Open Space is a Key Feature of Future Central Subway Station / by Elaine Chan


There is something that the Chinatown community desires more, and has less of, than housing. Open space.

While San Francisco stakeholders years ago debated the Central Subway extending the Muni T-Third Street line north on Fourth Street with a Chinatown station as the terminus, community activists coalesced on what would become of the area above it.

Fast-forward to today, construction crews at Washington and Stockton streets in the heart of the neighborhood are erecting walls 85 feet below surface level for the approved, multilevel Central Subway station scheduled to open by 2019. The design plans for a 5,400-square-foot rooftop plaza at the site have yet to be grounded, but are shaping up to be what the Chinatown community wants, said Norman Fong, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center.

"I dreamed about that a long time ago with a lot of people in the community, but we figured maybe The City would go for income-generating things like housing," he said. "So I had low expectations. I can't believe that The City listened to the community and the community needs for open space."

The design for the Chinatown station itself was approved with a transit-oriented development to complement it in mind. In determining what to build above the station, The City opened the process to community groups that conducted surveys and various meetings.

"We looked at housing and business, but at the end of the day, what the community wanted -- and they were probably right -- was to have a park and enjoy the sunshine," said John Funghi, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Central Subway program director.

San Francisco's Chinatown is the densest neighborhood in the country outside of New York's Chinatown, with only four open-space places -- heavily trafficked Portsmouth Square, the Willie "Woo Woo" Wong and Woh Hei Yuen playgrounds, and St. Mary's Square, which is slated to get a rooftop park extension in exchange for two new office towers on the rise.

The Chinatown station plaza is an opportunity to create a fifth spot, Recreation and Park Commissioner Allan Low said.

"Open space is being elevated, which is really the only way you can create new open space," he said, praising the "creativity and collaboration" on the project thus far.

The station plaza design went before the Civic Design Review Committee of the Arts Commission in May for the first time. Since the Phase 3 of the Chinatown station was approved in January 2012, a public rooftop plaza with stairs and seating and more artwork was added.

"We consider the design to be at a very preliminary stage and the commissioners were pleased with the direction that the project seems to be going in," said Jill Manton, director of the public-art trust and special initiatives. "It will serve the public in general and it will serve the local community specifically."

The design for the station itself met the national historic requirement to blend into the neighborhood, Funghi said.

"It's not being stereotypical with just copying the old," he said. "It also showcases the future of Chinatown."

The Central Subway station joins the Chinese Hospital and City College of San Francisco Chinatown campus as modern developments intended to fit into the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

A public presentation for the plaza design will be scheduled within the next month.

The latest plaza design incorporates "a lot" of feedback from seniors, including wind-mitigation elements and more seating, said Anni Chung, president and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly. An additional request that may or may not be feasible, she said, is creating a physical connector from the plaza to a rooftop space at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School immediately west.

Regardless, the station is a "win-win" by increasing transportation and open space, Fong said.

"You know, people are going to come to the community and they're going to see housing all over the place," he said. "At least they're going to see a little glimpse, a little bit of peace and calm on top."

- Jessica Kwong, SF Examiner