A Digital Journal - San Francisco Public Works
In the Works
Fixing San Francisco’s 107-year-old Civic Center steam loop has its challenges, and Public Works’ steamfitters use high-tech gadgets and old-school skills to keep the heating system for City Hall and nearby public buildings up and running.
Buried beneath the streets and sidewalks around Civic Center Plaza, a steam system more than a century old provides heat for City Hall and other grand civic buildings in the historic district. And it is the job of Public Works’ steamfitters to keep it running.
Working in an underground vault off of Grove Street, steamfitter James Aylsworth works on the valves that control the Civic Center steam loop.
Our crews from the Bureau of Building and Street Repair just wrapped up a month-and-a-half-long effort that focused on an underground stretch along Grove Street. First, they inspected the condition of the sections of the steam system that they could access from manholes: steam valves, steam traps, flanges and pipes – checking for leaks and broken and worn components. Next, they replaced the materials that couldn’t be repaired, which was just about everything.
“It’s looking good. We got Grove Street tightened up,” said Christopher Kazarian, who supervises the Public Works Steamfitter Shop. The telltale sign: no excess steam was leaking through the road, sidewalk or manholes.
To get the job done, they climbed into the manholes, down narrow ladders that run about 8 feet underground. The space provides little elbow room for two average-size adults; add a third and it gets cramped.
Fresh air is pumped into the manhole through a flexible tube while crews work below ground.
There, they used welding torches, pipe and socket wrenches and impact guns to torque the bolts. Armed with single jacks – short-handled hammers with 3-pound weighted heads – they whomped the pipes in place.
“It’s really a never-ending project. This is an old system and is always in need of maintenance and repairs,” Kazarian said.
The Civic Center steam loop system began operating in 1915 to service the emerging government and cultural district. The first buildings – the Civic Auditorium and City Hall – came online in 1915. The Main Library, now housing the Asian Art Museum, opened in 1917. Next came the State Building in 1926 and the Department of Public Health headquarters in 1932.
All required heat to keep the people who work in and visit the buildings warm. Steam heat was in vogue at the time.
The City, still rebuilding in the aftermath of the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, constructed a steam loop around Civic Center that runs under Polk (now known as Carlton B. Goodlett), Grove, Larkin and McAllister streets.
Clearway Community Energy service area near Civic Center
Click here for full City map of steam service area.
Feeder pipes run steam into the buildings; its heat released through building radiators for warm-air comfort.
A steam radiator, shrouded by a decorative grate, heats the City Hall entryway off of Carlton B. Goodlett Place.
To supply steam to the loop, the City also built and operated a powerhouse at Larkin and McAllister streets, which opened in 1915, the same year as the loop.
The original Civic Center steam loop power plant at Larkin and McAllister streets now sits idle.
Today, the Civic Center steam loop serves City Hall, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the Department of Public Health building and the Civic Center Courthouse, which opened in 1998.
Portions of the loop were decommissioned after the aging infrastructure gave out. The powerhouse was shuttered in the mid-1990s but remains standing, with its conspicuous rooftop smokestack now held up by braces.
These days, the City purchases steam from an outside firm, Clearway Community Energy, which supplies steam to some 180 buildings in San Francisco and operates two power plants –
The Clearway Community Energy power plant on Jessie Street in downtown San Francisco creates steam for about 180 buildings, including City Hall.
– the main one at 460 Jesse St. in the South of Market, and the other at 1 Meacham Place in the Tenderloin that kicks in during peak demand.
Boilers inside the Jesse Street steam plant require complex and intricate engineering.
Last year, San Francisco purchased 30 million pounds of steam to heat the Civic Center facilities.
The Civic Center steam loop system began falling into disarray in the 1970s. “The plan was to rebuild it, but we didn’t move forward because of lack of funding,” said Masoud Vafaei, the Civic Center district manager for the City’s Real Estate Division, which operates the steam system. “The loop really isn’t a loop anymore because some sections are no longer operable.”
The portions still working have been sprouting leaks, sending steam up through manholes, sidewalks and streets.
Escaping steam rises through a manhole near Civic Center Plaza.
Maintenance has been sporadic over the years due to budget constraints, but the project that just ended repaired the known leak trouble spots and took care of basic maintenance, such as lubricating the expansion joints and replacing worn equipment, along Grove Street. Crews also made a needed fix in front of City Hall. Kazarian said Larkin Street is likely next in line for servicing when additional funds become available.
“Working on an old system to keep it working has a lot of challenges,” said Public Works steamfitter James Aylsworth, who started his job with Public Works eight years ago after working in the private sector putting in new steam systems at hospitals and colleges.
He made his comment while underneath Grove Street working on a pipe.
Co-worker Larry Daniels was a few feet away, making sparks fly with a torch as he welded on a new flange.
As Daniels worked, he wore a welding hood, with darkened face shield down, to protect his eyes from potentially vision-damaging ultraviolet and infrared rays emitted from the arc.
Each steamfitter wore a digital gadget that emitted regular audible signals to signify the gas levels in their underground workspace were safe. Up above, Kazarian, the Steamfitter Shop supervisor, also kept close watch on a gas-level monitor and made sure a constant flow of fresh air was pumped into the manhole through a flexible ventilation tube.
James Aylsworth readies to climb into the manhole.
The steam, which runs at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, was shut off to keep crews from getting scalded.
At the end of the job, after the steam was turned back on, a plume of steam rose through a manhole on Carlton B. Goodlett Place near McAllister Street, signaling a leak nearby that was not in this project's scope of work.
Kazarian grabbed a handheld infrared imaging meter he kept in his truck and aimed it toward the ground to help pinpoint the source of the leak.
Christopher Kazarian, who runs the Steamfitter Shop, uses a heat-sensing meter to track the source of a steam leak.
The heat-sensitive meter picks up sub-surface temperatures – the hottest represented in red, the coolest in blue – on the device’s screen. Not surprisingly, the area near the steam plume was running red and orange.
Kazarian and his team will use the meter all along the loop to help isolate other locations that need attention so future work scope can be developed.
Meanwhile, Vafaei, from the Real Estate Division, said the City is exploring different options on how to best move forward, including whether to rebuild the existing steam loop or build independent electric steam systems for each building that still would conform with federal rules pertaining to maintaining the integrity of historic buildings.
Although the problems with the deteriorating system are decades old, the City is looking at the issue with more urgency now through the lens of climate change.
Clearway, the company supplying the steam now, uses natural gas, backed up by No. 2 diesel fuel, to heat up water to form the steam – a process that results in greenhouse gas emissions.
A small window allows us to peek inside at the furnace in one of the six boilers at the Clearway Community Energy Plant.
City officials at Real Estate and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission are assessing the feasibility of using hydroelectric power produced by the City’s Hetch Hetchy system to make the steam. One option being looked at is working with Clearway to convert the existing steam loop to clean energy.
“We’re looking at innovations right now to a decarbonized future. We believe in the next five to seven years, we’ll be able to cut our carbon footprint in half,” said Gordon Judd, general manager of Clearway Community Energy.
Growing concerns over global warming are driving the change.
“Steam systems in New York City and Boston are looking into green options, including ‘renewable’ natural gas and electric boilers,” said Pierce Morris, an adjunct professor of history at the University of Rochester and an expert on the history of energy resources. “The Seattle steam system used electric boilers from hydroelectric plants for many years before converting to a biomass (wood chip) boiler plant. Unfortunately, electric boilers are very expensive to run, although natural gas is also getting more expensive.”
With the fate of San Francisco’s Civic Center steam loop system remaining up in the air, Public Works steamfitters will keep busy making fixes to keep the heat on.
Steamfitters break down their worksite.
The Castro-Mission Health Center got a top-to-bottom makeover with new patient rooms, waiting rooms and landscaping.
Remodeled Castro-Mission Health Center Keeps the Focus on Community-Based Care
For decades a beacon of compassionate, comprehensive care for the Castro and Mission communities, San Francisco’s first neighborhood-based primary care clinic this month celebrated upgrades that will help improve the patient experience for thousands of people each year.
City leaders, healthcare workers and community members gathered in front of the newly renovated Castro-Mission Health Center, located at the corner of 17th and Prosper streets, to mark the completion of the $14 million project. The overhaul included seismic upgrades, improved accessibility for people with disabilities and enhanced patient exam and consultation rooms.
“This is a great facility and it really is a great example of all the wonderful things that we do in San Francisco,” Mayor London Breed said at the Sept. 15 ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Public Works was responsible for project management, construction management and landscape architecture. Construction kicked off in January 2021 and wrapped in July 2022.
Improvements included a new HVAC system and electrical switchgear, updated staff facilities, a dozen new exam rooms, four new consultation rooms, a new lab and waiting room, as well as renovations to existing spaces. The exterior renovations included low-maintenance landscaping surrounding the facility.
“I just want to highlight the diverse communities of patients that have played a vital role in the Castro and Mission neighborhoods for decades,” interim Public Works Director Carla Short told the crowd at the ribbon cutting. “The upgrades that our project team were able to deliver will ensure that these communities continue to get the excellent care that they deserve.”
Mayor London Breed, interim Public Works Director Carla Short and San Francisco Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax, top photo, celebrate at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The clinic, operated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health and formerly known as Health Center 1, traces its roots back to the mid-1960s when it was established as the City’s first public health center. It played an integral role early on in the HIV/AIDS epidemic and continues to serve as the third-largest HIV treatment and care provider in the City’s primary care network.
The Dimensions Clinic at the Castro-Mission Health Center, meanwhile, serves low-income or homeless LGBTQ+ youth – from 12 to 25 years old – living in San Francisco and other Bay Area communities by offering a variety of free or low-cost health services, including hormone replacement therapy, behavioral health and substance-use counseling, in addition to primary and urgent care.
Roughly half the patients at the Castro-Mission Health Center come from LGBTQ+ communities. All told, the health center serves more than 3,900 patients a year on average.
One of the first clinics of its kind in the country, the Castro-Mission Health Center’s Dimensions Clinic has been providing queer and transgender youth with respectful gender and sexuality affirming healthcare services since 1998.
Our landscape architects included drought-tolerant plants in their design of the health center’s courtyard.
For Shy Shaw – who identifies as a trans woman – the clinic changed her life. At 17, she met a young woman who pointed her toward the health center when she was looking for care.
“I have to honestly say the staff here does a great job with helping the youth and helping people,” Shaw, now 34, told attendees at the ribbon-cutting celebration. “I have been through every program they have."
The Castro-Mission Health Center renovation project primarily was funded by the Public Health and Safety Bond, passed by San Francisco voters in 2016. The $350 million bond supports essential seismic and service delivery improvements to aging facilities that San Francisco relies on to protect the health and safety of residents, neighborhoods and businesses. The bond also funded capital improvements to the Maxine Hall and Southeast Family health centers, as well as clinic facilities at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.
“I am so proud of San Francisco for always, time and time again, we put our money where our mouth is,” Breed told the crowd. “We invest in the things that we know are important.”
Public Works staff involved on the project include:
Public Works’ glaziers install new art glass panels, each piece weighing hundreds of pounds, at the Bayview neighborhood library branch.
A Window into the Past
For years, patrons at San Francisco’s Bayview/Linda Brooks-Burton Library were greeted by the neighborhood’s rich history.
Ten large glass art panels – each measuring 8-feet high and 5-feet wide – have graced the street-facing façade of the branch library, which opened in 2013. They feature historical photographs that depict the people and places of the Bayview. Among the images: a crane at the shipyard, cows on a hill, the Bayview Opera House, Quesada Gardens, a fisherman with baskets of shrimp, an Ohlone canoe, a large ship in drydock and Sam Jordan’s Bar and Grill.
But even the past is no match for Father Time: Over the years, a steady dose of sunshine has bleached the panels, causing the historical artwork to fade. And some of the special panels were broken several years ago and replaced by regular glass.
It was time for a refresh.
This month, crews from the Public Works Glass Shop installed six new glass panels along the library’s Third Street façade. Not only were the new panels upgraded with a fresh coat of gold-colored ceramic ink to make the artwork pop again, they also were outfitted with a thick slab of protective glass, hopefully shielding the past from any future damage.
Here’s how it works: Once crews remove the old glass panels, they install the new art glass, which is about three-eighths of an inch thick. Then, the even-thicker protective glass is put in and crews caulk the seams to guard against dust and damaging weather. Finally, they place a graffiti film over the glass to further protect it.
With the thicker protective glass weighing some 300 pounds, the install work is no picnic.
On a recent September morning, Glass Shop Supervisor Jamal Katout, lead glazier Joseph Luaulu and glaziers Jose Rodriguez and Michael Bollier worked in concert to carefully move the heavy glass panels from the truck to the building, using glass suction cups and a dolly. Before installing the panels, the crews meticulously cleaned them.
“The reason for that is because now it's like the art glass behind it is kind of in its own little capsule, so you don't want dirt on the back of that glass because then you're gonna see it,” Katout said.
The glass itself is a specialty glass, called Starphire. It is low iron, said Vito Vanoni, a senior architect and technical manager with Public Works who was the architect on the project. That means it’s "optically clear” and doesn’t have the greenish tint other glass has.
Even before the heavy lifting began, the process to replicate the art glass wasn’t easy.
The first hurdle: Find the right shade of color to match the original as closely as possible.
That proved challenging in part because the fabricator of the art glass no longer uses the process employed initially, Vanoni said.
“They said no one does it that way anymore,” he said. “They don’t use dry pigments anymore. So, we had to go to something different.”
Fortunately, the original pigment manufacturer was willing to send a sample of the dry pigment in a jar to give Vanoni and his team a starting point. They took some time to try and match the sample by looking at different colors, using the Pantone color-identification system and several different paint companies.
“We found four that were a really good match, we thought,” Vanoni said.
The team ordered paint in those colors and painted on white boards. Then they brought those boards to the library to compare them with the originals. They tested the look in the morning and afternoon to account for different lighting.
Eventually, they brought out library representatives and Katout to collectively look at the samples and agree on the closest match.
All told, the project took about two years. Between fabrication and installation, the six panels that were put in cost about $115,000, Vanoni said. The process to procure the last four replacement panels is underway.
Public Works’ street inspectors, accompanied by SFPD officers, make the rounds at Mission and 24th streets to check on vendor permits.
on Illegal Street Vending
Since San Francisco Public Works street inspectors began enforcing the City’s new street vending permit in mid-September, some community members have reported noticeable improvements around the 24th Street BART Station in the Mission.
Our goal is to keep the path of travel free of hazards so people can access BART and the Muni stops, and visit shops and restaurants without having to navigate items blocking the sidewalk. The initial weeks of enforcement have proven successful overall.
“I can walk through here now and don’t have to worry about tripping over things or getting forced into the street,” said Mission resident Alma Morales, as she waited for a bus at 24th and Mission streets with her 2-year-old son. “It was getting crazy out here. It’s much better now.”
A vendor shows our street inspectors her permit, proving she has the City’s OK to sell goods on Mission Street.
One aim of the Street Vending Permit Program is to create a legal route for legitimate vendors to sell outdoors; another is to crack down on the sale of stolen items. People selling goods in the public right of way may be asked to show proof of ownership, such as a receipt.
When an inspector shows up and asks for a permit, people will have the ability to pack up and leave the area before any enforcement action is taken. Offenders could have their items confiscated and face fines of up to $1,000.
The sale of stolen goods certainly hasn’t disappeared completely, but the more regular presence of Public Works inspectors and police officers seems to be playing a role in reducing the illegal activity.
Public Works has issued 63 permits, with another three in the works. An additional 14 applicants want to sell food and were sent to the Department of Public Health to secure a special food handling permit.
With permit in hand, a jewelry vendor has the green light to set up shop on the sidewalk.
For the past several months, we have been working with community groups to let people know about the new permit and to help them through the permit application process. Outreach has been conducted in English, Spanish and Chinese.
While the permit costs $430, there is a fee waiver for people who qualify for government assistance, such as Muni’s Lifeline program, public health care or subsidized housing. So far, all permit holders received a fee waiver. However, everyone must still pay a $9 Board of Permit Appeals surcharge.
Public Works street inspectors are on the ground seven days a week and initially concentrating on three areas: Mission Street around the 24th Street BART Station and up to 16th Street; UN Plaza and Stockton Street in Chinatown. Police are on hand to provide backup, if needed.
A delightful scene of the flora and fauna of Glen Canyon past and present greets passersby at the dead end of Burnside Avenue.
Glen Park Mural Connects Nature, History and Community
The cold and fog didn’t keep more than 100 Glen Park residents and representatives from Public Works and City Hall from coming out to celebrate the newly completed pair of public murals that focus on the flora, fauna and history of the neighborhood.
Envisioned by a group of neighbors, the vibrant murals can be found on the retaining wall and along a staircase at the dead end of Burnside Avenue, not far from Chenery Street.
The large retaining wall and its staircase are managed and cared for by Public Works, and connect to the Glen Park Greenway, which runs from the BART station to Glen Canyon Park. This greenway is an important walking corridor in the neighborhood and connects Glen Park to the rest of the City as part of the Crosstown Trail, which stretches from the northwest tip of San Francisco at Lands End to the southeast corner near Candlestick Point.
The outline of the mural was projected onto the retaining wall, giving artists an assist in painting the scene.
The Burnside Mural+ committee, led by resident Renee Berger, headed up the organizing, fundraising and shepherding of the mural design. The group commissioned Twin Walls Mural Company to paint them. The firm’s co-founders, Elaine Chu and Marina Perez-Wong, led the project.
The retaining wall portion showcases animals, birds, plants, trees and landscapes native to the area, creating a “learning wall” for the students at neighboring St. John School and others who stop by. The staircase – painted in a grisaille method, using only various shades of blue – depicts important historic moments with ties to Glen Park, including one of the first suffragist parades in the United States and the Gum Tree Girls, a trio of neighborhood activists who waged a successful campaign in the 1960s to stop a proposed freeway from ripping through Glen Park.
Joan Seiwald, the surviving Gum Tree Girl, was an honored guest at the Sept. 17 community celebration, as were family members of the two other activists, Zoanne Nordstrom and Geri Arkush.
A crowd gathers at the unveiling of the mural, which also welcomed the muralists: (left to right) Amy Koehler; Marina Perez-Wong; Elaine Chu; Pablo Ruiz Arroyo.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman was on hand to present a certificate of honor to Berger and her group. The Burnside Mural+ committee already is working on its next project: tiling the 69-step staircase bordering the murals and leading up to Bosworth Street.
As this work is in public right of way, Public Works will continue to support and partner with Glen Park neighbors, ensuring the safety and structural integrity of the wall and stairs.
Left: A closer look at the mural reveals a detailed hummingbird. Right: Surviving Gum Tree Girl Joan Seiwald and her husband Bob visit the Glen Park mural.
Volunteers work with our crews to remove ice plants from the Ocean Beach promenade.
#Love Our CitY
This month’s Love Our City: Neighborhood Beautification Day drew nearly 150 volunteers to the western Sunset and Parkside neighborhoods to work alongside our crews planting trees, painting out graffiti, sprucing up rain gardens and the Sunset Boulevard greenway and even shoveling sand that piled up on the Ocean Beach promenade back onto the beach.
The group of community stewards, including many Public Works employees pitching in on their day off, got a lot of great work done at the Sept. 17 workday.
One Saturday each month, the Public Works Community Engagement team hosts a Love Our City: Neighborhood Beautification Day volunteer event.
Volunteers spruce up a sidewalk garden.
Next month, on Oct. 15, we’ll be in District 6 neighborhoods, among them SoMa and Mission Bay. The kickoff is at Bessie Carmichael Middle School, 824 Harrison St. Registration starts at 8:30 a.m. Click on this link to sign up, or visit sfpublicworks.org/loveourcity.