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San Francisco’s ugliest sunken pavilion is now a ‘Winter Wanderland’

Some people engage with Hallidie Plaza’s Winter Wanderland Holiday Village on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, while others pass through. | Sophie Bearman/The Standard

Hallidie Plaza, that open-air subterranean pit connecting the mezzanine level of Powell BART to the cable-car turnaround at the foot of Powell Street, has been transformed for the holidays. Formerly a barren nowhere, it’s been seriously spruced up—and pine’d up and fir’d up.

The Union Square Alliance, through a $500,000 grant from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, has installed Christmas trees, wreaths, snowflakes and other hanging ornaments, along with a slew of booths for vendors. What was once a bleak, granite-walled void has become a Winter Wanderland Holiday Village, one that feels as merry as Whoville (before the Grinch descended from Mount Crumpit to temporarily steal Christmas, that is).

Singers perform at Hallidie Plaza’s Winter Wanderland Holiday Village on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2022. | Peter-Astrid Kane/The Standard

“We had talked about a holiday market for years,” said Marisa Rodriguez, the CEO of the Union Square Alliance. “The Mid-Market area, especially during the pandemic, has seen some hard times, so it’s been nice that the neighboring businesses have all leaned in.” 

Calling pre-holiday market Hallidie Plaza “a pass-through, not a destination,” Rodriguez observed that after BART modernized Powell Station, installing a new light fixture and refurbishing its restrooms, it made sense to connect it to the city’s primary holiday-shopping corridor. Every day through Christmas Eve, shoppers and commuters will find specialty foods for sale, along with a capella performers and other musicians from noon until 7 p.m. (Because of inclement weather, it’s been closed this weekend and will reopen on Wednesday, Dec. 7.)

“There’s music, performances, the little stalls with the shops, food and beverage and an Instagrammable snowglobe moment,” she said.  

A Dutch vendor stall sits in Hallidie Plaza’s Winter Wanderland Holiday Village on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2022. | Peter-Astrid Kane/The Standard

Many of the signs on the vendor stalls are written in Dutch. And indeed, they are from The Netherlands, procured through the manager of the Union Square skating rink.

The market is the successor to the Winter Walk that had occupied the block of Stockton Street just north of Market Street for several holiday seasons during the Central Subway’s prolonged construction phase. Crowds have appeared relatively sparse at the opening of the shopping season, but Rodriguez claimed that on Black Friday, some 20,000 people passed what is still a brand-new pilot project.

“It took three years to get people to know it was there,” Rodriguez said of the Winter Walk. “And that’s right in the heart of the district.”

Vendor booths line Hallidie Plaza’s walk-through tunnel at Winter Wanderland Holiday Village on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2022. | Peter-Astrid Kane/The Standard

Downtown San Francisco’s economic recovery has been uneven, and 2021 saw episodes of large-scale retail theft. Union Square’s holiday tree saw some mischief and vandalism on Thursday evening. Rodriguez said she’s not worried.

“We have a really strong police presence here. We have the Safe Shopper program,” she said. “This time last year, aside from the looting that happened, crime was up. Incidents were up, and things were challenging.”

When The Standard visited Hallidie Plaza, people were sampling mushroom chocolates from The Chaga Co. booth, and parents were photographing their gleeful small children. Still, there remains one other indisputable eyesore abutting the space, a former Payless in a squat Brutalist building on Market Street. That, too, is set to change. 

“It’s going to be a Jollibee’s,” Rodriguez said, referring to the Filipino fast-food chain that used to have a location in SoMa. “It’s been hard to activate that space for years.”

Astrid Kane can be reached at