Residents displeased with new Balboa planters; public meeting March 10

An example of the new Balboa cobblestone planters near 36th Avenue. And don’t get
too excited – those meters will get their tops soon 😉

On February 20th, a meeting was held about the recent Balboa streetscape improvements project. The $3 million project focused on creating a safer corridor for pedestrians, motorists, cyclists and transit riders along outer Balboa Street, via a series of traffic calming measures. Features of the project included wider sidewalks, bulb outs to make street crossings safer, energy efficient light fixtures, and curb ramps.

Outer Balboa residents are happy with those improvements to their street, but there’s another aspect to the project that has them seeing red: the landscaping improvements.

Specifically, the new planters that were installed on several blocks of Balboa. The new raised sidewalk planters feature dark, cobblestone walls and in some cases, very deep wells to accommodate future trees. The project fact sheet states that the “sidewalk planters to be planted with low maintenance, salt spray and drought-tolerant native and adapted plants and trees. Mulched with gravel.”

A rendering of the kind of landscaping the city envisions for some of the Balboa planters

So what’s to complain about? Plenty if RichmondSFBlog readers have anything to say about it. The planters were installed late last year and have yet to be filled with any greenery. As a result, they’ve become collection bins for rainwater, refuse and dog excrement. Not to mention a tripping hazard for pedestrians.

“I trip on the boxes going to Purusha Yoga. I know someone who actually fell. They are full of poop and garbage…,” wrote Jen J. on our Facebook page. And Brian W. wrote, “It’s only a matter of time until someone sues the city for an injury resulting from these planters.”

Others complain about the space the planters take away from the newly widened sidewalks.

“The planting areas are the biggest piece of junk ever!. If you walk down the sidewalk, there is not enough room for more than 2 people maybe to walk down,” Perrin B. wrote.

At the February 20th meeting, discussion got very heated over the planters and despite neighborhood disapproval of the landscaping, city officials told attendees “the decisions were already made” and could not be changed.

To add insult to injury, the city is only committing to planting and maintaining the planters for a period of 3 years. After that, it’s the responsibility of residents and merchants to keep the planters clean and healthy. And we all know how well that DOESN’T work in San Francisco.

Monday night’s meeting will be hosted by the Department of Public Works and Supervisor Eric Mar from 6-7:30pm at the Cabrillo Playground, located at 38th Avenue and Cabrillo (we’re presuming it will be inside the clubhouse at the playground). The goal of the meeting is to discuss the purpose and benefits of the streetscape changes along Balboa Street, and hear community input and answer questions.

What are your thoughts on the new planters along Balboa? Leave a comment to let us know.

Sarah B.


  1. It was already difficult navigating from your car, around the planters, and onto the sidewalk when the meters weren’t there. The meters just add another level of complexity to the navigation. I’m anticipating a very heated meeting!

  2. Totally understand the frustration, but honestly the Richmond needs more greenery and why haven’t residents stepped up to fill the planters? If the city installed planters in front of my concrete filled apartment side walk, I’d actually take advantage and fill them! And if money is an issue, you can contact Friends of the Urban forest and have them put one in for you. Just saying…for a city that costs cost much to live in so few people take any pride in the exterior of their homes and apartments.

  3. The “beautification” of Balboa street is making is the street more confined.

  4. These complaints seem pretty low-octane. Are we sure Richmond residents aren’t just upset that the endless sea of concrete from all their filled-in gardens has finally been permeated? The planters will be easy enough to see once their are trees sticking out of them. Sheesh.

  5. @Bennett: It’s not about the visibility of the planters. They form an actual hazard walking on the sidewalk AND in trying to get from the street to the sidewalk after parking a car. They are several feet long, with short breaks between them. If someone who has difficulty walking or uses any kind of an assistive device to walk, he or she will have to walk IN THE STREET, BEHIND CARS to the ramps at the corners in order to walk onto the sidewalk and go into a home or business. It isn’t beautification; it’s a barrier to how real people live daily life. I do not use an assistive device to walk, and it is an obstacle course to get from parked car to the businesses around these planters.

    You don’t have the picture, so let me explain. From the curb to the planter is about 20-24 inches. That’s small. THEN one has to walk around that planter, down perhaps 8 feet, ducking out of the way of branches of trees, to a break between the planters that is maybe 24 inches wide. Then you’re on a narrow sidewalk that really is not suitable for more than two people across.

    And there are no “filled in gardens” on the stretch of Balboa that is being discussed, so maybe know a little something before spouting off. Yes, those are a serious drainage issue, but (a) not in play here, so put that card back in the deck, and (b) much more the Sunset than the Richmond.

  6. The first thing that crossed my mind when they built those things was someone is going to trip and fall down and it looks like they already did! This is the stupidest idea to ever come out of planning. Eric Marr & lackeys, are you reading this? It’s not too late to remove those empty graves.

    The worse section is in front of La Promenade (formerly Zephyers). Not only do you have those boxes, La Promenade put out 2 giant plants right in front of it thereby narrowing the street some more. So much for ADA compliance!

    My father is legally blind. If he were to walk that street alone, he’d by lying there with a broken nose.

    @Jen- This whole boondoggle was financed with taxpayer funds. So yes, we essentially paid for it lock stock and barrel. I’ll be d—– if I’m going to have to shell additional money to fill those stupid boxes for them. The City should tell their lazy staff to do it.

  7. Thanks for posting about this, though residents and merchant’s views on the project are this uniform. Some people voiced that they just want the project over with, while others were more narrowly concerned about the particular plants due to be installed. And contrary to the sentiment of the photo’s caption, many expressed the need for the meters to be placed in asap so that customers can more easily find parking.

    DPW is being flexible and is adjusting the planters to better accommodate ADA needs. We welcome people to attend the meeting where more details will be shared.

    This Monday’s meeting is an opportunity to refine the work and move forward. Hope you can make it, and I invite you all to share any thoughts directly with me.

    Peter Lauterborn
    Legislative Aide
    Supervisor Eric Mar, District 1
    Office: (415) 554-7411

  8. What are some of you talking about? Just looking at the photo above you can see that the space from the curb to the planters is 3 feet. Sidewalk squares are always 3 feet square. And you can see that the space on the other side of the planters is three sidewalk squares wide (9 feet). The diagram shows this to be true. Is this not wide enough? Some people just like to complain for complaining’s sake.

  9. It appears from the photos that the 3ft from curb to planter is not designed for access. With the meters in the way, it is definitely not accessible with persons having disabilities. ADA code requires at least 6ft. The planter should have moved closer to the curb. It should just allowed enough room for the meter and to enable a person to open their vehicle door. This would have allowed extra room where it’s needed.

  10. I’m surprised people are not feeling positive about the planters…I’ve been excited since the start since the outer Richmond sorely needs more green. I don’t understand the tripping and narrow sidewalk issues–the planters are uniform, and they are visible–it’s not like a piece of broken sidewalk that catches one unaware. Narrower sidewalks are, to me, more quaint, and the greenery will separate the cars going by from the more human-scale pedestrian area. I can understand frustration with cig butts and garbage in the interim, but is that a reason to be bitter about the idea in general? I’m letting out a big sigh as I write this because I just don’t see how attempts at beautifying and making our neighborhood greener, tidier, more attractive (granted, IMO) is something to kvetch about.

  11. I can’t stand Eric Mar, but I seem to be siding with him on this issue. We can’t let a small minority of people dictate this issue. The sidewalks are ADA compliant. There is no reason to waste money at this late stage to satisfy the needs/desires of a few people. There is no meaningful tripping hazard. Let’s get the planters planted and move on!! The sooner we move forward with this landscaping, the better it will be for local businesses, and then the neighborhood can continue its upward momentum.

  12. I think the planters will make a lot more sense once they are filled with foliage. If these planters were intended as part of a traffic calming project, any arguments based around cars are laughable.

  13. The world needs more plants- people get over you need to- not have to look where you sticking your feet- that’s just lazy over helping the planet

  14. They do need to plant trees that do not litter however- those in the picture shed too much

  15. Thanks for covering this story. The planter boxes need to be removed. They our just waiting for trouble to happen. Who take care of the trees and plants after three years?

    Plus there needs to be a four way stop sign on 38th and Balboa

  16. Check out the new ‘planters’ down the sidewalk by the new market st whole foods – photo to come. These are done right – are attractive – are not a hazard.

  17. I have a different issue with the planters. They are simply not attractive. I am willing to give up pedestrian access and deal with delays in project completion. But the final product should be worth it. Those planters are holes in the ground ringed with a single line of bricks.

    I am going to go out on a limb and say that if the city had built something that looked good, the complaints about access would be much less aggressive.

  18. Hi everyone. People don’t like change. Try to get over that and appreciate long term improvements.

    Accessibility is important. I will stop by later to see if I’d be able to get my mom out of the car and load her in a wheelchair. I have trouble believing that the city would have built this as non ADA compliant.

    Owner maintenance after 3 years: makes sense! Build me a garden and establish trees or shrubs for 3 whole years and I’ll be happy to maintain. There’s no free lunch. People should not expect perfection or nirvana or benefits at no cost.

    Walking area too narrow? You’ve got to be kidding. The Balboa area generally has very little foot traffic. It’s not Manhattan, Castro Street, or Chestnut Street.

    Chillax. I guess some of us who don’t dislike “everything” will have to go to the meeting so the complainers don’t appear to be a majority.

    Finally, the time to request changes is during the design proposals, not post-build. Post- build changes need to be only for critical problems, from an economic perspective. I’ll admit that I didn’t hear about any community review processes early on.

  19. There are a couple of problems with the planters, but I do think they can be remedied.
    First, apparently there was some notice of this planned streetscape back in 2006. We have lived in the Outer Richmond since 1997 and never saw any notice of a neighborhood meeting regarding the plan for plantings or bulb-outs. The Richmond Review had an article about 6 months ago describing a plan with signs demarcating the Balboa Street commercial district. That was all the notice the neighbors were given prior to the commencement of the project last fall. Apparently some merchants were notified of the plan several years ago, but from what I’ve heard from them, their concerns were ignored.
    Second, I don’t think anyone is saying plants or trees are a bad thing. However, they do need to be established and maintained and people who do not ask for or want plantings in front of their property tend not to take care of them. For example, two or three years ago trees were planted all along Balboa and Anza, but many of them died off for lack of water (owners either did not want to take on the responsibility or perhaps just did not know that they were responsible for trees the City planted in front of their properties). I even saw an older gentleman come out of his home and pull a new tree out of the ground. The fact homeowners now have to pay for the public sidewalk in front of their home is resented by anyone homeowner I’ve ever talked to about the subject; to also care for an maintain plantings they did not want is putting salt in the wound. In addition, it will not be the property owners who will necessarily care for these planting boxes, but it will be the merchants who rent commercial space and have their hands full with running their businesses.
    Third, the size and placement of the planters could be improved to make access easier. Now, if you have a child in your arms, or are carrying laundry to be done, it is virtually impossible to negotiate the spaces between the cars to an opening between the 20′ planter boxes, so one needs to walk in the now-narrower street to find an opening through which access to the sidewalk can be had. It seems that a more accessible and pedestrian-friendly design would be three-foot square planters with 9-12 feet between them, or 3×6′ planters with 9-12 feet between them.
    Finally, there actually is quite a bit of foot traffic on Balboa between 39th and 33rd these days. Any given day you can see a line 20 people deep in front of Purple Kow, the Balboa Theater is bustling and there is outdoor seating now at several popular cafes (Cassava, Fog Baby and Simple Pleasures–which luckily did not have the planter boxes put in front of their business so they could add a parklet and create a really user-friendly space for the community). As an investor in Cassava’s Kickstarter campaign to pay for awnings, heat lamps, living edible garden windbreaks and outdoor seating, I was disturbed by the fact these planters have impeded Cassava’s ability to fully, maximize use of their outdoor space, and realize their goals and vision for year-round seating along Balboa. They now must push smaller tables up against the front of the building; the planters have reduced their outdoor seating capacity significantly.
    I have seen people trip on these planters, duck around newspaper boxes and signs that now encroach in the walking area of the sidewalk, and try to maneuver strollers and young children up onto the curb and to the sidewalk through the planter boxes and meters. I hope that the voters will approve the plan to have the City take over maintenance of them permanently, but the current planter box design is not user-friendly and exposes the City–and arguably the property owners once the care and control of the planter boxes shifts to them– to liability if someone is injured because of the planters.

  20. It appears that detractors are hanging their hat on the alleged “tripping hazard” theory. Let’s put the trees and other bushes in the planters and then see what happens. I am confident that the engineers that designed this street scape thought about tripping hazards….that is a huge part of their work.

  21. I agree with everyone saying that this is a tripping hazard.

    Here is a photo of the sidewalk infront of the new Whole Foods on Market at Dolores:


    Why would the Balboa project deviate from what is used citywide? Walk down 99% of the streets with trees and they all are set into the sidewalk without a raised barrier (unless provided by the resident as decorative or doggie deterrent).

  22. Fogline, #20, lots of good points. Thanks. I don’t agree with all of it, but you make a lot of good points.

    To you and Andrew, #19, I am a property owner, of a single family house. I have always understood that it is a homeowner’s responsibility to maintain sidewalks, for public easement. I think there are a few exceptions, where the city maintains ownership of land beyond property lines (like on Geary near 48th). But mostly, the sidewalk is not public property, but private property where the owner provides public easement as required by law. So, I don’t agree with “now have to pay for the public sidewalk in front of their home”. Now? This is not new.

    Like Fogline, I’ve been in the Outer Richmond since 1997, and I didn’t hear about the design plans, either. Given that, if the notifications were insufficient, then some post-construction adjustments make more sense, although the cost is still the cost.

    I remain hopeful for a long-term solution that beautifies the neighborhood, and is safe and accessible. It might be a little socialist, but I’m fine with asking property owners to maintain plants in front that they did not request. I see the other side of the argument, and I also see the major difference trees make to a city street. It’s like night and day vs. barren streets. I’ll try not to post again 🙂

  23. For the record, just plain poor design. Tripping Hazard- few places to cross from the road over the planters to the curb- without jumping over the planters.

    Also, parked UPS trucks such as at Poppa Opps difficult to maneuver cars around- kinda dangerous.

  24. Skid does nothing unless there’s a way for him to spin and look good. Mar is finally getting the message. He has done nothing for Richmond except to grandstand.

  25. Shua #22 (and others questioning why the raised stone creating a trip hazard) – it’s because of ADA rules requiring something for blind peoples’ canes to tap against. With due sympathies, sounds just like a case of “for want of a nail the kingdom was lost” – by making the planters as unworkable (for most) and unattractive as possible, they’re completely undercutting the mission to make the Richmond greener and prettier.

  26. I’m for the Whole Foods design. At least it isn’t so high that people will trip over them. People who tell others that “it’s impossible to trip” or to “get over themselves” should learn to emphasize with people who are not coordinated or suffer vision problems. Just because you can’t trip on it doesn’t mean others won’t.

    Also, if someone on the street uses a double stroller or a big wheelchair, well then that automatically makes the sidewalk narrower, doesn’t it?

    I’m all for green – when it’s done correctly. The current project is not done right at all.

    Instead of planting things into the sidewalk, why doesn’t the city invest in nice big cement planters (not metal because the thieves will steal them) and plant flowers or trees into them? That way the tree roots won’t damage the sidewalks and the planters are tall enough that everyone can see them (we’re talking about waist high planters by the way).

    I’ve been living in the Outer Richmond since the 1980’s and there has never been a notice about this ill conceived idea. It is more of a do it and oops we gotta tell the folks after the fact deal.

  27. Let me guess, whoever got the contract to put the planters in made campaign contributions to

    A) Rose Pak

    B) Willie Brown

    C) Ed Lee

    and/or D) Eric Mar

  28. I noticed over the weekend that they’ve started removing some of the cobble stones. Note sure if they were removed permanently or redoing something.

  29. I just walked down to check out the area and I have to say the planters do look better now that they are filled with soil and I think they will look very nice with actual plants and trees. However, something I hadn’t thought about is how businesses (and building owners) will put out their garbage and recycling bins. I noticed two sets out just now and, since they need to be placed near the curb, they were put in the small area between planters. This effectively blocks off the pathway from street to sidewalk at those particular points.

    Overall it appears that some of the more ‘operational’ aspects of this project were not sorted out prior to construction, which is aggravating, but (sadly) not that surprising. Let’s hope tonight’s meeting is constructive and helps to resolve some of the resident’s concerns and questions.

  30. Public sidewalks were maintained by the City until Proposition 13 took effect. We had a tree planted in front before then by the predecessor of Friends of the Urban Forest, which promised City maintenance (i.e. proper pruning). Since the late 1970s, we have borne the responsibility for all pruning, minimal watering and regular (every 5 years) rootering of our drains to ensure proper flow of sewage. Our neighbor immediately north has been affected by the tree roots more than once, an expense we share as she doesn’t do the regular preventive rootering. Care must be taken in observing tree growth such that it does not come close to power and telephone lines or the tree may receive a flat-top from a utility. The cut-outs in sidewalks will cause sidewalks to crack on the diagonal from the corners in any earth movement greater than 4.5 on the Richter scale based on experience in 1980, 1984 and 1989. These cracks will be subject to the City issuing maintenance orders and/or bills. With four cracks, there will be four concrete squares requiring replacement.

    Bricks, or anything that can be removed, will be removed and could be used for less than honorable purposes. In the past two years we have had two signs and several large decorative stones (used to discourage animal waste elimination) stolen from beneath the tree; the stones had not been disturbed in over 15 years until the restriction on long-term parking on Fulton took place.

    Because the City also severely curtailed groundskeeping operations after the enactment of Prop 13, the quantity and variety of weeds populating both backyards and tree cutouts has grown immensely and requires, at a minimum, weekly aggressive removal. After many years of battling these unwelcome volunteers, we decided to use playground mulch in the tree cutout. It has also reduced the quantity of pet waste but has done nothing to dissuade those who believe it’s a public trash can.

    Greening is nice, but for all my fellow allergy sufferers, do keep in mind that only male trees bear pollen and that the vast majority of street trees are males because they do not fruit (edible or otherwise) because of complaints in the 1960s by owners of parked cars who had to clean their vehicles after contact with overripe fruit. Today’s pollen count is moderate and tomorrow is expected to be high; you might feel grittiness in your eyes due to the concentration of airborne particulates even if you have no allergies.

    One more consideration. Back in pre-history one never put their garbage cans out on the sidewalk, Sunset Scavenger came into garages via tradesman entrance and dumped cans into burlap sheets. That changed to putting a single metal can per household out, which later was accompanied with the small rectangular blue box for bottles and cans in the 1980s. Recology now has the three wheeled cart system with larger buildings using the much larger 30 & 40 gal. containers. Where will these be expected to be placed before pickup? How difficult will it be to maneuver a fully loaded large container around a planter to the space along the curb if so requested? Will they impede pedestrians and/or people exiting parked cars? How will the proposed planters affect the manner in which empty Recology carts blow around on windy days?

    Based on decades of experience, if planters were coming to my block, I would be deeply concerned about any promises of proper maintenance and debris removal in addition to careful design for safety, potential vandalism, and ease of access for all purposes coupled with a precise definition of the rights and responsibilities of the property owners on whose sidewalks they are placed.

  31. I’ve just returned from the meeting which was full of anger and intensity. Of the 45 or so people there only two said they were happy with the project as is. Unfortunately I got the feeling it was too late in the process to really make significant changes so I’m not sure tonight’s feedback will have any impact. Still, if the project leaders (from DPW, supervisor’s office, architect, etc.) were unclear about how many residents and merchants feel about the work they certainly are not now.

  32. We are very happy with the project. Well done! Can’t wait for the plants to go in.

  33. No more than two people?!?!? Maybe if they are 500 pounds each. Even if you didn’t live in the hood you can see in the pics there is plenty of room. Balboa looked like shit before. A sea of concrete. After living there 13 years it’s great to see the area finally get spruced up. Haters will hate

  34. Btw, it’s not 20 inches, it’s 3 feet of space between planter and curb. Folks really need to dial it back.

  35. The planters and street widening are a huge improvement for Balboa Street! Once the plants and trees are finally planted, it will be very pleasant and attractive. I believe that some of the planter boxes could have had more separation in between them (distance between the boxes, not distance from curb). I only wish that there was a Stop sign at 38th and Balboa as that is a very challenging place to cross.

    Maybe Washington High School’s service/volunteer organizations could host monthly clean-ups on this corridor as they routinely hold similar volunteer activities.

  36. After tonight’s community meeting about this project, which over 50 people attended, another woman and I spent over an hour with DPW looking at the site and pointing out problems with access to the sidewalk from a parked car. We recommended they should evaluate every single parking space for access, especially for people with wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, or simply in need of assistance. They agreed this was a good idea. I suggest everyone keeps an eye on this project, and if they see a location that has access problems, contact DPW or Peter at Supervisor Mar’s office and let them know.

  37. There won’t be a tripping hazard once they’re planted. Who will be trying to step over bushes or trees? Nobody. It’s only a tripping hazard while they’re unplanted because they may not be noticeable enough.

    As a Richmond resident I applaud more green. We have too much grey concrete out here. We need more green badly. I’m happy to take care of the trees in front of my house, even when it means sidewalk repairs. The street is just so much more lovely and livable with greenery.

  38. I think the planters are a trip/fall hazard. Maybe you don’t, but onme thing is certain. The amount of space for pedestrians on Balboa in the Outer Richmond has been reduced from by 1/4 to 1/2. That is quite a bit, especially for a project that was initiated to improve the street for pedestrians. Try walking along the sidewalk near Simple Pleasures and see if you don’t have to carefully negotiate that section. And no stop signs between 32nd and 36th, despite the presence of two (count ’em, two) schools on the corner of 34th and Balboa. So much for safety improvements.

  39. Please kindly inform all the school nearby, let their students taking good care the new Balboa

    beautify project!

    I saw many new plants and flower pad had been stepped down or destroy

    already. Since it is a community project with taxes payer $. I believe each resident should keep eye

    open, prevent anyone step inside the planting area, further damage all the new public properties.

    City should set up a sign warning for whoever kill or damage or stole the plants, and any objects

    belong to ………………………………….

    to community. How about fine for $ 200 -$400? Please pay special attention the section in front of

    Pacific academy section. Why the school allow their students step inside the planting area? they

    should tell their kids become a GOOD citizen. Love American enviroment!!!!!!!!!!!!! :((

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