top of page

A Digital Journal - San Francisco Public Works

In the Works

NEW JPEG Version of new logo.jpg

September 2023

Public Works crews eradicate tens of thousands of graffiti tags a year, a seemingly endless yet noble pursuit to keep our neighborhoods clean and beautiful. A year-old pilot program offering courtesy graffiti abatement on private property in commercial areas shows promise.


Wipe Out! Public Works
Graffiti Busters Tackle Tags 

Last fall, we launched a pilot program to provide courtesy graffiti abatement on private property in the City’s commercial corridors.


Revamp on Tap for Historic Japantown Peace Plaza

Starting next year, the historic Japantown Peace Plaza will undergo a major makeover, driven by the community’s vision and needed infrastructure upgrades.


At the Root of It All,
a Bittersweet Operation 

Bright and early on a recent morning, Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry crews began removing the six towering ficus trees that remained on Sutter Street.


The Bloom Loop: Feds Award SF $12 million to Expand Street Tree Canopy 

San Francisco has been awarded $12 million in federal grant funding to plant and maintain trees, combat extreme heat and climate change, create green jobs and improve access to nature.


And the Winner Is … the Southeast Community Center. Again! 

For the third time in less than a year, the Southeast Community Center – a Public Works-led project in the Bayview – has been on the receiving end of a recognition or award. 


The Ivy League

A hardy team of volunteers joined Public Works landscape crews on a recent Saturday morning to tame the ivy trying its hardest to take over the Chestnut Street Stairway Garden.

  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • TikTok

A graffiti-abatement team member makes quick work of eradicating tags on this Mission District building using a paint sprayer.


Wipe Out!

Public Works Graffiti Busters Tackle Tags 

The intersection of 24th and Bryant streets, in the heart of the historic Mission District, pops with urban activity. 

Within a one-block radius, a bodega, paint store, coffee shop, bakery, sandwich shop, Chinese restaurant, Japanese restaurant, a few Mexican eateries and a venerated neighborhood bar are open for business. A steady stream of buses ferry riders to and from stops. The sidewalks are packed with foot traffic.  


The neighborhood, alive and vibrant, also, regrettably, is a favorite spot for taggers. But Public Works is primed for battle. 


The graffiti team has a mobile paint shop where they store their tools and keep an array of paint colors on hand.

Last fall, we launched a pilot program to provide courtesy graffiti abatement on private property in the City’s commercial corridors, the Mission included. All property owners or business owners need to do is sign up for the program, give Public Works permission to wipe out the tags and agree not to hold the City liable should the property be damaged during the removal process.

Our graffiti crews remove tags from an array of surfaces – from parklets and rollup doors to awnings and building facades.

A year into the program, nearly 400 businesses and property owners have signed up for the free service and more than 600 abatements have been completed, many involving multiple tags on one property. Our goal is to remove the tags within 72 hours. 


Nicole De La Garza, forefront, supervises a graffiti crew hitting tags in the Mission.

“The last thing a small business needs in San Francisco is to spend money cleaning up graffiti vandalism,” said Gwen Kaplan, who owns a business in the Mission. “The tags mar our properties and hurt the look and feel of our neighborhoods. I appreciate the City stepping up to help combat the problem and I have been impressed by the responsiveness of the Public Works crews.” 

Kaplan was one of the first to sign up for the Public Works service and has used it several times. 

Our crews are pros at wiping out graffiti, working lightning fast, as demonstrated at a recent abatement on a corner building at 24th and Bryant streets. There, graffiti vandals had scrawled their tags across the gray-colored wooden boards that protect the building’s windows.  


Working in tandem, one worker sprays out tags while another removes illegally posted advertisements.

When our specialized team showed up on a recent fall day, they popped open a side panel on their truck and unspooled a paint-spraying tool stored inside. Using paint that closely matches the color of the paint on the wooden boards, a duo of crew members worked its magic along the wooden façade, swiftly spraying out the graffiti, working smoothly from one side to the other. The finishing touch: affixing “wet paint” warning signs to the sidewalk. Then on to their next job.


Capping off the work at a graffiti-removal site: the posting of a “WET PAINT” sign to alert passersby.

"The program is great,” said Jonathan Vaing, assistant superintendent for Public Works’ Bureau of Street Environmental Services. “It gives the resident and the business owner, property owner, a little comfort that we do care. The program is there to help them with no cost to them.” 

The crews take pride in their work, many of them having grown up in San Francisco and wanting to keep the neighborhoods looking good. Unfortunately, the team is faced with no shortage of work.  

In the last fiscal year that ended June 30, there were 22,672 service orders – through the City’s 311 customer service center – referencing tags on private property, a 66% jump from 2019. 

Much of the explosion in graffiti can be traced back to the pandemic-induced lockdown, Vaing said. To ease the financial burden on an already struggling business community, the Board of Supervisors temporarily suspended Public Works’ enforcement of the local ordinance that requires private property owners to remove tags from their buildings within 30 days.


Number of courtesy abatements per address under the opt-in program.


Breakdown of annual graffiti service orders on public and private property. Pink = private property; blue = public property.

The pause in enforcement resulted in a proliferation of unabated tags.

“The thing with graffiti is, if you don’t take care of it, it’s going to spread out to the neighborhood,” Vaing said. “It doesn’t matter if private property, public property ... So I think that two-year shutdown was really, really bad.” 

And while Public Works crews throughout the pandemic proactively wiped out thousands of graffiti tags that tarnished storefronts along commercial corridors in such neighborhoods as the Haight, Mission and Chinatown, the team is still playing catch up even as enforcement has resumed.  

In many ways, speed is key when it comes to removing graffiti. The longer a tagger can have their graffiti seen in a certain area, Vaing said, the longer they get recognition.  

“That's why we got to abate as soon as we can when we see it,” he said.  


Alisha Whitt, a Public Works program support analyst, and her team of graffiti inspectors are now out enforcing the ordinance again and proactively educating private property owners on the new program. By and large, people have been thankful for the new initiative, Whitt said.  


The Public Works graffiti crews document their work with before and after photos.

“We even have some people that say, ‘Hey, I already have the paint. Here you go,’” she said. "It has been great and when they see us coming or see the graffiti teams that come to abate they are very happy, they are very pleased."

In addition to the opt-in program available for properties in commercial areas, Public Works runs crews that focus on removing tags from public property – light poles, parking meters, bike racks, retaining walls and, sadly, street trees. They removed nearly 32,000 tags during the last fiscal year. 


Graffiti can foster blight in neighborhoods, negatively impact businesses and deter visitors from spending time there. “Art is different from graffiti,” Vaing said. “Art is work where you got permission to do this."  

NEW JPEG Version of new logo.jpg
Peace Plaza

A bird’s-eye view of the Japantown Peace Plaza, a 30,000-square-foot public space tucked between Post Street and Geary Boulevard, west of Laguna Street

Revamp on Tap for Historic Japantown Peace Plaza 

For more than a half-century, the Japantown Peace Plaza has served as a cultural hub of the historic neighborhood – a gathering spot for residents and visitors, and home to festivals and other community celebrations. Starting next year, the public plaza will undergo a major makeover, driven by the community’s vision and needed infrastructure upgrades.

The City’s Recreation and Park Department, which owns the Peace Plaza, led an extensive community engagement effort, which started in 2018, to set the framework for the design and construction of the renovation. The outreach – conducted in partnership with community groups, including the Japantown Task Force – included a series of public meetings, focus groups, surveys and design charrettes. 

Public Works is providing landscape architecture, architecture and engineering services and managing construction on behalf of Rec and Park.

The goal is to make the 30,000-square-foot Peace Plaza a more inviting and playful space, with new benches tucked amid landscaped nooks, a larger permanent stage surrounding the towering pagoda and terraced seating.

Rendering of the reimagined plaza, which will boast a larger performance space and terraced seating.

Also on tap are new cherry trees that will wrap halfway around the pagoda, decorative boulders and a special lighting display that will create the image of a water feature. The old slate tiles, many of them cracked, that cover the plaza ground will be replaced with heartier porcelain pavers in a two-toned design meant to emulate drifting fog.


Cherry blossom trees, symbolizing life, death and renewal in Japanese culture, will be showcased in the renovated plaza, as seen in this rendering.

The Public Works landscape architecture team produced the initial design. Masahiro Inoue, a designer with the firm AECOM, fine-tuned the design through a Japanese cultural lens. 

“This project has been an evolution,” said Edward Chin, the landscape architect leading Public Works’ Peace Plaza team who also worked on the design. “And it’s vitally important. The Peace Plaza is the heart and soul of Japantown.” 

Chin said the project has been exciting because of the community involvement and also challenging due to structural limitations. 

The 52-year-old plaza sits atop a subterranean parking garage, and the structural load – the amount of weight the garage roof below can bear – was paramount in the design. For example, that’s why the “water” feature is made of light and not liquid.


This rendering shows how light will be used to create a simulated water feature next to the iconic pagoda.

Another challenge was figuring out how to shore up the iconic Peace Pagoda, a Modernist take on the traditional pagoda form that was presented in friendship from the people of Japan to the people of the United States and dedicated on March 28, 1968.

Historical Images JPP (002)_Page_07.jpg

The Peace Plaza has been a mainstay in the historic Japantown neighborhood for more than 50 years.

The reinforced concrete structure, built in five tiers and 100 feet tall, has been found by Public Works structural engineers to be seismically vulnerable. As part of the renovation, the support columns will be wrapped in fiberglass-reinforced plastic and four thick cables will run along the sides of the columns, from the pagoda’s top tier into the garage.

The renovation work is scheduled to kick off next spring and wrap up in late 2025. The surrounding Japan Center Malls and underground parking will remain open while work is underway. The $33.5 million project will be paid for with a variety of local, state and federal money, with funding from the City’s voter-backed 2020 Health and Recovery Bond covering 75% of the cost.

NEW JPEG Version of new logo.jpg
Sutter St. Trees

Riding high in a bucket truck, a Public Works arborist cuts down a tree, starting with the crown.

At the Root of It All,
a Bittersweet Operation 

Bright and early on a recent morning, Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry crews began removing the six towering ficus trees that remained on Sutter Street, between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, where they have been brushing up against a building and looming over merchants and patrons on one of the busiest blocks near Union Square.  

Public Works only removes trees as a last resort and the Sutter Street operation was launched months after the earth-shaking collapse of one of their sister trees, which toppled amid last winter’s torrent of atmospheric rivers. On Jan. 10, the ficus tree, with roots saturated by inches of rain and its tall branches catching wind like the sail of a clipper boat, fell onto a passing Muni bus at Sutter and Stockton streets, snarling commute traffic for hours. Fortunately, the driver was alone on the bus at the time and walked away uninjured.  

This Sutter Street ficus tree crashed down atop a Muni bus last January during a winter storm.

Looking ahead to another wet winter, Public Works crews took the initiative of removing the remaining trees on the block. Ficus are hardy, fast-growing trees. They add much-needed shade and pollution-absorbing capability to San Francisco’s urban tree canopy; however, they do not do well growing along the City’s narrow sidewalks. Their roots can’t grow deep enough, confined to narrow tree basins and competing with underground utilities and sub-sidewalk basements. Prone to failure, we no longer allow them to be planted in the public right of way. 
“We really wanted to get this done ahead of the holidays to minimize the impact on merchants,” said Nicholas Crawford, acting superintendent for the Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF). “Looking ahead to the upcoming storm season, we identified these six trees as vulnerable to failure and took proactive action to protect public safety.” 

After a complex orchestration befitting the San Francisco Symphony, crews launched into their work.  
“It’s bittersweet,” Crawford added. “We hate losing trees especially when we are trying to increase our canopy. But once the first one went, we decided it was the right thing to do.” 

Branches, limbs and leaves are fed into a chipper truck to make eco-friendly mulch for landscaping.

It was a multi-shop effort, Crawford noted, pointing out that BUF tree inspectors and cement masons worked alongside arborists. The Bureau of Street-use and Mapping worked with advertising companies to temporarily remove digital display screens on nearby news racks while the work was done. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency deenergized the Muni lines above Sutter Street and provided traffic control. 
BUF arborists went up high in bucket trucks with chainsaws, methodically dismantling the ficus’ majestic green crowns and then the remainder of the trees down to the stumps. “We've got our dancing shoes on,” arborist crew supervisor Drew Landers said shortly before the operation got underway on Sept. 11. 


The towering ficus trees on Sutter Street posed a public safety danger.

People in the vicinity were mostly unfazed by the work as they traversed safely to their hotels, sipped double macchiatos at neighborhood cafes, selected Swiss chocolates, sampled luxury bed linens and attended hair appointments. Although at times, it was as if it were snowing saw dust. 
By Sept. 14, all but a couple of stumps were left to grind. BUF cement crews swooped in to demolish and pave over the tree basins.  
Jay T. Ford, Public Works’ cement shop supervisor who led the repaving portion of the project, explained his team’s assignment as work was underway. “We saw-cut here,” he said, pointing to the planter boxes surrounding the trees, “so we can tear the sidewalk up and remove the concrete, replace the concrete.” 
He took the challenges his team faced in stride – encountering impatient pedestrians walking into the work zone instead of crossing the street as directed, making sure equipment didn’t damage overhead power lines and removing stubborn tree roots before fresh cement could be poured. 


Once the trees were safely removed, Public Works cement shop crews got to work on the empty basins.

“It’s been a little challenging, a little time-consuming, but we’re moving and grooving – all in a safe manner,” he said. 
The job was completed in six days. 
Neighboring merchants were largely pleased – although saddened at the loss of tree canopy – to see Public Works strategically knock out this safety project before winter. 
Taylor Enstall, design ambassador at luxury linen merchant Samuel Scheuer, said he was appreciative of Public Works crews helping customers navigate the work site to get into the store to shop.  
“We were just so happy that nobody got hurt when the tree fell,” Enstall said, adding that employees felt the ground jounce when the ficus abruptly gave way last January. “Those trees have been a staple of our street for some time. It was sad to know they were going, but we’re also excited because it’s going to give us more street exposure.” 
Crawford said Public Works will plant trees in a nearby location, in place of the seven ficus lost on Sutter Street. “It’s a priority for us.” 

NEW JPEG Version of new logo.jpg
Tree Grant

Volunteers work with our crews to plant street trees.

The Bloom Loop:
Feds Award SF
$12 million to Expand Street Tree Canopy 

San Francisco has been awarded $12 million in federal grant funding to plant and maintain trees, combat extreme heat and climate change, create green jobs and improve access to nature in the City – representing the largest single award among California recipients to grow urban tree canopies under President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.  

The funding, provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, is part of more than $1 billion in competitive grants awarded to expand urban tree canopies across the nation, particularly in low-income communities that bear the brunt of pollution from industry and vehicle emissions and have the smallest number of trees. 
Communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. Territories and Tribal Nations are receiving funding, covered by the Justice40 Initiative and made possible by the Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year. 


Once a young street tree is planted, we install stakes to support them during the early years of growth.

The benefits of street trees in an urban environment are well-documented – not only do they make neighborhoods more inviting, but they manage stormwater, reduce air pollution, improve human health, cool homes and streets, provide wildlife habitat and calm traffic.

San Francisco Public Works submitted its grant application, titled “Justice, Jobs and Trees: A San Francisco Climate Solution,” in June. To advance long-term employment, racial equity and social justice, the project will create approximately 100 new green jobs and workforce development positions, focusing on hiring and training residents from the City’s underserved communities. 
“We are thrilled to be selected in this highly competitive grant process,” said interim Public Works Director Carla Short, a certified arborist. “We have the infrastructure in place and professional tree crews and nonprofit partners ready to get to work planting and caring for the new street trees in communities that need them the most.”   
The grant announcement comes as Public Works is readying to open its new Street Tree Nursery, located in the South of Market neighborhood on underutilized Caltrans land near Fifth and Bryant streets. Set to open this fall, the nursery will serve as a hub for the planting initiatives and workforce training that the federal funding will support.  



This rendering shows our new street tree nursery, which is now under construction in the South of Market.

While Public Works runs the StreetTreeSF program that sets aside $19 million annually for maintenance of the City’s 125,000-plus street trees, that local funding source is earmarked for tree maintenance, not planting trees.
Despite the success of the StreetTreeSF program – which was approved with overwhelming voter support in 2016 and has been heralded as a model for urban forestry management in the United States – San Francisco has struggled to secure sustainable funding for tree planting, leaving thousands of potential tree-planting sites unused.
The Biden Administration’s grant award will bolster Public Works’ ability to support community partnerships with local nonprofit tree care organizations. 

The U.S. Forest Service selected 385 grant proposals from entities working to increase equitable access to trees and nature, and the benefits they provide for cooling city streets, improving air quality and promoting food security, public health and safety.
San Francisco lags behind many large U.S. cities with one of the smallest urban tree canopies, with just 13.7% of the ground – when viewed from above – sheltered by the leaves and branches of trees. The national average is 27.1%. 


Screenshot 2023-09-28 at 4.54.13 PM.png

This map shows the tree canopy in San Francisco. The more green, the more trees.

San Francisco’s tree canopy is also inequitably distributed among the City’s neighborhoods:  Underserved census tracts have only about half the canopy at 8%, when compared with the 15% canopy coverage in other census tracts.


“This funding will help us strengthen our urban canopy, particularly in neighborhoods like the Bayview-Hunters Point, the Tenderloin and South of Market, which lack the benefits that street trees can bring,” said Mayor London Breed. “I want to thank President Biden and our federal partners for investing in a greener future. Soon, the Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry will plant trees and work together with neighbors and nonprofit partners to advance the health of our communities for generations to come.”


Studies show that trees in communities are associated with improved physical and mental health, lower average temperatures during extreme heat and new economic opportunities, the Forest Service noted. This historic funding will help the Forest Service support projects that increase tree cover in disadvantaged communities, provide equitable access to the benefits of nature and deliver tangible economic and ecological benefits to urban and Tribal communities across the country.


Grantees used the White House Council of Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to help identify disadvantaged communities. More information about the funded proposals, as well as announcements about the grant program, is available on the Urban and Community Forestry Program webpage.  

NEW JPEG Version of new logo.jpg
SECC Award

A team of Public Works architects, landscape architects, engineers and construction managers led the design, construction and greenspace creation of the Southeast Community Center.

And the Winner Is … the Southeast Community Center. Again! 

For the third time in less than a year, the Southeast Community Center – a Public Works-led project in the Bayview – has been on the receiving end of a recognition or award.  

The California chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a professional organization for architects, announced its AIA California Design Award winners in late August and recognized the 45,000-square-foot center – built from the ground up for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and completed last fall – in the “Design For Equitable Communities” category


The new community space attracts visitors of all ages.

“This building embraces its mission and encompasses multiple public purposes. There’s clarity in the architecture and the site is beautifully planned,” one juror commented.  


The prestigious design recognition comes on the heels of the project team walking away with hardware at the 2023 14th Annual John L. Martin Partnered Project of the Year Award Ceremony in May. The Southeast Community Center, located at 1550 Evans Ave., won in the “Buildings and Public Infrastructure $25 million - $250 million” category on the Diamond Level. 

Internally, the Southeast Community Center project team was recognized with the 2022-2023 San Francisco Public Works Project Team of the Year award earlier this year.  

A team of Public Works architects, landscape architects, engineers and construction managers led the design, construction and greenspace creation of the center, which opened its doors last October.

The three-story center includes a café on the ground floor with a grand stairway leading to an open space where visitors can hang out and socialize, work on their laptops, read a book or just people watch. Also on the ground floor: administrative offices for the center itself and a daycare center with access to the outdoors. 


The welcoming lobby includes tiered seating and public art.

The second floor features multipurpose rooms and support spaces. Movable walls allow for the rooms to be subdivided or turned into one big space. The third includes offices for nonprofit and community organizations. 

A terraced outdoor event space flanks the 5,000-square-foot Alex Pitcher pavilion – the spacious community room named in honor of the longtime civil rights activist. 


The center boasts indoor and outdoor event space.

Extensive rain gardens on the sprawling 4 ½ acre campus were promptly tested this past winter when record rainfall wreaked havoc in San Francisco. The green infrastructure features slow down the water from entering the combined sewer system to keep it from overflowing and flooding the streets. The gardens, healthy and lush after more than a year of growing, also provide habitat and public open space.


Extensive rain gardens on the sprawling 4 ½ acre campus spark beauty and provide stormwater management.

NEW JPEG Version of new logo.jpg
Love Our City

Volunteers work to tame the ivy on the slopes of the Chestnut Street Stairway Garden.

The Ivy League

A hardy team of volunteers joined Public Works landscape crews on a recent Saturday morning to tame the ivy trying its hardest to take over the Chestnut Street Stairway Garden.

Covering the steep hillside in a thick blanket of green, encroaching onto the stone steps, climbing up tree trunks and clinging onto the exterior of neighboring houses, the ivy proved a formidable contender in the public garden battle. But in the end, the clipper-carrying humans made headway to trim back the pervasive plant along the block-long, pedestrian-only stretch of Chestnut Street, between Larkin Street and Culebra Terrace, in the Russian Hill neighborhood.

After a few hours of work, the volunteers – many active with the Russian Hill Neighbors group – and a City work team trimmed enough ivy to fill the back of a large Public Works flatbed truck.


A lot of good work got done during the Neighborhood Beautification Day event, including removing graffiti and weeding medians.

The effort was part of our monthly Love Our City: Neighborhood Beautification Day volunteer workday we hosted on the morning of Sept. 16, with projects in Russian Hill, North Beach and other District 3 neighborhoods.

Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin helped kick off the day at a short welcome rally at Francisco Middle School where he thanked neighbors and Public Works employees for stepping up to improve the City. In addition to the Chestnut Street Stairway Garden work, the team of community stewards freshened up the landscaping along the Columbus Avenue median, painted out graffiti near Post and Polk streets and planted trees in North Beach.


A burlap sheet serves as a sack to haul away just-trimmed ivy.

The Public Works Neighborhood Beautification Day events focus on a different supervisorial district every month, except December. We’ll be in West Portal and other District 7 neighborhoods on Oct. 21, starting with a 9 a.m. gathering at West Portal Elementary School. Volunteers of all ages are welcome. Bring your friends or make new ones.

For more information and to register, click here or visit to learn more about our volunteer programs.


Thanks for reading!

bottom of page