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San Francisco UN Plaza makeover a ‘logistical nightmare,’ farmers’ market leaders say

A bustling outdoor market with white tents, people shopping, and a domed building in the background.
People walk around at the Heart of the City Farmers Market at United Nations Plaza near San Francisco City Hall on Aug. 2, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

As San Francisco parks officials plan to transform United Nations Plaza into a skateboarding and recreation haven, a longstanding farmers’ market will be relocating close by. Market leaders consider the move to be a “logistical nightmare.”

San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department first proposed a pilot project in July to make U.N. Plaza—currently considered the epicenter of the city’s open drug market and overdose crisis—safer and more inviting to residents.

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If all goes to plan, the 150,000-square-foot plaza in the city’s Civic Center will begin construction in September to be transformed into a skate park and recreation space. Mirroring the work done in other major cities like Paris and Madrid, the space would include exercise equipment, chess and pingpong tables and daily programming, among other activities.

This means that the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, which has operated at the plaza for 42 years, will also have to relocate Fulton Street between Larkin and Hyde streets starting Sept. 3.

“We are reluctantly moving because the city informs us it is necessary for the health of this community,” said Laura Brainin-Rodriguez, the farmers’ market’s board president. “We are doing everything in our power to make sure the services we provide to our low-income community aren’t negatively affected, so we can retain this essential community resource despite this enormous challenge.

The plaza transformation comes as part of the city Planning Department’s Civic Center Public Realm Plan, which aims to better unify the area around the Civic Center and City Hall with public spaces, cultural events and improved access to public transportation.

But on Tuesday, Heart of the City Farmers’ Market leaders said the construction has forced them to close earlier and have fewer vendors due to the space being “too small” for a safe load-out of vendor vehicles. They said the number of stall spaces available would prevent the market from returning to its pre-pandemic size.

“We lost 40% of our vendors due to conditions in the Civic Center as a result of the ongoing public health crisis, combined with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and devastating wildfires on small farming in California,” said Steve Pulliam, the farmers’ market’s executive director.

“Despite these enormous challenges, [Heart of the City] has begun to recover and continues to serve our community. But now, with this relocation, we are facing our biggest and most threatening challenge yet,” he added.

The market will now operate from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays—it previously ran from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays and 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. Leaders cited concerns about decreased food access for the communities they serve.

“This will reduce the amount of produce the market can move into the surrounding extremely low-income and food insecure neighborhoods,” reads a press release from the farmers’ market.

Market officials also said the location is farther from the Civic Center BART Station, which makes it more difficult for people with limited mobility to access the market. They are also concerned about the reduced size of the stalls, where vendors will be able to safely park their cars and the lack of shade on Fulton Street.

“The current conditions on Fulton Street, just two weeks before the relocation, are very concerning,” Pulliam said. “We have been assured that the city will address these issues prior to our relocation. But I was out there this week, and unhoused individuals were still camping in the area.”

SF Rec and Parks officials said they believe the farmers’ market is a healthy and “joyous” park activity and said they have asked market leaders “many times over the years” to increase its presence in the plaza.

“Each time, they were unable to commit to more than their current two days a week,” SF Rec and Parks said in a statement. 

Parks officials also reaffirmed that there will be enough space on Fulton Street to accommodate all vendors, and there will be a wide array of city support available for the market. New accommodations include dedicated vendor and staff parking, overflow space on the Civic Center Plaza, free parking for customers, monitored loading zones and security assistance.

SF Rec and Parks added that crews will repave, re-landscape and install new safety bollards and directional signs on Fulton Street.

The department also said the new move could draw people in from the Asian Art Museum, the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch, the new University of California College of the Law, San Francisco campus housing and families using playgrounds at Civic Center Plaza.

“Though we know not every farmers market vendor is happy about moving across the street, we have heard overwhelmingly positive feedback from many other vendors, as well as customers, neighboring residents, schools and cultural institutions,” reads the department’s statement. “At the height of the season, the Heart of the City Farmers Market has 70 stalls, and its new location across the street can accommodate all of them. As the farmers market grows, it can expand in every direction.”