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    Transforming Harvey Milk Plaza: An Innovative Public-Private Collaboration Celebrating an Important Civil Rights Figure

    In the heart of San Francisco’s vibrant Castro district lies Harvey Milk Plaza, a historic site intertwined with the city’s LGBTQ+ heritage and the community’s ongoing struggle for civil rights. Now, a visionary initiative led by the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza (FHMP) is poised to revitalize this plaza through strategic coordination of public and private investment.

    While the commemorative features celebrating Milk and the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement will be financed by private gifts secured during FHMP’s capital campaign, the essential infrastructure improvements will be supported by public allocations, including a $25 million investment included in the ballot measure proposed by Mayor London Breed and currently under consideration by the Board of Supervisors. Earlier this year, Speaker Emerita Pelosi secured $500,000 in funding for the project through the U.S. Congress. This public-private funding model not only leverages the strengths of both sectors but also ensures the project’s sustainability and long-term impact.

    “The new Harvey Milk Plaza will preserve Harvey’s legacy, while also creating a new and dynamic space for the community to gather. It will drive visitor foot traffic to our Castro neighborhood and into the neighborhood’s small businesses,” said Mayor Breed. “The new plaza will celebrate Harvey Milk’s work, provide opportunities to lift up others from all backgrounds, and inspire everyone to continue to engage in the important work left to do. Harvey Milk is a worldwide ambassador for our beautiful city, and visionary projects like Harvey Milk Plaza signal a resurgent and resilient San Francisco.”

    At the core of the initiative is the ambitious goal of harmonizing commemorative features celebrating Milk’s legacy with essential transit and infrastructure improvements so that all improvements can be accomplished in a single, highly efficient project. This approach will streamline construction, minimize disruption, and ensure investment at the site is maximized. It will also ensure that the plaza serves as both a symbol of empowerment and a functional hub for the community.

    “During conversations with community members, we heard their desire to see Harvey celebrated in a way that uplifted other contributors to the movement and provided space for ongoing engagement around social justice issues.,” shared Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza Executive Director Brian Springfield. “But we also heard from some that did not want the transit functions at the site to be compromised at all in the process. So, we worked with SWA Group to enhance and improve the transit functions at the site, allowing these improvements to act as the foundation for all the commemorative features that will follow. The coalition that has been formed between the grassroots of the community, transit stakeholders, and public officials to deliver the project is itself very much in the spirit of Harvey Milk.”

    One of the primary challenges to be addressed by the project is the lack of accessibility at the Castro Muni Station’s underground entrance. Currently, the entry stairs fail to meet federally mandated ADA standards, posing significant barriers to mobility and safety. Also, the stairs’ outdoor location makes them even more unsafe when it rains. Through the allocation of public funds, the project will facilitate the construction of ADA-compliant pathways, new stairs, and an escalator, making the station more inclusive and safer for all. Both the new stairs and the escalator will be covered in the new plaza, making them safer to navigate in all weather conditions.

    Moreover, the new plaza tackles long-standing safety concerns by reimagining the original design, which was unveiled almost 45 years ago. By eliminating the recessed outdoor areas and improving circulation and lighting throughout, the new plaza aims to create a welcoming environment while mitigating issues of vandalism and illegal behavior. This holistic approach not only enhances the aesthetic appeal of the plaza but also fosters a greater sense of community ownership and pride.

    Crucially, the coordinated investment extends beyond mere infrastructure upgrades to redefine the plaza’s role as a dynamic public space. Through the creation of an expanded transit plaza at the historic intersection of Castro and Market Streets and an occupiable park area with verdant landscaping near Collingwood Street, the project seeks to cultivate social interaction and civic engagement. By integrating amenities such as seating and improved boarding areas for bus lines, the plaza emerges as a nexus of activity and connection within the neighborhood.

    “Fostering activity in a public space is one of the best ways to make it safe, healthy, and community-oriented, so thoughtful curation of the plaza’s operation will be key,” shared Drew Becher, CEO of San Francisco Parks Alliance, the fiscal sponsor of the Friends group.

    The project transcends mere urban renewal—it embodies a once-in-a-generation opportunity to celebrate the enduring legacy of Milk in the neighborhood he loved dearly and that lifted him up as a leader. By seamlessly blending commemorative features with essential infrastructure upgrades, this initiative will revitalize an important civic space, and in the process, address the deficiency of LGBTQ+ representation in our nation’s commemorative landscape. As the project unfolds, it stands as a testament to the power of collective vision and collaborative action in shaping a more inclusive and vibrant future for all.

    “My hat’s off to the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza,” shared community leader and founder of the NAMES/AIDS Memorial Project, Cleve Jones. “They’ve managed to keep the project connected to the grassroots of the LGBTQ+ community while navigating through city approvals and securing funding. As someone who understands how difficult this can be, I commend them. They’ve delivered on an important project that will ensure the historical events that occurred in the Castro will continue to inspire and support future generations of our community leaders.”

    Already, the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza have started turning their attention to the planning around the activation of the plaza once it’s open, and the role to be played by each member of the community. Said Springfield, “On the evening of the assassinations, Harry Britt stood outside City Hall and assured the mourners gathered there, ‘Someday there will be something special in this city, and it will have Harvey Milk’s name on it.’ This project is the fulfillment of the promise Britt made on that night in 1978.”

    He added, “Decades of work by this community have finally brought us this close to seeing this vision realized. But, once the plaza is open and operating, each of us will have to take some ownership of the space to ensure that it remains vibrant with LGBTQ+ cultural expression and joy, and supports the ongoing work toward a real and lasting equality. Each of us has a role to play in ensuring the movement continues.”

    Published on June 13, 2024