Narrowing Around a Park – Alamo Square

If we’re going to imagine a future San Francisco that primarily consists of narrow streets for people, then we need a way to begin visualizing it. I want to start with a partial mock-up of Alamo Square, which along with Divisadero Street is the main public gathering place in my neighborhood.

Steiner Street as seen today. Two lanes for traveling, two for parking, and roughly 15~ sidewalks on both sides.

This is Steiner Street between Hayes and Grove as it stands today. The existing right-of-way between the park and the Painted Ladies is 68′ 9″.

The existing configuration of Steiner St .

(click to zoom)
  • (2) 15′ sidewalks
  • (2) approx. 8′ parking lanes
  • (2) approx. 11′ driving lanes

This is a busy area for people on foot, but note that the existing sidewalks are hardly used. They’re lined with parking and adjacent to traffic that typically flows at 20-25 MPH. It feels like a Place For Cars.

Painted Ladies

It’s much nicer to walk on the paths inside the park, where people are given priority.

Alamo Square

If we wanted to, of course, we could extend that priority to the entire right-of-way. It would require us to give up free street parking and 25 MPH through-traffic. In exchange we would gain an additional 50 feet of park space…

The potential configuration of a narrowed Steiner St -- with calmer traffic and more than 50 feet of new park space.

(click to zoom)

…and a street that is calmer, quieter, and safer for everyone to enjoy.

Steiner St in front of the Painted Ladies, narrowed to about 15-20 feet wide.

Cars are not banned outright on a street like this — we should maintain garage access for the existing homeowners and perhaps the occasional taxi or package delivery — but the street is now prioritized for people on foot. Imagine it like a narrow European street. People should feel comfortable walking down the middle, with only an occasional slow-moving car to contend with. Here’s a real-world example to help us visualize it…


Over time we might see the need for local vehicle access start to decline. Homeowners on Steiner could decide that their garage is more useful as additional living space, or more lucrative as a ground-floor business catering to the park’s visitors. A few small cafes and shops in the Painted Ladies would be a hit on a lively street for people — and probably earn a small fortune. (We’ll talk about zoning changes another day.)

Café au lait

Eventually this particular stretch of Steiner might be a good candidate for a pedestrian-only street, with exceptions for things like trash pickup and local deliveries during set hours. The cafes and shops could then use the street space for outdoor seating.

A Leipzig street scene

Either way, with a few basic additions — lampposts, some benches and chairs, maybe an additional foot path into the park, etc. — we could start to make this side of the park more relaxed and people-oriented. Look at these Parisian examples for some ideas.


best way to spend time in paris

Some open space, nice architecture, and calm streets. This is easy stuff.

Enfant, Place Dauphine.

Place des Vosges

With the street narrowed, Alamo Square becomes a more pleasant place to be and a safer place to reach on foot. In the process, we’ve reclaimed over 50 feet of width along the length of Steiner. Extended to all four sides, that’s 1.5 acres of new park space to enjoy.

Update 5/21/15: Here’s an idea of what the Painted Ladies could look like if they added ground-floor retail. These are located on Fillmore between Post and Sutter. The space feels nice in person, even if the pizza sign is a little tacky.

Example of a Victorian with ground-floor retail. Fillmore Street.

Example of a Victorian with ground-floor retail. Fillmore Street.

Update 5/24/15: This cafe on 18th St was recently converted from a garage space.

A personal garage converted to a cafe on 18th Street. Credit: Tom Radulovich via Streetsblog

Via Streetsblog: “Three new cafes and restaurants in the Castro have been created in spaces formerly used as personal parking garages. Driveways and dark garage doors on 18th Street have been replaced with storefronts and inviting patios filled with people.

A few years ago, this would’ve been illegal.

Reveille Coffee Company and Beso, a tapas restaurant, were able to move in and convert these garages this year, thanks to changes in the SF Planning Code’s zoning laws in 2011 proposed by Livable City and former Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. The provision to allow garages to be converted into shops, housing, and service spaces in “Neighborhood Commercial” zoning districts was part of a package of parking-related reforms.”

This is exactly the type of simple zoning reform the city needs. Let’s hope it spreads.

Update 6/4/15: Take a look at the north side of Duboce Park for an example of a park that’s not edged by wide streets on all sides. It’s not the same as what I’ve proposed for Alamo Square, but still much nicer than what we’re normally used to today.

Duboce Park 02

Duboce Park 04

Duboce Park 01

Duboce Park 03

  4 comments for “Narrowing Around a Park – Alamo Square

  1. z
    May 6, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    I’m not sure narrowing the street is sufficient there. It would be for traffic calming perhaps, but it doesn’t really do much for the sense of ‘street as an outdoor room’. Also, townhouses in SF have the elevated first floors with the garage underneath, and the entry being elevated and separated from the street doesn’t engage the house with the street as front doors seen in european examples do

    • Steve
      May 6, 2015 at 4:18 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Z. I agree that we’d be neglecting the street’s full potential if we narrowed it without making any further improvements. In my eyes, the biggest opportunity lies in zoning changes to allow ground-floor commercial uses. Homeowners should be encouraged to retrofit their garages into small cafes, shops, or apartments — any of which could be designed to properly engage the street in a traditional manner. Alas, this is beyond my current level of skill in Photoshop. Perhaps a reader would like to give it a try.

      • September 14, 2015 at 12:40 pm

        Steve — Livable City worked on legislation to allow for multiple ground floor uses for garages, be it ground floor retail or additional units. This is now legal in many districts throughout San Francisco. Great use of images. Here’s our article on garage conversions:

        • September 14, 2015 at 2:26 pm

          I think the legislation is good but also limited in what it can achieve due to the larger issue of single-use zoning. Under the new legislation the garages featured above can be converted to living space. But they can’t be converted to what I would consider their “highest and best use” — storefronts, cafes, etc to serve the park’s visitors — because the area is not zoned for any commercial use as it stands today. Still, a step in the right direction, and it’s had excellent results in a few areas of the city.

          Over on Twitter I’ve been posting a series of old Victorians that kept their ground floors as they were originally built — no garages. It’s amazing how much nicer they interact with the streetscape.

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