Yesterday, a tip from one of our readers, “tendernobber” came through to let us know that a gate had been installed over the weekend on Colin Alley (officially, Colin Place). While a new gate is not news in and of itself, the fact of the matter was that this gate was installed without a permit, on a public street, permanently blocking it off from the public, and as such, violating the law.

The two buildings that border this alley are 691 Post St. (owned or managed by Hawthorne/Stone) and 642 Jones St (owned or managed by Meridian Management). The person who sent in the tip stated that both City Planning and DPW issued no permit for the gate. When asked, the construction manager said that, “the Mayor’s office told him to put the gate up”.

I went by shortly after getting this tip and happened to encounter what I understood were both of the respective building managers who were going over the various locks to this new gate as well as talking about circulating a petition amongst their residents to support having the gate. When I asked one of the managers about the gate, she was thrilled to finally have it up. Despite the fact that people were grumbling that they couldn’t park there anymore (which is a moot point as parking isn’t allowed in the alley), it had apparently been a long battle with lawyers to get the gate installed. They had had countless problems with people doing no end of unfortunate things in the alley, as is often the case in unmaintained spaces. She had also been assaulted (whether verbally or physically I don’t know) by a man sleeping back there recently.

I asked her if it was true that the work was performed without a permit. She didn’t directly answer and just shrugged stating that “you have to do what you have to do”. Once I asked that, the conversation was pretty much over, which I can understand given the amount of work to get this gate installed and what will probably be at least some amount of fighting to keep it as it was done illegally.

I can’t speak for Meridian, but I do know that Hawthorne/Stone runs on a build first, permit (if caught) later manner of business. While this is potentially dangerous to tenants of their building and not correct, it doesn’t immediately infringe on public space. Yes, I realize that there was a problem with this alley and first and foremost, the city of San Francisco is to blame for that by making the permit process to do anything an impossible feat as well as having lax police enforcement for quality of life violations and a weak DA who won’t prosecute anyone. But still, this isn’t an excuse to break the law.

In this case, there was no public process/hearing on the installation of this gate. It is very similar to Meacham Alley with the exception that with Meacham they initially gave the impression that they were going to leave the alley unlocked during the day to only later have it permanently closed all the time. This gate does away with that formality. While I don’t think there is any reason to have alleys open at night other than to allow access to those who live and/or work in the adjoining buildings, they are public space and unless an owner wants to buy them from the city, they must remain accessible to the public. There are creative ways to deal with issues that arise from these empty spaces attracting crime or undesirable behavior, though. For example:

Cohen Alley
This is the best example of what you can do with an alley that becomes problematic. After years of being ridden with drugs/prostitution/bodily fluids, it was turned in to the Tenderloin National Forest that is open certain days during the day and maintained by The Luggage Store Gallery annex next door. It took six years to make this happen following the proper procedures, but it did happen and the end result is completely legal.

Maiden Lane
This could easily be a close-off section of downtown streets with dumpsters, but instead, it is a pedestrian area that is vibrant and full of cafes.

Cosmo Alley
While there is nothing particularly gorgeous about this street, it works to be the main entrance to Le Colonial and The Hidden Vine. It is constantly full of people as business has been built up to be use it.

Belden Place
This was just an ugly chunk of street for trash pickup and had problems with homeless sleeping there during the night. Now it is a strip of nice European restaurants with the most extensive section of outdoor seating in the downtown.

I’d love to hear back from everyone out there as to how they feel about this gate, which amounts to essentially taking the law in to one’s own hands, better known as vigilantism. Those involved with installing this gate need to work on a plan to keep it open during the daylight hours, not to mention be fined, and possibly have the gate removed at their expense. For me, I say that if the gate stays, then the alley needs to remain open, at least during the day.

But, to take it one constructive step further, how about potentially working with a local business have something happen there, so that it’s not just a dead lump of asphalt? That Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk that was going to be set up in Dolores Park? How about put that there with some places to sit and vegetation to form a new parklet? That’s just one idea. I’m sure there are others that can be arrived at instead of just thinking, “homeless problem = block off homeless = problem solved”. It’s this kind of thinking that has made us a city with no public benches and a fear of having any kind of outdoor public space for people to enjoy. And ultimately, nothing about this approach actually works.