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Union Square: Empty Powell Street Gets $6M Plan to Lure Shops Back

Written by Kevin TruongPublished May 16, 2023 • 4:45pm
Tourists wait in line to ride San Francisco's famous cable cars in Union Square on May 23, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

As more tourists return to San Francisco, the string of vacant storefronts that now line the three blocks leading to Union Square has become increasingly noticeable.

In recognition of this, the city announced a $6 million plan to help enliven the beleaguered corridor of Powell Street between Market and Geary—best known by tourists for the city’s famed cable car turnaround. An array of for-lease signs dot the corridor in the windows of properties that used to house retailers like H&M and Uniqlo.

“We have to change the narrative, but we also have to change the conditions,” Mayor London Breed said at a press conference in Union Square announcing the investment. "We know what the problems are. We're not blind."

Out of the total, $4 million will go toward replacing existing metallic sidewalk extensions that function as barriers between foot traffic and the cable car route. The idea would be to create a simpler sidewalk design that could open up views of the cable cars and the surrounding buildings. 

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will fund half of the allocation with the remainder provided via the mayor’s upcoming budget. 

“Beautifying and improving the Powell Street Promenade, and making this gateway to Union Square accessible and useable for more visitors continues to be an important priority,” Board President Aaron Peskin said in a statement.

Pedestrians pass the Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround on March 7, 2023. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

In an effort to help fill the vacant storefronts that now line the street, the city also announced $2 million—also earmarked in the mayor’s upcoming budget—meant to incentivize 10 new retail tenants to come into the corridor through what it describes as  “public-private partnerships.” 

When a tentative agreement is reached between a landlord and tenant in the corridor, funding will be unlocked to allow for property improvements or direct subsidies for the business’s startup costs. 

“If you want to conduct business or want to open a new store our goal is to provide you the resources in order to do the buildout necessary to get business going in this corridor,” Breed said,

Union Square has recently been the subject of negative retail headlines, including the departure of luxury furniture seller Coco Republic and the announcement that Nordstrom would decamp from its flagship location in the nearby Westfield San Francisco Centre. 

The direct vacancy rate in the neighborhood has more than doubled between the end of 2019 to the first quarter of 2023, from 6.4% to 13.5%.

In order to help the neighborhood adjust, Breed touted forthcoming zoning changes meant to open up the uses that are allowed in Union Square. 

Among other changes, a proposal recently approved by the San Francisco Planning Commission opens up residential and office uses for floors above ground level. It also expands the definition of ground-floor retail to allow more tenants, such as entertainment businesses and flexible retail workspaces, to move in.

“At the end of the day, we got to start somewhere," Breed said. "San Francisco is not in the doom loop that everyone says it is."

Kevin Truong can be reached at

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