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Downtown San Francisco is full of secret spaces. Here are the best, worst and weirdest

A composite image shows Privately Owned Public Open Spaces (POPOS) in San Francisco at, from top left clockwise, 23 Geary St., 55 Second St., Empire Park at 648 Commercial St. and the LinkedIn lobby at 222 Second St. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Downtown San Francisco may be in terminal decline, or it may be poised to roar back as a capital of culture and nightlife. Either way, it’s still a pretty great place to eat lunch.

Spread around the city’s commercial core, covering much of the Financial District and SoMa, are dozens of “POPOS,” or Privately Owned Public Open Spaces. Undertaken by the city’s Department of Planning in partnership with developers and architects, it’s a civic beautification program that ensures San Francisco residents and visitors have access to newly constructed buildings—whether they be parks, terraces or atria. 

“Particularly well-executed POPOS are not only great amenities for the public, but they can also boost a building’s position in the market and accordingly can drive higher rents,” Dan Sider, the Planning Department’s chief of staff, told The Standard. “In this case, a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Access isn’t always guaranteed. While many POPOS are marked with plaques, others are much harder to find. During and after the pandemic, several well-known spaces used vague public-health directives to keep their doors closed to the public, forcing the Planning Department to intervene.

“Our office stepped in and continues to work with property owners to restore public access to a handful of POPOS,” Sider confirmed.

Although the program began in the 1980s, some POPOS are quite a bit older, and the rise of fast-casual restaurants means a lot of them have good food options. The Standard paid a visit to several dozen POPOS, from the gorgeous to the hideous to the mundane, always on a sunny weekday in the hopes of seeing them at their most highly used.

Plaques like this one at Chinatown's Empire Park signify that something is a POPOS, or Privately Owned Public Open Space. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The Good Ones

The Best View
1 Kearny St./23 Geary St., 11th floor
People prone to vertigo may want to keep back. But peering over the ledge at the intersection of Third and Market streets from the roof of this architectural oddity—two buildings combined into one—gives visitors a snapshot of a bygone San Francisco, before high-rises were mostly glass-and-steel. But the red-painted transit lane on Third Street is plenty mesmerizing, too.

The Surprisingly Large Park
50 Beale St.
The global engineering and construction firm Bechtel is no longer headquartered in San Francisco, and the vintage railroad car that once explained its corporate history is gone as well. The 23-story building that now houses Blue Shield of California remains, however, and the surrounding park is generously large for Downtown, with tons of seating, globe lights and plenty of people hanging out during the day.

The Fancy One That’s Going To Get Even Fancier
1 Sansome St.
The extraordinary, century-old open space that is the Conservatory at One Sansome has reopened after a pandemic-era closure, and it’s about to get a massive new ultraluxe venue called Holbrook House, too. Full of light and marble and right on top of Montgomery Station, it’s nothing short of magnificent. 

Esmeralda Vargas sits at Empire Park at 648 Commercial St., in San Francisco's Chinatown on Aug. 21, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The Best Place for Communing With an Eccentric
Empire Park (648 Commercial)
The redwood grove behind the Transamerica Pyramid is closed while the icon undergoes a renovation, but around the block is a ready substitute with plenty of seating. Walk under the pergola in this pocket park and find a plaque for Emperor Norton, San Francisco’s patron saint of freak flags, installed by the historical association E Clampus Vitus.

The One With the Coolest Art
555 Mission St.
The 500 block of Mission has POPOS left and right, but for art, nothing compares to the colorful sculpture of stacked people or the grinning heads that could have come from the studio of Delia Deetz from Beetlejuice. Nothing has yet replaced fast-casual joint Heyday, so you’ll have to bring your lunch. 

The Most Mad Men-Like
1 Bush Plaza
San Francisco’s purest example of the International Style, the blue-green 1 Bush Plaza evokes the United Nations headquarters—even though it’s arguably facing backward, with its stern elevator core fronting Market Street. 

Built in 1959, its shaded open space above a sunken plaza has comfy cushions that Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway would love, and plenty of travertine. Oddly, a closed-off section of Battery Street on the other side is much livelier, with a jazz combo performing when The Standard stopped by. 

The indoor space at 55 Second St. is fairly lavishly appointed—with table tennis! | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The Indoor Spot for a Cocktail Party With Fancy Hors D’Oeuvres
55 Second St.
Surprise! This lounge up a short flight of stairs near the back of the building is a reading room with skylights, lovely furniture—and a ping-pong table. Although it was deserted when The Standard visited, it would be ideal for hosting a daytime reception.

The Dark One That People Actually Use
100 Pine St.
This sunless chasm wedged between buildings seems like it would be forgotten, but the lunch crowd filled the communal table and a water feature drowned out any city noise. Bonus: Lou’s Cafe has a service window that faces this space.

The Rooftop on Downtown’s Other Mall
50 Post St./Crocker Galleria
The saga of the Westfield Centre made the news, but Downtown is home to another tired mall with two open spaces. While Crocker Galleria’s roof garden has been closed for some time, the terrace—which looks out onto Sutter Street—is a mixed bag. Standing water and wilted plantings suggest poor maintenance, but there’s a variety of trees and plenty of seating, and the galleria’s glass roof feels like a greenhouse.

The One Where You Could Almost Get Married
160 Spear St.
In the strictest sense, this is just a glorified entry to a Downtown office building, but it’s also the only POPOS we visited that played music. The wide variety of tables, half-dozen redwoods, strings of lights and vividly hued impatiens combine to form an especially comfy space that would almost work for a small, quirky wedding. One side opens onto a less-than-scintillating open space at 123 Mission St.

A person walks past a large-scale artwork in the visually intriguing lobby at 222 Second St. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The One With Robot Manicures and a Squid Exhibit
222 Second St.
LinkedIn’s headquarters contains this delightful ground-floor space with very large paintings, a Clockwork station offering $10 robot manicures and the “Smallest Mollusk Museum,” a fascinating exhibit celebrating 650 million years of aquatic invertebrates. A better place for laptop warriors to work than to eat, it’s just a lot of fun.

The One That Makes the Most of Its Backdrop
100 First St.
One story above street level, this lush retreat incorporates the foliage draped over the Salesforce Transit Center into itself. Full of plants and seating, it’s the rare open space quiet enough for people to read an actual book. Even the fake grass feels inviting.

The 15th floor terrace at 343 Sansome St. is among the most well-maintained open spaces in the Financial District. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The Most Clearly Intentional
343 Sansome St., 15th floor
This Art Deco-inflected building, constructed in phases beginning in 1908, has perhaps the city’s most extraordinary POPOS, a south-facing, 15th-floor terrace that may also be the highest up.

When The Standard visited, a cheerful guard directed us to the beautiful elevators without a need to sign in, and all signs point to it being lovingly looked after, with couches and an obelisk—a separately owned and maintained piece of public art—and room to spare. 

A maintenance worker confirmed to The Standard that it had been recently renovated, with furniture from RH (formerly Restoration Hardware) and re-grouted tiles. A clutch of olive trees planted in 1989 that had begun to wilt have since been replanted in Marin County, leaving a mix of sun and shade. Perfection.

The Bad Ones

The Most Incredibly Depressing
492 Commercial St./Embarcadero Center
Visitors to the butt-end of the Embarcadero Center, Downtown’s Brutalist superblock mall, will find plenty of poured concrete and beige tile along this forlorn passageway. But they won’t find a place to sit. Hostile-looking art and a staircase that feels like a freeway on-ramp complete the ensemble.

The One With the Big Ugly Thing on It
150 California St.
The desk guard takes visitors’ names and directs them to an elevator that goes to the sixth floor, where a western-facing terrace reeks of untapped potential. Seating is clustered in one area, beneath a giant, arcing metal sculpture. The view includes a nice perspective up California Street—but also the rooftop equipment of the building next door.

The Biggest Whiff
25 Jessie St./Ecker Square
Jessie Street is one of those narrow, discontinuous lanes that practically begs to be pedestrianized, and “Ecker Square” is a lofty name for what amounts to a building entrance. The lack of seating and plentiful thou-shalt-not signage would ward most people off. Just make it a square!

The Barren Disappointment on the Waterfront
2 Folsom St.
Pro: This open space behind the Gap Building faces the bay, with views of Treasure Island and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s oversized bow-and-arrow “Cupid’s Span.” And there are ginkgos, which yellow beautifully in the fall. Cons: There is nowhere to sit, nowhere to eat, and the whole thing feels vast and barren. The Embarcadero deserves better.

Oddly, this space abuts another POPOS at 201 Spear St., which has some seating—as well as a statue of a man who’s photographing his own hand.

The One With No Touching the Plants
575 Market St.
An elevated walkway over neatly arranged rows of hedges and sedges, this makes a nice scene for anyone coming and going, but you’re too removed from the actual greenery for it to be a relaxing destination. 

The One That Looks Like Mini-Golf But Isn’t
Northwest corner of Main and Howard streets
Although there’s a Proper Food across the street, this well-lit spot has all the markings of a public park but, on closer inspection, becomes a letdown. The grass is artificial, and the wavy ground looks almost like a place to play putt-putt golf, but it’s not. Can we get a guerrilla artist to install a unsanctioned windmill?

The One With No Shops
123 Mission St.
The two gardens here are nice enough, but the so-called “123 Plaza Shops” is all plaza and no shops. It’s a place you walk through, not to.

The One That Tried Really Hard
201 Mission St.
Blocked from street noise by a wall of plants and a perimeter of artificial turf, this space diagonally across from the Salesforce Transit Center follows a jagged diagonal, so walking through it feels like exploration. But beyond access to a parking garage, thoughtful planning can’t conceal that there’s no there there.

The Grimmest Nowhere 
500 Howard St./Foundry Square
Just as no one calls Highway 101 the “James Lick Freeway,” no one refers to the intersection of Howard and First streets as “Foundry Square,” but all four corners of it have POPOS. This is the unfriendliest one, with little light, nowhere to sit and a closed cafe with an imposing sculpture made of corrugated metal. 

The northeast corner has a Chipotle, and the southeast corner has a banh mi shop called Spice Kit, but there’s nothing much else to recommend.

The walkway at Golden Gate University is considered a POPOS, in spite of having no amenities besides a concrete bench. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The Strongest Salute to Brutalism
536 Mission St./Golden Gate University
Not so much an open space as an elevated walkway with concrete seating along both sides, this is an ode to a bulky, hefty era of urban design. In other words, it’s two uncomfortable benches with students milling around beneath.

The Most Subterranean
456 Montgomery St.
Two-and-a-half flights down from street level, this dark cavern feels as though it were excavated from an earlier civilization. The only things down there are a dental office, a vaguely threatening statue and a restroom without public access. 

The One With the Spookiest Art
505 Howard St.
The lobby of this building—also part of Foundry Square—contains two living walls, a sort of Möbius strip bench and a freaky statue of a humanoid who looks to be in the later stages of a cordyceps infection from The Last of Us. The companion space outdoors faces First Street, which leads to the Bay Bridge, so incessant honking is an issue during the afternoon. 

The One That Lied About Being a POPOS
235 Second St.
A plaque on an exterior wall at CNET’s headquarters claims there’s public space inside this office building, but the guard confirmed to The Standard that there is not. Outside, there’s a clutch of chairs and a sculpture that looks vaguely like a giant nose. Thank you, next.

The Most Flagrant Mockery of the Entire Concept
611 Folsom St.
This brick atrocity on the corner of Folsom and Second streets is so unwelcoming as to be outright anti-human, with metal bars jutting out of its little ledges and lots of honks from irate drivers trying to get on the Bay Bridge. If it were swapped out for a tangle of rebar and some oily rags, no one would know the difference. 

The Ones With Good Food Options Right There

The Biggest Surprise
299 Second St./The Clancy hotel
A lot of boutique hotels fall all over themselves to be hip, only to wind up as generic as an international terminal lounge. But Block 9, the Clancy’s interior courtyard, is a warm and inviting space with fireplaces and a wide variety of seating that feels like a cafe. And in fact, it is: You can order food and drink from inside via QR code.

Marathon Plaza is a street-level POPOS on Second Street lined with casual restaurants. | Source: Google Streetview

The One With Tons of Food
303 Second St./Marathon Plaza
The water feature roars a little loudly, but if you can overlook that, this secluded triangle with plenty of sun and shade alike is full of places to get lunch, including Joe & the Juice, Rooster & Rice and Lee’s Sandwiches. 

The One With Fancy Dim Sum
49 Stevenson St.
It would be charitable to call this an open space, as it’s essentially just an outdoor corridor with a single statue. But Yank Sing, one of San Francisco’s best-known dim sum spots, is only a few feet away.

The One That Feels Like You’re on Naboo
71 Stevenson St.
Just down the block is another glorified walkway, except this one works architecturally, weaving the building into the surrounding urban fabric. If anything, it feels like you’re on Naboo, Queen Amidala’s home planet. Better still, there’s a location of Sababa, the Israeli fast-casual restaurant.

The One That Donald Trump Co-Owns
555 California St.
San Francisco’s financially troubled third-largest building lost some windows over the winter and a former president owns 30% of it, but its ground-floor open space is well-maintained, with a Japanese-style garden in the center. Technically known as “A.P. Giannini Plaza”—after the founder of Bank of America—it feels more like Midtown Manhattan than a secret garden. But at least there’s a Proper Food and the much-fancier Vault tucked below.

The One Meant To Make You Feel Small
101 California St.
The 48-story building at 101 California dates from the early 1980s, when people were panicking about “Manhattanization.” Indeed, the skyscraper’s massive, four-story atrium will make you feel teeny-tiny, but this greenery-filled open space could almost be considered grand—and famed chef Michael Mina’s PABU Izakaya is right there.