 13 new sinks are also separated into groups to provide a bit more distance between them. Missing from the new facility: urinals.
“We had to get an exemption from DBI (the City’s Department of Building Inspection) for not providing urinals,” Chan said. “We wanted to make sure that all the stalls could be used by everyone.”
Pau Crego, executive director of the City’s Office of Transgender Initiatives, is excited to see this project move forward.
“As a City workforce that reflects our local communities, it is crucial that our physical spaces and workplace environments are safe and welcoming to all City employees, including transgender, non-binary and gender nonconforming colleagues,” he said.
The fact that this facility is available for members of the public when the building is open for business, as well, makes it all the more important.
“Unfortunately,” Crego added, “gendered restrooms are a site of harassment for many transgender people in school, work and in public accommodations – from being questioned about our identities to being assaulted.”
City law requires that all City buildings, whether owned or leased, provide at least one all-gender bathroom on each floor of new developments. Unless not allowed in an existing lease, older buildings must include an all-gender bathroom on any floor that undergoes major renovation. The separate men’s and women’s bathrooms on the upper floors at 1 South Van Ness Ave. will remain for now.
The 1 South Van Ness all-gender bathroom project began April 10 and is expected to be completed by summer’s end.
“This new all-gender restroom,” Crego said, “will help us make progress towards our commitment to gender inclusion in the workplace and is especially symbolic at a time when transgender people’s very existence and basic rights are being contested by state governments throughout the country.”
Three San Francisco Police Academy cadets move through the new reality-based training structure designed to simulate a home setting.
New SFPD Training Space
Tucked inside the Police Academy in Diamond Heights is a newly constructed apartment where both veteran officers and new recruits can train in responding to incidents inside people’s homes.
Built by Public Works carpenters, glaziers and locksmiths, the new reality-based training structure, as it’s known in public safety parlance, is a first for San Francisco. Our trades workers in the Bureau of Building and Street Repair put their skills to good use – building out frames, walls, windows and doors on site to create a three-room home.
“It’s really a game-changer for us,” said San Francisco Police Department Sgt. Justin Bugarin, a field tactics specialist who works in the department’s training division.
First the metal frames go up, followed by the plywood walls.
In the past, the academy conducted the training in an empty classroom, where officers and cadets had to make believe they were entering a residence and moving through rooms, or they had to travel to a specialized law enforcement training facility outside of the City.
“The training isn’t just about looking for a bad guy,” Bugarin said.
Public Works carpenters built the ”residence” from scratch.
He said it also can be used for such police actions as notifying relatives that their loved one has died or talking to an assault victim where they live instead of at a police station.
But pursuing suspects in residential settings will be a key operation. Officers will practice entering the premises, searching and clearing rooms and train in working together safely.
For now, the rooms are largely empty – save a handful of chairs and cabinets – but soon they will be furnished to allow for even more realistic training exercises.
And so, with the help of Public Works, police have found a new home for realistic residence-related training.
Fixing the Third Street Bridge: An Uplifting Experience
The historic Third Street Bridge, which was battered in a major storm last month when three runaway barges rammed into it, once again is able to resume lifts.
A trio of barges broke free from a nearby pier during the March 21 storm and entered Mission Creek Channel,
striking the Third Street Bridge.
We conducted a series of test lifts the week of April 17 – first raising the drawbridge up to a 45-degree angle and then increasing it to the full 70 degrees. All the mechanisms were found to be in good shape. We had structural engineers and stationary engineers on site, checking the rack beam, the pinions, the leaf locks, motors and traffic control devices.
Our expert staff not only conducted visual inspections during the test lifts, but also listened for any unusual sounds.
A team of engineers listens and looks during a series of test lifts.
“I was listening for possible popping sounds,” said Richard Rhee, a Public Works structural engineer. If he heard that, he said, that could indicate the connection points of the moving drawbridge got knocked loose during the barge strikes. He also kept a close watch on the alignment of the teeth in the gears.
The final assessment: “It looks good. Everything is good. I’m so glad that the damage was so local.”
With that, we notified the Coast Guard that we deem the drawbridge to be operational and safe, and that the boating public can once again request lifts to navigate through the Mission Creek Channel. Most requests come from the houseboat community living in a small enclave in Mission Bay and taking recreational sails on the Bay.
We had been keeping the span in the down position in the weeks after the March 21 high-wind storm until we could determine with confidence that public safety would not be jeopardized by raising the bridge. We also wanted to make sure it would not get stuck in the up position and impede the flow of traffic, especially before and after Giants and Warriors games that bring big crowds to the area. And while lifts weren’t allowed, the bridge remained open for people to cross.
However, the eastside wooden walkway, which was badly damaged, remains closed. The needed repairs include restoring the sidewalk’s timber planks and railing, the support steel below and damaged concrete curbs.
Repairs to the severely damaged operator’s house, supporting pier structure and the northside fender pile system also are needed.
The preliminary cost estimate for the fixes is $6.5 million. Public Works, which operates the drawbridge, is still identifying potential funding sources, including federal disaster funds and the insurance for the operators of the privately owned construction barges that caused the damage.
The eastside wooden sidewalk and its support beams sustained significant damage when the barges hit.
Public Works structural engineers, Richard Rhee, center, and John Sprinkle, right,
confer with bridge consultant Paul Favour during the test lifts.
A mix of Public Works staff has been brought in to get the Depression-era span just south of the baseball stadium to work again. In addition to structural and stationary engineers, the group includes carpenters, sheet metal workers, finance professionals and a project manager to see the restoration work through to completion. The iconic Third Street Bridge, also known as the Lefty O’Doul Bridge, is a City landmark that has been a part of San Francisco’s waterfront landscape since the Great Depression.
“Everybody pitched in,” said John La Monte, a stationary engineer who knows the workings and the history of the Third Street Bridge inside and out. “We worked hard to make it as good as it is, and I’m really proud of that.”
Structural Engineer John Sprinkle gives his boss the good news that the drawbridge can resume routine lifts.
Stationary Engineer John La Monte works the controls of the Third Street Bridge during a test lift.
Micro-surfacing = Macro Benefits
Driving, biking or walking around San Francisco got a bit smoother this month with the kickoff of our annual micro-surfacing pavement preservation operation.
Micro-surfacing is the process of applying a solution made up of a mixture of liquid oil and crushed rock to preserve asphalt pavement by protecting its surface from the effects of natural aging, rain and heat.
It can extend the life of pavement at a fraction of the cost by restoring the roadway surface, sealing off any moisture and preventing oxidation that can cause deterioration and require more costly repairs down the road. The cost to micro-surface one block runs about $50,000. A complete rebuild can cost 10 times that.
Crews work quickly to apply the new roadway coating, with the finish work done by hand.
Micro-surfacing a block takes two days to complete, compared to several days or even weeks for full roadway reconstruction, which can include street base repairs and repaving. Each block receives two layers, normally applied about a week apart.
Micro-surfacing is applied in dry, moderate to warm weather conditions. The process includes the use of a large truck that pours the micro-surfacing material onto the street. Workers then use a long squeegee to spread the material evenly across the street.
When applying the first layer of micro-surfacing to a block, crews do not spread the solution all the way to the edge of the roadway. Instead, they typically leave about a foot of space between the micro-surfacing and the curb face to avoid creating a ridge at the gutter lip. After this first layer, which is a thicker texture than the final product, cures for a few days, crews apply the second, smoother layer to the entire roadway, from curb to curb.
The freshly applied layer of micro-surfacing material takes up to four hours to dry.
The well-choreographed team works quickly and can resurface an entire block in less than 30 minutes. Each layer takes about two to four hours to fully dry in moderate weather conditions.
This efficient and cost-effective pavement preservation method is run through our Infrastructure Design and Construction Division’s Street Resurfacing Program. We use an outside contractor to work the micro-surfacing operation. This year Public Works partnered with Pavement Coatings Co., a specialty paving outfit based in Sacramento.
We started the current job on April 10 and are scheduled to wrap up the third week of May. By the end, we will have resurfaced a total of 82 blocks and 17 intersections throughout San Francisco, primarily in the Marina, Cow Hollow, South of Market, Noe Valley and Glen Park neighborhoods. As of the end of April, we’ve completed 57 blocks and 15 intersections.
For more information on the micro-surfacing pavement preservation program or to find out if it’s coming to a street near you, please visit our micro-surfacing website.
Public Works’ contractor crews apply the second coat of micro-surfacing on Brush Place in the South of Market.
Mayor London Breed delivers her State of the City address at Pier 70.
These young volunteers feel the joy of mulching.
A Beautiful Day
in the Neighborhood
For our fourth Neighborhood Beautification Day event of 2023, we trekked out west for a day of cleaning and greening in the Richmond District. Public Works staff gathered on April 15 with more than 50 volunteers at Argonne Elementary School, where they started their day with a pep rally before heading out to the nine work sites.
Participants were greeted with sunny and clear weather, a welcome sight after one of the stormiest winters in recent memory.
After a hugely successful Arbor Day tree planting event last month, we kept up the momentum by planting 16 more trees – eight outside of Lafayette Elementary School and eight on the 200 block of Cabrillo Street.
A budding gardener stands on tippy-toes to grab handfuls of fresh mulch
to help landscape around an elementary school.
A lot of our work focused on the Richmond’s Geary Boulevard and Clement Street commercial corridors, where we picked up litter and pulled weeds from medians, painted out graffiti and cleared out catch basins to prevent flooding. We also sent teams of volunteers to spruce up the elementary school campuses.
One of the best parts of these events is how they bring people from all ages and backgrounds together to work toward a common goal of making the City cleaner, greener and more beautiful. We saw lots of families join in the community caretaking.
Lots of great landscaping work in the Richmond District got done during the monthly volunteer event.
None of this would have been possible without the diligent planning and hard work of the Public Works Community Engagement Team and our Bureaus of Urban Forestry and Street Environmental Services.
Next month, on May 15, we’ll be in the Western Addition, Tenderloin, Hayes Valley and Japantown neighborhoods in District 5. We hope to see you there! Sign up here.