17th & Church gets major ADA upgrade!

Many people including my friend, Disability Activist Bob Planthold (RIP) organized in 2016 to push for important disability access and safety upgrades to this intersection and 17th St headed West from here as well as Hartford St where it meets 17th.

We received major help from then Supervisor London Breed (now Mayor) and her aide Conor Johnston and then Supervisor Scott Wiener (now State Senator) and his assistant Andres Power. Mike Sallaberry, Senior Transportation Engineer for the City & County of San Francisco guided us through the SFMTA planning process.

At the SFMTA Board meeting on November 7, 2017 the 17th Street Safety Project was given its final approval. The hearing lasted several hours with presentations from Tom Maguire, the Director of Sustainable Streets, Transportation Planner Luis Montoya & Engineer Mike Sallaberry also of the Sustainable Streets division of SFMTA.

Our current District 8 Supervisor, Rafael Mandelman has supported this project through his term. San Francisco Department of Public Works developed the construction schedule and organized the job and all related contracts. R&S Construction Management, Inc. has done the work on the ground, handling every detail with extreme skill.

San Francisco Department of Public Works surveyed the substandard existing ramps at 17th & Church noting many problems and deficiencies.
On November 7, 2018 the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency passed the 17th Street Safety Plan which included the ADA upgrades at two intersections.
One can see the detailed planing that went into the final design for the corner. This is the final blueprint. 5 years of planning went into this document.

For more general info on the background of this project click here. I have taken many photographs and videos of the construction. The plan is to edit the video into a coherent mini movie that memorializes the work done and the various skills involved in transforming this corner. That will take a few days. I will be posting photographs below displaying the work in progression.

Before, The Metamorphosis, After:

South West Corner of 17th & Church Street intersection before reconstruction.
South East corner of 17th & Church Street intersection before reconstruction.
North East corner of 17th & Church Street intersection before reconstruction.
Standing on the North East corner and gazing West one can see the lack of correctly aligned curb ramps.
North West corner of 17th & Church Street intersection at the very beginning of construction. Before they can cut in the curb ramps the crew has to install several new grated sewer openings. They have just started that process in this picture.
The very first step is to install all these pipes and grates underground. Two additional grates for the North Western corner and one for the South Western corner.
More huge pipes that need to be installed underground before work can even start on the curb ramps.
Setting the pipes and digging the holes is very delicate work. One could hit a buried pipeline and the hole must be exactly as deep as the plan calls for. So hand digging is done to ensure nothing goes wrong.
Tools of the trade…
Beneath the asphalt, and under the concrete road base one will discover the brick vault work of the sewer system. This gentleman will use bricks & mortar to integrate the new pipes and openings into this very old system.
Pedestrians, Muni Streetcars and LRV’s pass through the jobsite all day long. This has always been a crazy tight little corner but squeezing in this action has pushed it to the limit. But folks have been flexible and it has worked quite well.
Sewer grates & pipes are set in place and now the curb ramps can be installed.
Then we repeat the same operation on the other side of 17th St in front of the cafe. Adding a completely new sewer grate and associated pipes.
This video footage is from January 19th. The speed these fellows installed those sewer grates is impressive. And those cars make for a scary work environment.
The corner looked so peaceful and quiet in the wee hours of the morning on the 23rd.
Curb ramp installation involves a whole bunch of steps starting with the removal of a large area of the sidewalk, curb, the gutter and the street itself. The Muni tracks make the job much more complicated. Then the new curb gets framed…
Just a short video shot on January 25th to show some of the tools and intense work that goes into creating order out of what most of us would call chaos.
Time to set the main drain grate system into place. Once set correctly it will be cemented into place.
It must be set flat at the precisely correct elevation. Thus a combination of laser and conventional levels are used simultaneously.
Another quick look at the sewer being set to level on the North West corner.
Another quick video of some of the January 25th sewer grate leveling to give you some sense of the intensity of this particular operation. The laser level makes cute little chirps providing audio feedback.
Once the drainage grate is set in place the concrete forms can be framed in to create the new curb and the new gutter.
With the pouring of the concrete one can finally start seeing the corner reemerging from the rubble.

While the guys are working with the fresh wet concrete a truck pulls up dumping a big heavy load of dirt and concrete chunks right in the middle of the street. This is for back-fill and is immediately distributed to the needed areas, sorting out the concrete blocks to provide a cleaner dirt material for the areas under the roadway next to the Muni tracks.

SFMTA Muni has a representative from their Rail Division on site at all times due to the need to protect their track assets and to flag trains through the jobsite. On this day it was a gentleman named Damon Jackson. You can spot him by the Muni insignia on his jacket & hardhat. I also caught him escorting many pedestrians through the jobsite taking great care to ensure their safety. This was not his job but the team at SFMTA is very safety conscious and he reflected those values strongly. I might add that in addition to the full set of high visibility gear he had an air horn that was a great tool for traffic safety work. He used it primarily for trains but I could see a role for that tool in the hands of school crossing guards.

Freshly dumped materials for back filling where necessary.
It is getting late and will be dark soon. The guys are moving like the Harlem Globetrotters to get this site where it needs to be and get it put to bed for the night.
Damon Jackson from the SFMTA Muni Rail Division keeps a sharp eye on the site as the team from R&S clears all the back-fill off the tracks and sweeps them clean while their colleagues smooth and complete the concrete work.
A short video showing the team back-filling the areas they excavated earlier and finishing the concrete work at the same time. The close teamwork & speed they can restore order to a jobsite has to be seen to be believed. It is impressive.
By the next morning they had the asphalt ripped up, the substrate compressed and a new layer of asphalt laid down smooth as glass, sealing the area between the Muni tracks & the curb.
The initial sidewalk forms are set and the team awaits the concrete truck while tending to asphalt details.
A one minute video to catch some of the morning action before the concrete truck arrived. This is January 26th.
The concrete arrived on time and here we see the team smoothing and texturing the surface and adding all the various lines that we are so used to seeing in the pavement.
Action video of the concrete being processed at 17th & Church Street North West corner.
This is ready to dry for the night and then the truck returns to pour the ramps. This whole thing takes three or four pours.
The ramps and the tactile plates were installed promptly the next morning.
This is actually a San Francisco thing dating back to the great earthquake. It allows folks to see what street they are on even if the street sign is destroyed.
The corner is now complete. We see some folks waiting to cross the street and now, for the first time ever, they are properly lined up with the crosswalk. Work is commencing on the remaining corners.

This is the first corner of four being reconstructed in this manner. All this work is being done for one reason: so that the most frail and mobility challenged among us can access the sidewalks and use the crosswalks. The goal is a worthy one. Our species at it’s finest. My aim herein is to document some of the amazing work that goes into an undertaking of this sort. An effort so great for a cause so noble should not be forgotten.

Believe it or not, all this video editing takes a bit of time. The job has been complete for several days now but my schedule has been full. But this webpage is not finished yet. I will be chronicling the work on the remaining three corners for posterity although I will not go into the detail on every one. Just selected aspects of the work to memorialize the magnitude of the effort and the changes.

Our team has turned to the South East corner of Church & 17th Street and are working very fast to minimize the interruption to our excellent neighborhood Thai massage parlor.
South East corner first sidewalk pour looking good. Curb ramps get filled tomorrow.
This is the sidewalk right in front of the Thai massage business.
One more to show the concrete work that goes into a sidewalk.
The next day we check in and see both the concrete substrate for the street has been poured and the wheelchair ramps have also been installed. Notice the space along the curb left for the asphalt to level to the gutter. That’s coming soon.
And the team starts to focus on the next corner, Morning Due Cafe’s little spot in the sunlight. The barriers go up and the jackhammer won’t be far behind.
This is kind of cool. It regulated and measures the fire extinguisher water so the crew can use this source legally, paying for what they use as they go. It’s also quite the converter.
And in just a matter of minutes these guys can take out the entire corner. That little jackhammer tractor machine is very good at breaking concrete.
I cut a little movie of the jack hammer doing it’s thing. It turns the entire corner into a pile of rubble in no time. Next step, remove the rubble into a truck. That’s coming up…
Joel is the proprietor of Morning Due restaurant. He has developed and grown his successful business on that corner for many many years.
Enter The Cat.
Here we see an action movie of the Cat tractor as it removes the rubble from 17th & Church North East corner. The goal is to get the job done asap to minimize disruption to the businesses at this intersection.
Using string to establish levels and center point for the turn radius goes all the way back to the pyramids.
A little curb forming video in front of Morning Due cafe. The restaurateur, Joel comes out to praise the guys for their fast hard work as they are sweeping up for the day.
Once this initial form is poured and dries it defines the lines of what is to come. Subsequent pours of concrete will connect this to both the sidewalk and the street. In fact, the foundation of the street will be massively redone in this connection.
This is completely normal but the demolition and replacement of the road’s concrete foundation goes pretty far into the street and connects directly to the curb.
This is fast precise excavation/demolition. The edges were cut with a concrete saw to give them the necessary straight lines and exact shape. There’s two inches of asphalt on top of several inches of concrete. Then compressed sand.
Looks very close to concrete pouring time at this point. This is a good bit of surface area and will require a couple of trucks full of concrete to fill it in. Note the grooves for connecting to the new curb.
Concrete gets the team moving fast. This is only the first truckload of two. Notice the concrete sample tubes being closed and stored. The basic idea is to leave it setting up and drying over night. Then cover it up tomorrow.
The big pour. Two trucks full of concrete unload to rebuild the street foundation connecting it to the corner in front of Morning Due cafe. This will dry overnight.
And this is how we leave it for the evening. Asphalt truck will be here first thing in the morning.
The final two corners are in play. Here we see the South West Corner featuring SPRO Cafe. The sidewalk is demolished but needs to be excavated. The street side needs to be done and there are a bunch of utility boxes in the mix.
17th Street sidewalk in front of SPRO Cafe is gone.
It rained overnight but our team hit the site hard first thing in the morning framing out and prepping both corners. Connecting the curb to the road foundation is tricky here due to the close proximity of the Muni LRV rails.
That concrete surface really brings a sense of resolution to this space. The ramped surfaces will be installed on the next pour.
I made a video of the smoothing process after the most recent concrete pours on two corners. The finish we associate with the sidewalk is the result of very specific processes. Timing, tools and technique…
That’s SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin checking in on the site with SFMTA Rail Division’s Damon Jackson. Nice to see the top guy at Muni using his bicycle to get around.
Back to our Street foundation work. The concrete has dried nicely and is all swept clean. Note the inch to two inch lip around the edges. That is for the asphalt to run right up to. Forms a tight seam.
That’s not water. It’s a glistening tar type substance that helps seal the concrete and helps connect the new asphalt to the surrounding surfaces.
Asphalt was delivered to both corners on Church and 17th. The Morning Due Corner & the SPRO Corner were sealed from the tracks to the curb. This layer was spread by hand then compressed with a steamroller.
SFMTA Rail Division Representative Damon Jackson is not a crossing guard and this is not his job. But he is a great guy and I caught him escorting many folks safely through this difficult jobsite. Safety First! Good look for Muni…
Safety First! SFMTA workers are street safety experts.
Lot to see in this picture. Asphalt going in while finishing work continues on the freshly poured sidewalk. Several new surfaces emerging. Note that this is echoed on the other corner here as well. Busy…
Asphalt steams while it is hot. And steam rollers are always cool. So I just had to make an asphalt steamroller action movie.
These guys are so fast that the limiting factor is the speed the concrete sets at. One final pour first thing in the morning and that’s it. So one quick shot of SPRO’s Corner for posterity.
Quick peek at the Morning Due Cafe Corner showing the setting concrete sidewalk and negative spaces where the curb ramps will be poured tomorrow. This will be over before long.
And we have curb ramps. Complete with tactile plates. Let this dry and clean up the site and that’s all she wrote.
Morning Due Cafe’s Corner is almost complete. Let the concrete dry, clean up the site, slam that cover into place and away we go…

A little bit more coming soon… I am still collecting video of folks using these fine new curb ramps. That final video will happen as soon as I can get it all done. And once again, it is amazing how much goes into creating this infrastructure that looks so simple when all is done.

One final bit of trivia. This intersection features two inventions patented by Philip Bell Downing, an African American inventor. One is the US Postal Service Letter Box mounted on the South West corner. He invented that in 1891.

The other was actually the first invention that Philip B. Downing patented. His first, the “New and Useful Improvements in Street Railway Switches” (June, 1890), was for an improvement in streetcar and train switches that allowed the switch to be opened or closed by the brakeman from the platform of the car. This patent ultimately led to the light switch. (Source: San Francisco Post article by Tamara Shiloh.)

The half grand union joining the J-Church rails to the 17th Street shoofly tracks feature this technology on the main Church Street tracks. One can contrast it to the manual method of switching tracks which is used on the 17th Street tracks.

Perhaps we should recognize this history and rename the corner Philip Bell Downing Place.

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