As many municipalities struggle with limited resources to improve and maintain the public realm, a local developer, working with the city and county of San Francisco, successfully transformed Jessie Street, a neglected city-owned alleyway, into Mint Plaza, a neighborhood public space.
Since its completion in 2008, Mint Plaza has become a model of adaptive public space design and a successful example of converting an automobile focused and previously unsafe alleyway into pedestrian-only civic space. As a result, Mint Plaza now supports various public gatherings–from a weekly farmers’ market to a seasonal “People in Plazas” event with free music and dance performances–and enhances the neighborhood’s public image.
Several nationally registered historic warehouses and a decommissioned U.S. Mint building frame the 18,000-square-foot plaza, creating an intimately scaled outdoor “public living room.” The transformation of Jessie Street has attracted substantial new private investment into the surrounding neighborhood, including four locally owned restaurants and cafes as well as the renovation of the nearby San Francisco Chronicle newspaper’s former headquarters. Three regional public transportation systems, including two rail systems, are a two-minute walk from the plaza, which has helped attract residents and businesses.
The project also exemplifies a successful private-public partnership that required minimal public investment–city funds comprised only $150,000 of the project’s $3.2 million capital budget. The developer, Martin Building Company, created a Community Facilities District that levied a 30-year special property tax on certain properties to provide the up-front funds 13 for the design and construction of the project through tax-exempt bonds. The developer also formed a non-profit organization, Friends of Mint Plaza, to raise funds to manage ongoing maintenance and programming on the plaza.
The plaza is a model for using sustainable design principles in dense urban areas that require substantial amounts of paved surfaces. The plaza’s shifting planes direct rainwater into treatment gardens and an underground infiltration basin, reducing runoff and helping to protect San Francisco Bay. This system is a low-tech, easily reproducible design and is the first instance of fully integrating an environmentally responsible design of this scale in a San Francisco public open space. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission now uses this system as a model for other projects.
The plaza has been a catalyst for improvements in the neighborhood and greater city. As the surrounding neighborhood adds more residences and businesses, the design’s simplicity will ensure that the plaza can adapt to new activities and a changing downtown.
“As a resident, Mint Plaza functions as our urban ‘front yard’ and provides a safe and nurturing environment for my son and his friends. As such, the plaza has already created a unique sense of public space ownership in a sometimes impersonal downtown. Residents view the plaza as a place for living rather than merely a public park or a conduit to get from here to there.” — William Duncanson Mint Plaza neighborhood resident; Principal, Salazar Duncanson Birchall Architects