Two blocks of Stockton Street near Union Square have been transformed yet again from a dusty subway construction site into a unique holiday destination, complete with white benches that light up at night, beer and wine gardens, food trucks, and entertainment that ranges from a silent disco to choirs, drag shows and DJs.
Winter Walk 2018 opened Monday and will provide a respite for San Francisco shoppers and gawkers until New Year’s Eve.
The big news, however, lies beneath the green plastic carpets that blanket the walkways — a fresh coat of smooth black asphalt lies below the fake lawn, and when the turf is rolled up and hauled away traffic will flow here for the first time in six years.
The reopening of Stockton Street will end not only a major detour that severed a critical route to the Bay Bridge and Interstate 80 but a divisive debate over whether the two blocks should be barricaded permanently and turned into a pedestrian mall.
Municipal Transportation Agency officials are still figuring out a date for allowing traffic, including the rerouted 30-Stockton Muni line, back on those two blocks of Stockton.
“The plan is to open the corridor shortly after the first of the year, but how short, we don’t know yet,” said Paul Rose, an MTA spokesman.
Crews still need to paint the street stripes and string the overhead electric lines that power the buses, but the pavement is in place and the sidewalks — narrowed by construction — have been widened and restored, while curbs have been installed.
The MTA plans to set aside one lane for mass transit but it won’t get a coat of red paint until mid-2019, officials said. The first Muni bus to return to Stockton Street will be the 8-Bayshore, which doesn’t require overhead wires. Once the wires are installed, the 30-Stockton and 45-Union/Stockton lines will return.
In 2016, city officials briefly considered making the street a pedestrian mall. But the suggestion split the business community. It mainly drew support from retailers, which welcomed the idea of more foot traffic. Some Union Square hoteliers complained that the closure would only make the tangle of closed and one-way streets even more difficult for guests to navigate.
But the staunchest opposition came from Chinatown merchants and activists, who said the closure discouraged visiting drivers by making it more difficult to depart Chinatown and get on I-80.
“The community concerns about a permanent street closure couldn’t be resolved within the timeline of the Central Subway construction plan,” he said. “Without a clear consensus or public support for plans, the MTA chose not to pursue the project.”
Karin Flood, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District, which pushed for the permanent closure, said all parties realized over time the best plan was to reopen the street.
“We decided it would be best to drop that effort,” she said.
In addition to food, drinks and dancing, this year’s Winter Walk also features everything from yoga classes to a couple’s photo booth and a “Mean Girls”-themed drag performance.
Unlike past years, when fenced-off construction shafts created little islands in the fun zone, the street will be wide open for holiday revelry, including a giant Winter Walk sign that spews fake San Francisco fog and is Instagram-ready.
As for future Winter Walks, Flood is holding out hope the two blocks of Stockton Street will continue to shut down for a few weeks around the holidays. But she knows it could be a tough sell.
“It’s harder to close a street that’s already open,” Flood said. “We’d like Winter Walk to continue, but if not (on) Stockton, maybe Maiden Lane or Campton Place.”