The Castro’s Bright and Challenging Future


December 6th, 2012
The Bay Area Reporter

Few neighborhoods in our city - indeed, in our country - approach the Castro's cultural significance. Particularly for the LGBT community - but for many others as well - this wonderful neighborhood represents so many of our community's aspirations of equality, acceptance, and forging a life for oneself.

The Castro has seen its fortunes rise and fall over the years, from the highs of the 1970s to the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s to the strengthening of our community with the advent of protease inhibitors in the 1990s. Today, the Castro's future is bright, yet challenging. The neighborhood's fundamental strengths remain, and our challenge is to retain those strengths even as inevitable change comes to the neighborhood. Here are a few thoughts on the state of the Castro and its future:

Continued economic vibrancy

The Castro's economy, like the rest of the nation, has had some rough years, but things are looking up. Many in the neighborhood are frustrated with commercial vacancies - and particularly a few long-term notable vacancies - but the numbers tell a positive economic story.

A few Sundays ago, I did perhaps the ultimate nerdy district supervisor thing and walked the neighborhood - from Diamond to Church and Duboce to 19th - compiling a list of new businesses that have opened in the last two years and of vacancies. The result: 35 businesses have come into the neighborhood in the past two years, 33 of which were new businesses (as opposed to existing businesses changing location) and only one of which was formula retail. In addition, only 15 vacancies persist out of hundreds of ground-floor commercial spaces. Of those 15 vacancies, several likely will be filled in the coming months.

In other words, businesses want to come here, and the new businesses that are coming here are overwhelmingly local. We need to fill the remaining vacancies and ensure that the neighborhood retains its local-business flavor. If the past predicts anything, the future is positive on this front.

New housing and the need for housing options

Housing is way too expensive in the Castro. Rents are through the roof, which means that young people struggle to come here and longtime residents struggle to stay here. Nearly 2,000 units of new housing are slated for the Upper Market area in the next several years. This housing will have retail on the ground floor, and the housing and retail will create significant new foot traffic and urban vibrancy, particularly between Sanchez and Octavia. This change will bring new jobs and life into that stretch of Market Street. We are working hard to ensure that the new housing is diverse and not just high-end condos. Several of the projects are rentals, and we will see quite a few new affordable units. For example, the 55 Laguna project will add 160 affordable units, 110 of which will be for lower-income LGBT seniors. We need to add different sizes of units, including larger family units and smaller units for the many single people who live here. I'd also like to see housing for transition-age youth built in Upper Market, and I hope that Larkin Street and other youth organizations will consider the neighborhood for that type of housing.

The addition of new housing and retail also means an even greater need to expand Muni's capacity and improve its reliability. Muni is struggling to meet current neighborhood demand. With a growing population, we must prioritize Muni's maintenance, reliability, and capacity.

Improving our public realm

While the Castro has wonderful parks at its edges, the neighborhood has remarkably little usable public space. Harvey Milk Plaza is poorly designed and doesn't honor its namesake with a wonderful and safe public gathering space. Jane Warner Plaza is terrific but small. While the Castro is one of the most pedestrian-focused neighborhoods in the city, Castro Street's sidewalks are embarrassingly narrow.

Here, too, the future is positive. I've secured funding to widen the Castro Street sidewalks from Market to 19th from the current 12 feet to 18 or 19 feet. Many of us are committed to a fundamental redesign of Harvey Milk Plaza. There's also a strong commitment to upgrading Jane Warner Plaza. We can and will improve the Castro's public spaces.

Embracing the Castro's LGBT cultural significance

Change brings uncertainty, including for our neighborhood's LGBT cultural identity. We need to continue the neighborhood's strong connection to the LGBT community. The GLBT History Museum was an excellent recent addition, and I've been proud to support the museum in the budget process and otherwise. I'm excited about the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's planned HIV health center (at the current Superstar Video space), which will be a larger version of Magnet combined with the Stop AIDS Project and the Stonewall Project. Castro County Club has come back from the brink and is a unique sober space for our community. The LGBT Community Center is a critical resource for many. LYRIC continues to serve LGBT young people, and I hope that at some point it will remain open later to provide a safe evening space for youth. LGBT nightlife in the Castro is flourishing and provides an important connection to the neighborhood for many LGBT people.

Do we have challenges as a neighborhood? Yes. Are we working to meet them? Absolutely, and our neighborhood's future is a bright one.

Scott Wiener represents District 8, which includes the Castro, on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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