Mapmaker, Mapmaker Make Me A Map
Surveying work underway at Buena Vista Park.
For most folks standing at Haight Street and Buena Vista Avenue East in the Haight-Ashbury, it would be a fair bet to say the things that stand out most are the striking Queen Anne Victorian flatiron residential building on the corner and the Y-shaped staircase leading into the wooded Buena Vista Park. Something else catches the eye of San Francisco County Surveyor Kate Anderson: a tiny notch cut into the curb.
County Surveyor Kate Anderson views mapmaking as an important link between the past and the future.
To the average person, these blink-and-you'll-miss-them markings have little to no meaning. To a trained land surveyor, however, these markings are part of the Rosetta Stone to understand everything required to perform a survey and establish boundaries and precise elevations.
Surveyors use a variety of monuments to mark geographic locations.
There are thousands of these notched markings, cross cuts and special disks – collectively known as monuments – that are set in the ground, on sidewalks, the corners of buildings or beneath the surface to mark a reference point for mapping real property in San Francisco. Together they make up a comprehensive database of the City’s geographic characteristics.
“These important and historical monuments are all over – almost hidden in plain sight if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” Anderson said.
Official Map of the City of San Francisco created by City Surveyor William H. Eddy in 1849.
Mapping has been core to Public Works since its founding in 1900 when the department was tasked with laying out the streets for the fast-growing city.
Although San Francisco’s geographic boundaries have remained relatively stagnant, our city is ever-evolving. Today, San Francisco is one of the densest, most fully built-out cities in the United States, a reality that poses its own set of difficulties and constraints on development and construction projects. With very little undeveloped land within the City limits, the primary way to continue to build up the local housing supply, business districts and infrastructure is through infill development.
Surveyors measuring sidewalk on Market Street near Montgomery Street in 1937.
The role of County Surveyor is critical to the creation of new neighborhoods and the remaking of old ones.
Since taking over as County Surveyor seven months ago, after more than two decades working in the private sector, Anderson has inherited a variety of large infill projects, among them Mission Rock, Treasure Island, Parkmerced and Pier 70 – high-profile mixed-use, mixed-income developments to advance San Francisco’s housing goals and aid in the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Performing the work in a tightly packed urban setting is complex, requiring detailed and accurate site surveying to ensure a project’s design fits in with its surroundings and its construction poses as little disruption to the community as possible.
A map of large mixed-use development projects in San Francisco highlights the changing city.
While private surveyors hired by the developers typically do all the surveying on these big projects, the Public Works team reviews their tentative and final maps, handles street dedications and vacations and conducts visual field inspections to make sure the monuments were properly set in the appropriate locations.
A complete survey of an area typically is the first step of any infrastructure project. Without it, architects, landscape architects and engineers cannot properly design a project and construction crews cannot build it. They need to understand all the property’s features to ensure that the work is happening in the correct location to stave off future disputes over land ownership and jurisdiction.
Anderson and her team are involved in a lot more than just large development projects.
They also work on smaller infrastructure projects, including street resurfacing and park improvements. Take, for example, the work now underway to survey Buena Vista Park for the Recreation and Park Department.
The park, the oldest in the system, will be getting new trails, accessibility components and other upgrades. It is this project that brought Anderson to the corner of Buena Vista Avenue East and Haight Street one recent morning, so she could check on the progress made by two of her surveying assistants working nearby.
County Surveyor Kate Anderson checks in with a surveyor working on the Buena Vista Park project.
The two surveyors were in the park about 50 yards apart from each other, one located farther up a hill and slightly around a bend in the trail. Each was equipped with a yellow tripod outfitted with high-tech measuring instruments.
Surveyors measure pathways in Buena Vista Park using high-tech instruments.
The surveyor at the bottom of the hill was set up over a known surveying point where the elevation and coordinates already had been documented, operating a piece of equipment called a “total station.” This digital device measures both vertical and horizontal angles and slope distance in relation to another point. As the surveyors move, they place control points, then measure their location and assign them a unique number so they can be referenced and, if needed, used again in future surveying and mapping endeavors. Control points are usually metal washers, each roughly 1 to 2 inches in diameter and sometimes stamped with the words "control point,” so they’re not mistaken for monuments.
The methods and tools of surveying have changed significantly over time with the advancement of technology. But the basic goal has remained the same: observe and record characteristics of the land in their precise locations.
Public Works carpenters work on restoring an old vara pole, a measuring stick used in land surveys.
Consider that when San Franciso was originally laid out, surveyors used a Spanish unit of measurement called a vara – roughly equal to 33 inches. Jasper O’Farrell laid out the “Plan of San Fracisco” in 1847 and today, 176 years later, many City blocks remain 100 vara, or 275 feet, wide and 150 vara, or 412.5 feet, long.
Modern-day surveyors retrace the original surveyors' measurements, but use updated tools, such as total stations, lasers and global positioning systems – often referred to as GPS – to get the job done expeditiously and accurately.
The Public Works’ Surveying and Mapping section, which is part of the Bureau of Street-use and Mapping, has a staff of 22 – 12 on the surveying team, which gathers and records the data, and 10 on the mapping team, which reviews and processes all mapping applications submitted to the County Surveyor’s office.
But Public Works’ surveyors aren’t the only people collecting the data that informs the creation of surveying maps. In fact, the thousands of survey points that have been established throughout San Francisco are the result of a collaborative effort by surveyors and civil engineers, in both the public and private sectors, that spans more than a century.
Public Works is the official keeper of the information, which anyone can access to draw a map or check land ownership status. An online interactive map of the monuments can be viewed here.
County Surveyor Kate Anderson and her team work on projects big and small.
It is important to recognize the significance of all these monuments so they are not inadvertently disturbed or destroyed during construction projects.
San Francisco-based land surveyors, like Anderson and her team, play a uniquely important role in preserving the City’s history and planning for its future.
“Maps are the link that tie people to their place,” Anderson said. “We need them for very practical reasons,” such as documenting property boundaries, existing features on the property and ownership.
“In the larger view,” she continued, “maps are a graphic link between people and their space. They orient us. They really are a visual timeline of our history – where we started, how we’ve grown and where we’re going in the future.”
In 2016, Public Works’ surveyors set out to find the geographic center of the City and landed on the 700 block of Corbett Avenue near Twin Peaks.
Crews poke a small hole through the Market Street pavement so they can see what utilities may be concealed below.
Better Market Street
After years of planning and community outreach and multiple design iterations, the Better Market Street project is officially underway. Better Market Street is a multi-agency, multi-phase project to revitalize 2.2 miles of Market Street, from Steuart Street to Octavia Street.
Phase 1 of this project, which focuses on the Mid-Market corridor between Fifth and Eighth streets, is in the early stages of construction and will continue to ramp up over the next few weeks.
Things got started in mid-December, when our contractor, Esquivel Grading & Paving, Inc., took measures to protect 90 street trees located within the project area from the upcoming construction work. Then, in early February, crews began a process known as “potholing,” which is the digging of exploratory holes along the project limits to help confirm the depth and alignment of existing underground utilities. This necessary exercise helps the project team avoid damaging any of these utilities during construction.
By the end of February, we completed about three quarters of the potholing work we have planned for Phase 1 and began the process of removing 21 street trees from the project area. Fifteen of these trees are either dead or dying and will be replaced, and the other six conflict with the infrastructure improvements we’ll be making as part of this project. If you see a street tree in the project area without a protective barrier, it is one of the 21 trees scheduled to be removed.
Before construction gets going on Market Street, crews install street tree protections.
Don’t be alarmed tree lovers: We’re planning on making Market Street greener than ever.
Although we need to remove six street trees to perform infrastructure improvements, we also are planning on planting street trees in 20 new locations as a part of Better Market Street Phase 1. We’ll have a more diverse urban canopy as we’re introducing two new tree species to the corridor: the Chinese Elm and the Brisbane Box.
Within the next few weeks, we’ll be starting a few other efforts, including soil cell installations and electrical work for new traffic signals. Soil cells are pieces of underground landscaping infrastructure that help promote healthy tree and root growth without causing damage to either the sidewalk above or other infrastructure below the roots The contraptions allow for more uncompacted soil around the trees.
Overall, this phase of Better Market Street includes a variety of infrastructure improvements that will make Mid-Market safer and more pleasant for all who live, work and travel along the corridor. Once construction is complete, you can expect new, fully ADA-compliant curb ramps, repaved crosswalks, new pavers and curb bulb-outs at multiple street corners. There also will be new traffic signal poles, catch basins to improve drainage and streetscape improvements, such as new bike racks, benches and street trees.
Phase 1 of the Better Market Street project stretches along the Market Street corridor between Fifth and Eighth streets.
Construction is expected to last about 16 months and should be wrapping up in late spring 2024. If you would like more information on the project, please visit www.sfpublicworks.org/bettermarketstreet. And if you’d like to receive regular construction updates via email, sign up here.
Micah Zogaric, third from the left in gray jacket, recruited Scouts to help with the landscaping project.
Tucked between the western end of West Portal Avenue and Portola Drive sits an undeveloped triangular-shaped patch of land owned by Public Works. While many passersby would see little more than weeds, carelessly strewn cigarette butts and patchy turf, Micah Zogaric spotted opportunity.
The Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep senior was on the hunt for a service project to help him reach the rank of Eagle Scout – the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America and one that’s difficult to achieve. He decided that sprucing up the austere median would be just the venture to get him closer to his goal.
Nearby greening projects, among them Dewey Circle at the crossroads of Plymouth and Montecito avenues, served as inspiration.
Zogaric first reached out to Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who represents the West Portal neighborhood, to find out if he could do the project. Supervisor Melgar’s staff in turn reached out to Public Works. And together we strategized how to make Zogaric’s project a reality.
Micah Zogaric confers with two volunteers on which plants to plant where.
Armed with a slideshow presentation, Zogaric first laid out the problem: “This median is filled with trash, weeds and pine needles; it’s a heavily traveled spot that looks bad.” He then stated what he wanted to do: “Day 1 – pick up trash, rake pine needles, remove weeds. Day 2 – plant and water native flora, add soil, any other landscaping.”
Day One of the landscaping upgrades focuses on preparing the land for planting.
Public Works jumped on board. This is not an unusual project for us. We work with similar neighborhood beautification groups all over the City to bring new life to underutilized, small parcels of land in the public right of way under our Street Parks Program. Today, there are about 80 active sites.
The ambitious high schooler got the West Portal Merchants Association to pony up $750 for plants — his family owns the Shaws candy and ice cream shop on West Portal Avenue — and worked with us on how to proceed.
We provided Zogaric with a list of plants that would have a good chance of thriving there and lent him, and the other volunteers he lined up, the tools needed to prepare and plant the land. Our Street Environment Services crew then hauled away the many bags of green waste the project generated. We also supplied a rolling watering cart to care for the plants during their first year, as there is no irrigation on site and the plants will need special care until they’re established.
In addition, we directed Zogaric to contact “811,” the national call-before-you-dig phone number, to make sure the planned work wouldn’t conflict with any underground utilities.
The young volunteers don’t shy from getting dirty.
Zogaric said he was surprised at the steps needed to move his idea forward: finding out who owns the land, getting permission to work on it, fundraising, selecting appropriate plants, arranging for the loaner tools and the green waste pickup and learning how to prepare the soil to grow healthy plants. He also had to line up volunteers to help him get the work done.
It truly was a task that demonstrated the leadership required to become an Eagle Scout.
“The great thing is that everyone I got in touch with has been really supportive,” said Zogaric, who has been in Scouting for more than 10 years, first with Cub Scout Pack 108 and now with Scout Troop 343.
He recruited a group of about 20 other Scouts to help him out on the weekend of Feb. 11 and 12. The work wasn’t easy, especially on the first day. The dirt, which had to be loosened up, was hard-packed and the weeds that needed to be pulled were plentiful. Zogaric played a steady stream of upbeat music from a wireless speaker and kept the teens fueled with snacks and drinks. The second day wasn’t as labor-intensive, but Zogaric had to devise which plants to plant where and how to get them in the ground properly.
He answered a steady stream of questions from the other volunteers, many of whom had never gardened before. Where should the mulch go? How close should the plants be to each other? How deep should the hole be? I broke a rake —where should I put it? Are you sure this is right?
Today, a couple of weeks past the mid-February weekend of work, the parcel of land is far from lush, much of it covered with wood chips that the Scouts spread over the dirt. The new plants are holding their own but will need the regular watering Zogaric promised to do. We have hope and appreciate the effort that it takes to make our magical city even more beautiful.
A real #LoveOurCity story!
Volunteers, donned in rain ponchos, spruce up a campus garden at John O’Connell High School.
No More Complaining. What Am I Going to Do About It?
We held our second 2023 Love Our City: Neighborhood Beautification Day volunteer event this month in the Mission and Bernal Heights – planting trees, sprucing up the Tompkins Stairway Garden and picking up litter to green and clean the neighborhoods.
Amid the periodic cloudbursts, the volunteers donned bright yellow rain ponchos and braved the soggy weather. Their energy was palpable and working alongside our pro crews, a lot of great work got done.
We kicked off the Feb. 11 event with a short pep rally at John O’Connell High School, where we were joined by District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen and Manny Yekutiel, owner of Manny’s, a civic gathering space in the Mission, and an indefatigable neighborhood cleanup volunteer who works in partnership with Public Works.
“I have the privilege of being a small business owner in San Francisco where I get to wake up every day and see the problems of our city on our streets myself and ask the question, ‘What am I going to do to be a part of the solution?’ – not just complain, not just walk around and say, ‘Oh, isn’t that terrible that there’s trash on the street,’ or ‘That tree hasn’t been planted,’ or ‘This doesn’t look good,’” Yekutiel said.
“No more complaining. What am I going to do about it? And so, thank you for answering that question by showing up here today,” he told the gathering of volunteers before they headed to their worksites.
His words are both a call to action and a message of hope.
Civic leader Manny Yekutiel inspires the crowd with an impassioned call for volunteerism.
Participants of all ages showed up, including a lot of high schoolers. They were joined by a group of Public Works employees who came out on their day off to pitch in.
Public Works’ volunteer events are staffed by our Community Engagement Team and the Bureaus of Urban Forestry and Street Environmental Services.
Next month, on March 11, will be one of our biggest Love our City: Neighborhood Beautification Day events of the year as we celebrate Arbor Day. We’ll be planting more than 100 trees in the South of Market and giving tours of our new street tree nursery, which is under construction.
In addition, we’ll also be hosting an Arbor Day Fair, where there will be lots of activities for kids, bucket truck rides and information booths, with the focus on environmental sustainability. This is an annual event – though we put it on pandemic pause for a couple of years – and we’re excited to be starting up again this year.
Both the volunteer workday and the Arbor Day Fair will get underway at 9 a.m. at Bessie Carmichael Elementary School, 375 Seventh St. You can pre-register here:
New street trees take root in the Mission District as part of the volunteer workday.
When the Parade
Passes By, Our Crews
Get to Work
The annual Chinese New Year Parade kicked off when the first float left Second and Market streets just after 5 p.m. on Feb. 4 under rainy skies. The stormy weather did not dampen the spirits of the throngs of onlookers and participants who came out for this much-loved parade.
The route wove through the Financial District and Union Square and ended up in Chinatown at Jackson and Kearny streets about three hours later.
San Francisco hosts the biggest Lunar New Year Parade outside of Asia and certainly one of the biggest civic festivities of the year in San Francisco. Public Works is involved before, during and after the parade – from planning to cleanup.
We had more than 50 street cleaners on the job, working a tightly choregraphed operation. The team used brooms, rakes, shovels, blowers, flusher trucks and mechanical sweepers to pick up the litter.
We like to think of our crew as the last contingent in the parade that follows the marching bands and floats.
Part of the Public Works cleaning team that hit the streets after the Chinese New Year Parade.
New Round of Storms
Keeps Our Tree Crews Busy
The pounding storms that started on New Year’s Eve and stretched into the first three weeks of January dumped 17 inches of rain on San Francisco and kept our arborist crews working around the clock, responding to nearly 1,700 service requests for downed street trees, fallen limbs and precariously hanging branches. After a short respite, the rains and winds picked up again in late February, causing additional damage to the City’s urban forest.
The latest stretch of storms, far smaller than the atmospheric river that roared through at the start of the year, nonetheless resulted in more than 200 tree-related service requests. Of those, some 30 were deemed significant – downing wires, damaging cars and blocking roads.
With more blustery weather in the forecast to add to one of the wettest San Francisco winters on record, the Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry team is ready to respond.
Our Bureau of Urban Forestry crews respond to a ficus tree knocked down by high winds at 24th and Potrero streets.
A large eucalyptus blocks Clarendon Avenue, left; a felled ficus smashes a bus shelter on Potrero Avenue.
Fiscal Year 2021-2022
We are proud to present the Fiscal Year 2021-2022 Annual Report for San Francisco Public Works – a visual document showcasing our efforts to make San Francisco a more resilient, welcoming, greener and cleaner city. We encourage you to take some time to look through the report that features a breadth of projects and programs, from buildings that promote the health and safety of our communities to initiatives that keep our neighborhoods safe and clean. The accomplishments are impressive and this annual report provides a snapshot of the work Public Works does on behalf of the people of San Francisco.
Celebrating a Rich History
of Black Resistance
In 2016, a handful of Public Works staff from our Bureau of Architecture came together with the idea of celebrating Black History Month by lifting up the accomplishments of the country’s Black architects, engineers and construction managers.
This first celebration connected colleagues through social and educational opportunities. The seed that was planted by this founding group has sprouted into a department-wide Black History Month celebration and also has served as the inspiration for other heritage month celebrations and our Racial Equity Initiative.