Redesigning Harvey Milk Plaza

Envisioning a civic memorial

Urbanist Article

Where People Meet and History is Made

To the first time visitor, to walk up out of Muni through Harvey Milk Plaza and see the rainbow flag flying overhead is to realize for the first time that you are "in the Castro." To gay tourists from around the world, it is a pilgrimage of sorts. It is a journey more prosaically repeated by thousands of San Franciscans each day, on their way to work or shopping. Four different rail lines and four bus lines travel through Harvey Milk Plaza. Sidewalks bustle with activity and conversation as people from all over the city converge on this transportation center where downtown and crosstown lines converge.

The commercial district extends two long blocks down Market, and two shorter blocks along Castro. Harvey Milk Plaza, at the entrance to Muni, is the hinge between these two busy streets. As both a neighborhood center and an international destination, the streets around Harvey Milk Plaza are nearly always busy, whether it be for shopping or people-watching.

Protests, memorial marches, public celebrations, and the democratic process converge on and diverge from this place. San Francisco rallies to its center on occasions of anger, joy, and sorrow. In fact, the Harvey Milk Candlelight March started here in 1978 when thousands spontaneously gathered and marched tearfully down Market Street to City Hall in memory of Milk, an event that has been repeated every year since. Through the years, it has also been the beginning of AIDS candlelight marches, the Dyke March, and innumerable voter drives, rallies, and protests.

A New Design for Harvey Milk Plaza?

In 1995, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to expand the existing plaza into a major civic space to honor the life and contributions of Supervisor Harvey Milk. Recognizing that the existing plaza is neither well defined nor especially distinguished as a civic space, the city and the San Francisco Prize, a coalition of organizations including SPUR, will jointly sponsor a design competition later this year. The purpose of the competition is to generate ideas on how to convert the existing plaza into an exciting civic landmark that honors the history and contributions of Supervisor Harvey Milk.

The design competition will be the third San Francisco Prize competition, and the first to address an issue in one of the city's neighborhoods. Both previous competitions have attracted designers from around the world. The first competition focused on the Federal Building Plaza on Golden Gate Avenue; construction of the winning design was completed this year. Union Square was the second subject, where construction is about eight months away. This year's prize is a partnership of the San Francisco Art Commission, the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW), and the San Francisco Prize. It is being managed by a steering Committee of Mark Primeau, AIA, DPW Director; Richard Newirth, San Francisco Art Commission Director; and Jim Chappell, SPUR President. Members of the San Francisco Prize include:

• San Francisco Chapter, American Institute of Architects
• San Francisco Chapter, American Institute of Graphic Arts
• Northern California Chapter, American Society of Interior Designers
• Northern California Chapter, American Society of Landscape Architects
• Architectural Foundation of San Francisco
• California College of Arts and Crafts
• Northern California Industrial Design Society of America
• International Interior Design Association
• San Francisco Beautiful
• San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Major funding for the competition has been provided by Wells Fargo and the City and County of San Francisco. Supervisors Mark Leno and Tom Ammiano are members of an advisory committee, and Assemblywoman Carole Migden has obtained state funding for additional ongoing improvements to Harvey Milk Plaza. San Francisco Beautiful is fiscal sponsor for the competition. This competition will be different from earlier competitions, as it will not ask for redesigns to an existing public space, but instead is intended to generate ideas for what Harvey Milk Plaza could be. As the existing plaza seems confined to the Muni station, a winning proposal might suggest ideas on how to enlarge elements of the plaza to incorporate surrounding streets and properties. Although there is no current funding for acquisition of private property-let alone design and construction-this design competition could give much needed impetus to the effort to create a significant public memorial to Harvey Milk in the historic heart of San Francisco's gay and lesbian community. The competition kick-off will be in late June during Pride Week, when entry forms will be available. Informational meetings will be held in July and entries due August 31. For more information contact Edgar Lopez, AIA, Project Manager at (415) 554-5757.

The Role of Neighborhood Organizations

Castro Area Planning + Action (CAPA) is a neighborhood organization devoted to developing long-range plans for the upper Market area through extensive community involvement and consensus-building. CAPA has been working toward the redesign of Harvey Milk Plaza as a part of its overall effort to encourage a well-planned Castro district stretching all the way from Castro Street to Octavia Street, the location of the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Community Center currently under construction. Independent of the competition, CAPA is proposing several improvements to area streets. These improvements include sidewalk widening, new street and sidewalk lighting, additional entrances to the Muni stations at Castro and Church, street trees and furniture, and narrower pedestrian crosswalks at intersections. CAPA has worked with other neighborhood groups such as the Eureka Valley Promotion Association, Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, and Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, as well as directly with neighborhood residents, in a series of well-attended public meetings.

Using information gathered from all these sources, CAPA developed several criteria that they hope will be included in the Harvey Milk Plaza design competition's call for entries. Their recommendations are that the final design:

• provide a prominent visual terminus for Market Street
• define the space of the plaza
• better accommodate public uses such as people-watching, rallies, and street performance
• accommodate and facilitate the transit lines and connections
• provide for information distribution, possibly including new technologies
• enable pedestrian circulation by improving street crossings and encouraging foot traffic on the north side of Market Street
• accommodate automobile traffic
• memorialize Harvey Milk-the man as well as his messageincorporate the beginning/ending of a memorial walk down Market Street.
This may seem like a tall order for one little intersection in the city but, as Harvey Milk was fond of saying, "You gotta give 'em hope."


Linton Stables is a SPUR Board Member and vice president of Castro Area Planning + Action.