Miracle on Miraloma:
Bengal Alley Opens to the Public
When the chain-link fence went up 9 years ago, it looked pretty impossible. SF Department of Public Works (DPW) closed the stairway that had provided access to Sherwood Forest for over half a century because it was no longer safe. The Alley had been a popular shortcut to the 43 Masonic bus from the hills above, but now the concrete steps on the lower section were cracked and uneven, the dirt path was blocked by a fallen tree and rubble, and a heavy rainstorm had washed dirt and debris into the street below.
The Currys didn’t want something that a rainstorm could wash away in a matter of a few hours. At the same time, they
wanted to avoid hardscape improvements and the extensive permit regulations…”
Then, in 2008, DPW told the households next to the Alley they had to fix the right-of-way, or the City would “cause such repair to be made, and all costs shall be a lien on such property. “Estimates were thrown around,” Kay Curry said, “like half a million dollars.”
For the Currys, who are retired seniors, and for the other three households, it was a shocking prospect. The neighbors agreed that they would jointly do the renovations, and that Fred and Kay Curry would take a leading role. The Currys worked tirelessly, negotiated with City Hall, arranged to have the Alley accepted as a Street Park, took classes in permaculture, organized their neighbors, and worked with DPW to get the permits. They have assumed the costs in order to move the project ahead.
The Currys don’t wish to release the final accounting until after it has been presented to the other abutting neighbors, but overall costs are well below the half-a-million-dollar-figure cited by DPW staff and others.
David Cody, a member of the SF Permaculture Guild, was chosen as the project manager and designer. At that time, Mr. Cody was in charge of the Hayes Valley Farm, which reused an old freeway entrance at Octavia. Initially, the hope was to avoid hardscape improvements and the extensive permit regulations they might take.
In 2010, when DPW Deputy Director Mohammad Nuru reviewed the initial renovation plans and visited the site, he denied the neighbors’ original plans, citing “concerns about the safety of people on the path.” Though Kay Curry agreed that the passageway was unsafe in 2008, “no one has ever, to my knowledge, been injured on the walkway.” But the Currys and David Cody agreed that hardscape would be safer and would also avoid constant and critical rebuilding of planned earthen structures.
Boaz Mor collaborated with Mr. Cody in the design of the hardscape, and oversaw all construction, including path supports, retaining walls, and handrails, as well as drainage and retention of water on the site. As a Permaculture garden, plantings include fruit trees and berries, native species, and habitat for birds and beneficial insects.
It was five years ago, two years after the fence appeared, that the Westside Observer began its crusade to reopen the stairs between Lansdale Avenue and Miraloma Drive—October 2008.
The Bengal Alley stairs is a showcase as an inexpensive solution to slope challenges. This community asset is a small treasure that will also have a sustainable planting and maintenance plan for the exotic and native plants.
To join Friends of Bengal Alley, or for information on how to help with planting, watering, weeding or much needed cash donations, contact Kay Curry.
A tentative Grand Opening is planned sometime in May. Our next goal may be to rename stairs the Curry Stairway.
DPW Makes a Path: Still No "All Clear" at Bengal Alley
Fred and Kay Curry use the “potting bench” to transfer plants to their new planter boxes.
Behind the industrial fence on Miraloma, Bengal Alley winds its way up a steep climb to Casitas and Sherwood Forest’s quiet residences. At least it did, until the Department of Public Works declared it “unsafe,” and erected the cyclone-style fencing. It had been a convenient short-cut to the 43# bus stop at its foot, saving riders a two block walk around Casitas, so the neighbors above are anxious to reclaim what has been a public right-of-way for sixty years.
the Currys have assumed the costs in order to move the project ahead. The city has declined to assist in the restoration of the space.”
It has not been convenient for the abutting neighbors, whose responsibility it is to maintain the property, especially so for Fred and Kay Curry. Living above and to the side of the Alley, the Currys have taken the lead on the restoration of the walkway. They formed the Friends of Bengal Alley with their neighbors to pursue the project. “It’s really not useful for anything else,” Kay said, “we want to do it right so it will last for a hundred years. It has taken longer than we hoped. But it’s up to DPW, it’s not done until DPW says it’s done.”
Nick Eisner is the Project Coordinator at DPW. He has the final plans, submitted by the Friends of Bengal Alley, on his desk. It’s his responsibility to issue the final permits that will lead to the opening of the Alley to the public once again. “It’s next on my list,” Eisner said. But until the permits are issued and the path is declared “safe,” neighbors are not permitted access to the path.
The cobblestone section at the top, built around 1952 is a picturesque hodge-podge of stone walkway that runs along the side of the Curry residence. The stones came from the city when they were replacing cobblestone streets with pavement and were installed by the developer of the project. The newly installed redwood and cement stair-planter boxes spanning the midsection are in place, and the plantings are thriving, thanks to planning assistance from the Permaculture Guild. Still waiting for permit approval is a final section of crumbling concrete block of stairs that has no footings, it exits at the bottom to Miraloma, and must be replaced. It is the major hold-up in the project.
Dave Bisho is one of the anxious neighbors, “Bengal Alley has been closed for years. The gate that the neighbor on the left up on Casitas put up years ago makes the right-of-way look like private property. That gate should not just remain open, it should be removed. I’d like to know when they are going to open Bengal Alley—any year now I guess,” he said, lamenting the four year closure. “It’s been a pet peeve of mine,” he added.
The Currys are anxious to complete the trail as well, adding that they need the final accounting to present to the other abutting neighbors in hopes that they will be partially reimbursed for the estimated $50,000 they will spend. There has been some help from the Miraloma neighbor, the San Francisco Parks Alliance, and the SF Permaculture Guild, but the Currys have assumed the costs in order to move the project ahead. The city has declined to assist in the restoration of the space.
Bengal Alley will be a showcase as an inexpensive solution to slope challenges.
To join Friends of Bengal Alley, or for information on how to help with time or much needed cash donations, contact bengalstairs.org
Tigers and Bears on Bengal Alley
Kay and her husband Fred Curry have an unobstructed view of Bengal Alley from their Mount Davidson balcony on Lansdale. It's not an alley at all, but a three section pathway that begins along the side of the Curry's home, where its newly restored cobblestone stairs invite a leisurely meander, then turns down the 17° slope to the exit at the cement stairs on Miraloma Street. With stunning ocean views, it's a peaceful public right-of-way where squirrels and wild birds compete for nature's bounty.
It is also a practical shortcut for the inhabitants of Sherwood Forest to meet the 43 MUNI that stops at its foot—no mean consideration for riders who must tread the additional two or three block detour along Lansdale, Casitas and Miraloma that the closure of Bengal Alley precipitated.
It was closed in 20081 and there is no date certain for its completion. But, essentially, it was closed to all but the most nimble visitor long before Department of Public Works installed the chain link fences. Overgrown with brush, clogged with excavated rubble dumped from neighboring developments and a large, discarded tree trunk, travelers were required to stoop—almost crawl—through the mud obstacle course of the central section, to reach the crumbling cement stairs at Miraloma. Then there was the washout, common in the area, which nearly covered the remaining steps.
Dave Bisho was one of the neighbors inconvenienced by the closure of the path. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with this right of way. Bengal Alley between Miraloma and Lansdale is the main link for many Mt. Davidson and Sherwood Forest residents," he said. "I've been going up that way since I was in grammar school." In a letter to the City Attorney he requested that the owners clear the property and remove the locked gates to "open this vital link to the public once again…its closure discourages neighbors above from using public transit."
At a meeting with District 7 Supervisor Elsbernd, Bisho was not convinced that it would cost the adjoining neighbors hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring the path up to code. He felt the estimates were way overblown. "The suggestion Elsbernd made that Bengal Alley has to be ADA compliant is untrue—only sites that have ADA areas within them must be ADA compliant. There are hundreds of public pathways and right-of-ways all over the city not ADA compliant, including at least a dozen on Mt. Davidson alone."
When DPW closed the passageway and gave the adjoining neighbors 30 days to repair the "sidewalk," Kay Curry organized Friends of Bengal Alley. It was noticed as an "unaccepted public right-of-way." Then Deputy Director Mohammad Nuru reviewed the initial renovation plans and visited the site, but denied the neighbors' request for help with the plan without improvements, noting "concerns about the safety of people on the path." Though she agrees that the passageway was unsafe in 2008, "no one has ever, to my knowledge, been injured on the walkway," said Curry. Regardless, if they did not make the repairs, the City would "cause such repair to be made, and all costs shall be a lien on such property." "Estimates were thrown around," Curry said, "like half a million dollars."
For the Currys, who are retired seniors, it was a shocking prospect. The current improvements cost "only about $30,000." The completed project should come close to $50,000. One of the neighbors has contributed their share for 2009 and 2010, and they hope to get help from the other two stakeholders and the Friends of Bengal Alley; they will also apply for other grants.
After consulting with other landowners, as "Project Steward" for the undertaking,2 Curry decided that they would opt for a more permanent fix, "not one that would last for 20 years, but for a hundred years," Curry said. They didn't want something that a rainstorm could wash away in a matter of a few hours. At the same time, they wanted to avoid hardscape improvements and the extensive permit regulations they might take. They contacted David Cody at the SF Permaculture Guild3 whose Hayes Valley Farm reuses an old freeway entrance at Octavia; Cody worked with them to design improvements at Bengal Alley. Boaz Mor is the construction company responsible for designing and overseeing final construction.
Cobblestone Steps Kay Curry applied for a grant through the SF Parks Trust (now the SF Parks Alliance) to help repair the stair section. They received a $850 grant, which helped with the $4,385 expense. Today they are fully restored.
Mid-section Planters The new stairs, in the section that is less steep, are being replaced with a simple winding set of wooden steps dug into the hillside to make the path safer and improve water retention, that will last longer than most hiking trails and require less maintenance. The beds, supported by retaining walls averaging two to three feet in height, will slow and sink water into the soil and provide raised beds for vegetation, allow rooting to take hold. The intent is that no water will exit the site, but peak flows could still exit the site via the storm drains on Miraloma. Pressure-treated redwood retaining walls and steps are lined with plastic to assure longer life.
Small Concrete Exit Stairs At the end of Miraloma, there is a newer set than the others, though its origin is unknown. The larger, higher set of stairs has suffered erosion and has no footings; it may need to be stabilized or replaced in the future.
Planting Areas Volunteers from the Permaculture Guild and Friends of Bengal Alley will plant the fruit trees, elderberry bushes and flowering plants that will serve to stabilize the alley, as well as provide yield and habitat. Plants will begin to be delivered in January.
For Dave Bisho and the neighbors above the walkway, the project can't be finished too soon, and the Currys are grateful for the patience of the inconvenienced neighbors. Everyone is anxious to see the site completed and, contingent on the approval of DPW, the removal of the chain link fence.
When it is returned to the public, Bengal Alley will be a showcase as an inexpensive solution to slope challenges. This community asset is a small treasure that will also have a sustainable planting and maintenance plan for the exotic and native plants.
To join Friends of Bengal Alley, or for information on how to help with time or much needed cash donations, contact bengalstairs.org.
Bring Back Bengal Alley
The stairs leading from Miraloma up to Lansdale, a popular route to the 43 Masonic bus line, are now closed off with a cyclone fence and further blocked by a fallen tree and rubble.
Dave Bisho of Westwood Highlands Assn. says he wants the City to re-open Bengal Alley. “Bengal Alley between Miraloma and Lansdale is the main link for many Mt. Davidson and Sherwood Forest residents with the 43 bus which stops right at its gate on Miraloma Drive,” he said. “About two years ago, a cyclone fence, put up by DPW showed up blocking the way on Miraloma .”
“I called Supervisor Elsbernd who advised that some un-named person complained that it was dangerous, and since it would cost ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars’ (in Elsbernd’s words) to fix, DPW simply closed it. There is absolutely nothing different or wrong with this right of way. I’ve been going up that way since I was in grammar school. Now it’s becoming very overgrown and one of the Miraloma neighbors has cut down a tree and dumped it right on the path,” he said.
“There are rights of way all over Mt. Davidson. Most of them are uneven pathways and very few of them have any stairs at all. Bengal Alley is the most important right of way of any of them. I’ve lived in the area my entire life,” said Bisho.
He wrote a protest letter to the City Attorney requesting that the owners clear the shrubs, remove the tree that someone dumped there, remove the locked gate, and open this vital link to the public once again.
Update: Bisho and WPTPCC Secretary Rae Doyle met with Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and officials with DPW in his offices in City Hall on October 1st. Elsbernd said he would contact the homeowners who are responsible for the property and attempt to negotiate an arrangement that would eliminate the need for Bisho to file a formal complaint.
A formal complaint would result in the DPW sending a notice to the property owner to repair the public right-of -way to “good” condition. Bisho said he hoped to avoid causing problems for the landowner and hoped the walkway could be restored without significant cost to the property owner. “The old cobblestones leading to Lansdale are in pretty good shape, only a few have been knocked out of place, that’s all’” he said. I do not accept the costs that the City has been throwing around, there is no way this could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At a time when the use of public transportation needs to be encouraged, the City needs to take charge of access routes like Bengal Alley.