Outer Church Merchants Lose Ramp Fight
By Denise Minor
The battle's over.
The city's Public Transportation Commission voted unanimously on March 25 to resume construction on the much-disputed handicapped access ramps for the J-Church streetcars in upper Noe Valley.
Mayor Willie Brown had ordered construction halted in January after an outpouring of neighborhood support for Church Street merchants convinced him that the parking spaces eliminated by the ramps would place undue hardship on their businesses.
Brown eventually decided to support a compromise plan to move one of the two boarding platforms from Church Street to adjoining 30th Street, but that held no sway with the commissioners.
"Delay is an affront to the process and to the spirit of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]," said Commission Vice President Kathleen Knox. "Access [to transportation] isn't just to this community, but to the entire city."
Customers at Church Street businesses near the planned ramps were greeted by glum faces on the days following the vote.
"I'm really, really tired," said John Hilas, owner of Church Produce at 1798 Church St. "I've been to every single meeting over the years, and at every meeting they say they feel sorry for us, they ask some questions, and then they vote the same every time."
Hilas' store will be one of the businesses most affected by the construction. The half-block outbound ramp will be on Church between 30th and Day streets, in front of his corner produce store. The block-long inbound ramp will be between Day and 29th streets.
"We asked them to move one -- just one -- of the ramps off Church Street. The disabled people can go a half block further," said Hilas. "But it's as if the disabled people have every right, and we have no rights.
"I'm really scared that I'm going to lose my business," he continued. "I'm 52, I have kids. I don't know what I'll do."
Besides losing parking near his store, Hilas will have to ask his delivery trucks to unload around the corner.
Dave Monks, president of the Noe Valley Democratic Club, was also disheartened. "I'm very disappointed. We all worked really hard on what we thought was a good compromise," he said.
The compromise was a design by Muni engineers to place a ramp combined with a bulb bus stop on 30th Street. Muni department head Emilio Cruz had ordered the design after two meetings he held with the Church Street merchants, area residents, and disabled rights activists.
But Cruz said he was struck by what seemed to him to be a lack of consensus from the neighborhood, since 30th Street residents at the meetings objected to the ramps being placed on their street.
Monks feared that objections from the 30th Street residents had hurt the merchants' cause in the eyes of Cruz and the Transportation Commission.
"We were undermined by a handful of 30th Street residents who came to the battle late in the game," said Monks. "They would have had to face a loss of three parking spaces, but their issues paled in comparison to what the merchants faced."
But 30th Street resident Mitch Cohen felt otherwise.
"Thirtieth Street is very busy, and substantially narrower than Church Street. They were going to move the streetcar tracks one-and-a-half feet -- putting them very close to the sidewalk. That is certainly a safety concern," said Cohen.
Also, pedestrians crossing 30th Street to board the streetcar would be taking a big risk, he said. "It's pretty hazardous to cross 30th at Chenery as it is. I think it would be worse for people in wheelchairs," said Cohen.
Many of Cohen's neighbors were also angry about the loss of parking on 30th Street. "A lot of the residents on 30th don't have garages. Those who do were concerned about getting in and out of their driveways," he said.
The 30th Street neighbors were also irritated that they had not been officially informed of the plan to put the ramp on their street. The only way they learned about a March meeting at the mayor's office was through the grapevine.
"Two people showed up anyway," said Cohen. "And when one of the merchants claimed that there was a neighborhood consensus to put the ramp on 30th Street, they said no, there was not a consensus.
"We were angry about the lack of inclusion of 30th Street residents," he continued. "Lack of inclusion is what the merchants were concerned about all along."
Dean Goodwin, the mayor's representative for the key stop issue, said that he too thought the 30th Street residents made the difference in the commission vote.
Faced with the pressure the commission was receiving from the handicapped community, coupled with the 5- to 12-month delay that would have been caused by a new design, Goodwin said he believed the commission was worried about a lawsuit that would force them to comply with the ADA.
"If they were going to take on that kind of risk, they would have wanted to have the whole Noe Valley community behind the change," he said. "If all the testimony from the neighborhood was in support of moving the ramp, I think you would have seen a different vote -- possibly even three to two in favor."
Goodwin added that he knew a number of disabled people who favored a compromise to help the merchants but who had not spoken at public meetings because they were reluctant to go against disabled activists.
Tom Maravilla, co-owner of Mikeytom Market at 1747 Church St., said he was furious after the commission vote. It also occurred to him, and to others who preferred to remain off the record, that the vote might have been staged. "The way Brown works, I can't imagine that the commissioners would vote against him and Emilio Cruz."
Muni had always objected to moving the ramps to 30th Street, particularly because putting ramps there would double the project's cost.
Brown only belatedly gave his support to the merchants after newly-elected Supervisor Leland Yee of Noe Valley convinced him to listen to neighborhood concerns. Then in late January, Brown directed Cruz to come up with a plan to move at least one of the ramps.
However, disabled activists, particularly the Muni Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC), vowed to fight any changes to the key stops. According to AAC Chairperson Bruce Oka, the group would have taken the city to court to keep the project on track.
Maravilla said that by publicly supporting the neighborhood but having their hands tied by the commission vote, Brown and Cruz end up looking like good guys. "I'm in awe of how everyone comes out smelling like roses from this."
Public Transportation Commission Secretary Roberta Boomer adamantly denied the vote had been a behind-closed-doors deal. "Deciding beforehand how they were going to vote would have been in violation of the San Francisco open meeting laws," she said. "It was not done."
Goodwin also denied a setup. "I know all the hours I have put into this -- ten- and twelve-hour days in which I put my other work on hold. And people at Muni have been working like dogs to put together this alternative," said Goodwin. "It's ludicrous that we would do it for show."
Additionally, if the vote were fixed, it would have been divided. "Anyone wanting to create a perfect appearance would have made it a three-to-two vote," he said.
"And in reality, these are the same five commissioners who voted on it last year. There wasn't a whole lot of new information this time for them to consider," Goodwin added.
Maravilla said he was exhausted and disillusioned by the entire process. Part of his disillusionment stemmed from what he called a "hit piece" in the March 5 edition of the S.F. Weekly. The commentary, "Willie's Railroad Job," blasted Brown for caving in to Noe Valley neighborhood businesses at the expense of the disabled community.
The article featured a photo of Mara-villa and insinuated that he had enough clout with local voters he could harm Brown politically.
"I was quoted completely out of context," Maravilla said. "The reporter who interviewed me didn't write the story. Her notes were handed over to two writers whom I never even spoke with.
"It was a hit piece on Brown, and they used the neighborhood to do it," Maravilla concluded.
Goodwin said he hoped a few small things could be done to help the merchants. The city intends to plant new trees to replace those cut down during construction, he said. And it will be open to the idea of neighborhood parking permits.
"I'm very tired, and I'm sorry the result came as it did," said Goodwin. "I really wish the vote had been different."
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