Property owners near O’Farrell and Jones Streets have come up with a creative approach to combating drug dealing and problem sidewalk behavior: install planter boxes. The Pacific Bay Inn (which houses formerly homeless persons) recently placed planter boxes in front of its Jones Steet location and they are already being cheered by tenants, workers and others in the area. Longtime Pierre Hotel tenant Karen Taylor says “they make the whole block look nicer.” The Central City SRO Collaborative (CCSRO) will install barrels planted with flowers and vegetables in front of some Tenderloin SRO’s next spring. Such plantings do more than help create safer streets. According to studies in Charles Montgomery’s new Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, will also make Tenderloin residents happier through increased exposure to greenery.

The intersection of Jones and O’Farrell has successful restaurants, well-run SRO’s (there are three city-supported SRO’s on the block), and some of the city’s best bars. Yet it has a surprisingly high level of street drug activity. Most blame the smoke shop at the southeast corner of the block as well as a long dormant Christian Science Church on the north side of O’Farrell heading toward Taylor Street.

The Tenderloin police are aware of both of these problem spots. Despite making arrests, the problem has continued.

This led DISH, which leases and operates the Pac Bay Inn, to come up with the planter idea.It was funded primarily through a joint grant from the Mayor’s Office Community Challenge Grant Program and the Urban Watershed Project of the PUC. Substantial additional funds were provided by individual donors to DISH.

The boxes have already improved the area. While it’s too soon to claim a breakthrough with the cold weather another possible variable, the planter box strategy seems to be a winner.

Karen Taylor has lived at the adjacent Pierre Hotel for eight years. She said she “was so happy when they installed” the planter boxes, as a violent person used to hang out in the area now blocked by plants. She sees the planters as really improving the street

There are downsides. Tenderloin planter boxes have long become a place to deposit needles, and a needle has already been found alongside the Pac Bay Inn plantings. And planter boxes require maintenance, which some absentee property owners are unwilling to provide.

But as TNDC has shown with its wonderful Tenderloin People’s Garden at McAllister and Larkin, Tenderloin residents love working with plants. The CCSRO barrel project noted above also involves training residents in growing vegetables and flowers, further enhancing the look and spirit of the Tenderloin (you can see an example of these barrels in front of the Café Ariana at 842 Geary Street)

Past efforts to add greenery to Tenderloin sidewalks have had mixed success. I worked with Friends of the Urban Forest on a street tree planting project in 1984, only to have an alcoholic go through one night and snap off the branches of half our trees. But planter boxes avoid this problem, and even if someone pulls out a plant it is readily replaced.

If the Pacific Bay Inn approach expands, it and the CCSRO barrel project could makes this a particularly green and colorful spring in the Tenderloin. And a much happier one for residents.