Michael Petrelis, the political gadfly and a candidate running to represent part of San Francisco on BART’s Board of Directors, is tired of pigeon crap.
Its cleanup has in fact become a rallying cry for Petrelis’s campaign for the BART Board of Directors, in which he is running to represent District 9, which includes the seven BART stations from Montgomery Street to Balboa Park.
But, he’s hardly waiting until Election Day. Last Thursday, he convened 11 representatives from five city agencies and walked them through the 16th Street BART Station — the Mission District’s dirtiest transit terminal — pointing to roosting pigeons, trashed corners, and urine-smelling pavement.
The group — which included members of the Department of Public Works, Department of Public Health, the Municipal Transit Agency, Clear Channel, and the Police Department — listened to Petrelis and his solutions. They gave their own as well.
A solar reflector, for instance, could use blinding light to prevent pigeons from roosting, said a police officer.
Putting the overhead wires underground would also help, though it would be expensive, said John Gray from the Municipal Transit Agency.
In the meantime, a representative from Public Works pledged to redouble efforts by clean-up crews to steam-clean the plaza.
For his part, Petrelis suggested the installation of a “misting system” and spikes along the overhead wires to keep birds away, as well as the reapplication of pepper gel, which had coated some of the wires but not all of them.
But the technical solutions danced around the reason the pigeons like the station in the first place.
“The pigeons are really a result of people who are congregating and making food available,” said Dr. Tomás Aragon, a health officer with the Department of Public Health. He called the preponderance of feces and trash a “public health nuisance.”
The health department recognizes pigeon roosts as a city-wide issue that can lead to the transmission of both human and bird diseases. The pigeons themselves, said Nader Shatara, a health inspector with the Department of Public Health, suffer from standing in their own excrement too. Their feet become infected and are often reduced to little more than a stump, he said.
Some solutions were obvious — the 24th Street BART Station, for instance, does not have the overhead wires that make bird perching possible, Aragon said — but where there’s a meal, the animals will find a way.
“You can put up the spikes, the solar strobe, whatever, but as long as there’s food, they’ll acclimate,” said Shatara.
During the walking tour, Shatara pointed to a man sitting on a bench with a handful of rice. Dozens of pigeons swarmed around him, crawling on his arms and feet to peck at the hundreds of grains he spilled.
Others flew down from their wire perches to peck at burrito scrapings and other crumbs.
“It’s an issue of poverty, it’s an issue of some of whom are homeless or marginally housed,” said Dr. Aragon. “We’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to work with them, to reach out to them, to figure out a way so that they’re not feeding the birds.”
Petrelis, a victim of pigeon poop, is adamant that his clean-up campaign is not intended to remove anyone from the plaza.
The 57-year-old activist and blogger has been urging city agencies to take a keener interest in cleaning up the 16th Street BART Plaza since 2014, two years after he had an unfortunate incident there.
That happened in June 2012, when Petrelis was using the downward escalator into the transit station when he put his hand on the rail and plopped it into a pile of pigeon droppings.
“My hand was made gross by the pigeon poop!” he said. “That’s a public health risk.”
Petrelis says the feces, dirt, and trash at the station pose a particular problem for those — like him — who cannot fight off infections so easily.
“I have a compromised immune system, and I’m really concerned about where I put my hands,” said the former AIDS activist, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985.
For Petrelis, the pigeon poop problem deserves a technical solution, one that won’t displace the regulars on the plaza but will selectively target the birds who feast on their leftovers.
As a thrice-weekly user of the station, he wants the pigeon poop, dirty pavement, and trashed corners cleaned up.
“How do we come together to make sure the [single-room occupancy hotel] residents, the homeless, the unhoused — how can we make this public space more inviting, more activated, for whoever uses it?” he said.
Step one would be working with BART, a particular and longstanding problem, Petrelis said. The transit agency — along with Pacific Gas and Electric, which owns some of the wires where the pigeons perch — was not present at Petrelis’s walking tour.
“So much of what we need is from BART,” he said, mentioning regular clean-ups and anti-pigeon spiking measures.
Alicia Trost, a spokesperson from BART, said that there were no staff available to meet with Petrelis until mid-November. Furthermore, she said, it would be inappropriate to send staff to the walking tour since it “could be a campaign event.” Indeed, Petrelis pinned cloth reading “Vote Petrelis BART Board District 9” to his jacket and handed out business cards with the same slogan.
The perceived inaction from BART is what prompted Petrelis’s candidacy and his efforts to try his luck with other city agencies. After three months and dozens of emails, Petrelis got the walking tour and its promises of action.
By the end of the hour-long tour, Darryl Dilworth from Public Works said he would look into additional funding for regular clean-up crews, funding he said Public Works was receiving from BART until a few months ago.
The money, he said, allowed for daily steam-cleaning of the plaza.
Petrelis, for his part, was hopeful and generally ecstatic that a citizen with a loud enough voice could assemble a half-dozen city agencies and demand they pay attention.
“I’m so happy,” he said.