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After a decade of construction, subway opens door to San Francisco’s Chinatown

San Francisco's Central Subway finally opened, with hopes of spurring economic development, and fulfilling a promise made nearly 30 years ago to the city's Chinese community.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — One hundred feet underground at the Rose Pak subway station in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Bing Lu stood on the brightly lit platform pointing to, and translating, the English language signage into Chinese for those around her. Others stood about, chatting and waiting on the next train to take them to Union Square station or beyond.

The trains, however, ran rather haphazardly that day. The ceaseless rains which have buffeted California for the past three weeks felled a tree on the surface rails of the T-line, which connects downtown with San Francisco’s east side, as far down as Dog Patch, Bay View and Excelsior. Trains from either direction were turned around near Third and 22nd streets near Chase Center, the city’s newish basketball arena.

It was Lu’s first time, not only at Rose Pak station but using the city’s new Central Subway line, which opened for limited service in November and, finally, to full daily service on Jan. 7.

“Oh, it’s great,” she said with a big smile.

A handsome woman dressed in a floppy hat, blue face mask and a long, black overcoat still wet with rain, Lu declined to give her age — “I’m older” — but said she lives in Bay View and until now had avoided trips to Chinatown. Getting to the nation’s oldest Chinese enclave from the southeast end of the city was, the new line opened, no small feat. And even though she owns a car, parking in Chinatown ranges from nonexistent to expensive, rendering that option impractical.

This afternoon, though, she’d been visiting banks where the tellers speak Chinese and said she’s excited about finally being able to get to the numerous Chinese markets that line the streets of the neighborhood. Originally from Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, Lu has made do with the supermarkets in her own neighborhood — nearly seven miles from Chinatown if she drove — but now has access to all the specialty items she’s missed. The fact that the Lunar New Year is just around the corner makes this even more special. Opening so close to the Lunar New Year wasn’t a coincidence, however.

“We worked very hard to make sure the line opened before Lunar New Year shopping,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

A metal screen sculpture by Chinatown artist Yumei Hou, based on traditional cut-paper art, depicts a Manchu wedding on the mezzanine level of Rose Pak Muni station in San Francisco. (Eric Burkett/Courthouse News)

Lu is almost the poster child for what San Francisco hopes to accomplish with the construction of the Central Subway. Planning for the new line began almost 30 years ago, after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed the central freeway which connected Chinatown with the rest of the city and, more important, to the many Chinese residents scattered around the city’s outer neighborhoods.

Tumlin said this month’s full opening of the line fulfills a longstanding commitment made to the city’s substantial Chinese community, more than 21% of San Francisco’s population.

“What we did was the completion of a promise made nearly 30 years ago, in a smoke-filled room between Willie Brown and Rose Pak,” Tumlin said. Part of the impetus of the line is economic development for Chinatown, he added.

Chinatown’s’ leaders were disappointed when the city decided not to the rebuild the central freeway, seeing it as vital to the neighborhood’s economic well-being. Brown, the former California Assembly speaker who served as San Francisco's mayor from 1996 to 2004, and Pak, the outspoken activist who ruffled feathers as she fought for Chinatown, negotiated the Central Subway into existence. But Pak didn’t live long enough to see it finally open; she died in 2016.

“On a larger scale, however, part of the long history of the Central Subway is incurring Chinatown as the economic heart of the Chinese community for years to come,” Tumlin said.

Of course, the new line is more than just a conduit to Chinatown. At 1.7 miles long, and at a cost of $1.95 billion — far above its original estimate of $656 million — the line runs north to south and includes four new stations. In addition to Rose Pak station, there are stops at Union Square, Moscone Center — San Francisco’s important convention site — and the Caltrain train station, a major commuting point bringing in people from San Mateo County and Silicon Valley. From there, it continues along Third Street, an important north-south artery which was connected to the rest of the subway system in 2007 with the construction of the T-line, for which Chinatown is now the northern terminus.

The new line has also proven a boon to the large crowds of Bay Area basketball fans, who now have a direct line to Chase Center. So far, there have been two games since the line’s opening and the feedback from Warriors fans has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, Tumlin said.

The new line adds to the city’s economic recovery, not only following the ’89 quake and the recession that followed in 1990, he said, but now as San Francisco tries to recover from the economic devastation of the Covid pandemic. The Central Subway — much like the opening of the T-line 15 years ago — will spur new housing in addition to businesses. But the broader implications go far beyond just making it easier to get around.

“Transportation’s primary function is economic,” Tumlin said. “We create land value by creating access to opportunity. We have dramatically expanded the variety of jobs available to Bay Area residents. Transportation creates access to opportunity. How many jobs are accessible within a 30-minute commute? What kind of talent and skill can we access?”

That, in turn, has far-reaching consequences.

“We’re not competing with Walnut Creek or Palo Alto,” Tumlin said, referring to suburban enclaves in the East and South bays, respectively. “We’re competing with global talents like London. Our competitive edge is our urbanity and quality of life.”

Back at Rose Pak station, Graham Smith, 44, checked out the new line with his brother, Geoff Smith, 40, who was visiting from New York. The elder Smith, who lives in the Castro District, said he doesn’t have a lot of reason to visit Chinatown but, with the the new line making it easier to get there, that could change.

The connection was pretty easy, he said — making trips into the neighborhood for dim sum much more likely.

A detail from artist Clare Rojas' ceramic tile mural, "A Sense of Community" on the concourse level of Rose Pak Muni station in San Francisco. (Eric Burkett/Courthouse News)

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