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San Francisco rushes to beautify streets ahead of APEC summit

Looking north towards the Fourth Street walkway near the Yerba Buena Gardens, thousands of drought-tolerant plants and two murals measuring 55 feet across decorate the area near San Francisco's Moscone Center on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023. The plants and murals are part of a months-long beautification project coinciding with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, also known as APEC, which San Francisco is hosting in November.
The area surrounding Moscone Center and Yerba Buena Gardens has been beautified with 8,600 plants, plus several new murals, ahead of the APEC summit. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

San Francisco officials and Caltrans are racing to complete multiple projects to spiff up the city ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, an international gathering of world leaders, including President Joe Biden, that starts Saturday and runs through Nov. 17.

Long considered one of the most beautiful cities in the United States, San Francisco has been struggling with dirty sidewalks, graffiti and other street cleanliness issues.

Caltrans will focus on cleaning graffiti near highway overpasses as well as overhead highway signs in San Francisco, according to Cheryl Chambers, Caltrans deputy district director of external affairs.

RELATED: Everything To Know About APEC Security, Traffic and Transit in 10 Maps

“We don’t want dignitaries coming in on [Highway] 101 and seeing graffiti,” Chambers said.

Graffiti reading "capitalism is the virus" is sprayed in orange-colored paint on a concrete pillar supporting a highway overpass near train tracks in San Francisco on April 6, 2020, during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Graffiti is visible under a San Francisco highway overpass in 2020. | Source: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Trash cleanup will ramp up near where San Jose Avenue passes under Interstate 280 and under the network of U.S. Highway 101 overpasses near Cesar Chavez Street. Trash cleanup efforts will also apply to the areas where Alemany Boulevard passes under I-280 and Highway 101.

Areas near highways, including underneath overpasses, are a common area for illegal dumping, according to Chambers.

Other projects to beautify the city include:

  • Adding plants and murals to Yerba Buena Gardens.
  • Painting the Webster Street pedestrian bridge in Japantown.
  • Installing two decorative crosswalks in Chinatown and North Beach.
  • Refreshing various public landscapings.

The project at the Yerba Buena Gardens—next to the Moscone Center, which will host APEC—consists of planting 8,600 drought-tolerant plants around the gardens. Two murals by local artists along the Fourth Street walkway have also popped up near the gardens.

The two murals, 55 feet wide and 15 feet high, were designed by Bay Area artists Mel Vera Cruz and Dee Jae Pa’este. The murals have been digitally printed using graffiti-resistant materials.

READ MORE: Ghost Town? Ruined City? Ahead of APEC, Chinese-Language Media Bashes San Francisco

Artist Mel Vera Cruz, wearing a t-shirt, bandana and standing with crutches, stands in front of a bank covered in woodchips with low-lying scrubs planted sparsely throughout. Behind him is a mural Vera Cruz designed, depicting a stylized human brain.
Artist Mel Vera Cruz stands in front of his mural, "Sanctorum," at the Yerba Buena Gardens. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Cruz’s mural, “Sanctorum,” was completed in June, and the other mural by Pa’este, “Woven Kultura,” was completed just last week, the artists said.

Cruz said his mural is about paying homage to San Francisco’s legacy as a cultural destination as well as a hub of technological innovation.

“It’s the two sides of the brain, with science as the left and creativity as the right,” Cruz said.

Pa’este said his mural is inspired by designs from the Philippines, pre-Colombian Mexico and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, the Indigenous habitants of what is now San Francisco and much of the surrounding Bay Area.

“[The mural] ties the communities together,” Pa’este said.

A woman in profile walks to the left in front of an embankment covered in wood chips with low-lying shrubs planted sparsely throughout it. Behind the embankment is a mural depicting, from left to right, a boombox, a woman's face in profile with stylized feathers next to it, and a woman with flowers in her hair and other designs facing the viewer.
Bay Area artist Dee Jae Pa’este created the "Woven Kultura" mural, which was inspired by traditional Filipino textile designs and pre-colonial art symbols from Mexico, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and the Philippines. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Beautification projects around San Francisco come as the city takes other steps to clean up its image ahead of APEC. For example, the city is rolling out the red carpet for hundreds of members of the foreign press at City Hall. Business leaders have ponied up $4 million for an ad campaign called “It All Starts Here” that is blanketing the city with billboards and ads featuring what makes the San Francisco area great—think the iPhone and Pixar Animation Studios.

Spokesperson Peter Bartelme said in an email that the Yerba Buena Gardens project was not explicitly done for APEC but acknowledged a link between the two due to its location near Moscone Center and completion shortly before the summit.

“With the world watching, this block will serve as a welcoming experience for millions to enjoy as a beautiful gateway to the Yerba Buena Gardens, Moscone Center and the Yerba Buena/Moscone Muni Station—during APEC and into the future,” Bartelme said in an email.

Caltrans work near the city’s highways coincides with several on- and off-ramp closures and lane closures on the Bay Bridge during APEC. The area around Moscone Center will also be under a tight security perimeter for parts of the conference.

A view of modifications to the brick at U.N. Plaza, creating ramps to attract skateboarders.
The planned skate park at U.N. Plaza is slated to open on Wednesday, according to city officials. | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

Changes at U.N. Plaza and Along Market Street

Meanwhile, the city has been working for months on improvements to Market Street. On Wednesday, the city will unveil changes to U.N. Plaza between Seventh and Eighth streets north of Market Street. The area has been a hot spot for drug sales and open-air drug use, as well as a hot spot for stolen goods vending.

The changes to the 150,000-square-foot area include ramps, platforms and ledges, as well as chess and pingpong tables, according to the plans unveiled in July.

A group of San Francisco city workers in safety vests plant a tree along Market Street.
A group of San Francisco city workers plant a tree at 10th and Market streets on Nov. 3. The city has been preparing and improving parts of the city ahead of the APEC summit. | Source: Julie Makinen/The Standard

The city has also been working on its Better Market Street project.

Better Market Street aims to give a makeover to 2.2 miles of the thoroughfare, from Octavia Boulevard all the way to Steuart Street near the Embarcadero. It’s intended to boost safety, speed up Muni service and bring Market into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act—in essence, make the city’s main thoroughfare grander, prettier and more convenient.

The project adds 20 new street trees, replacing another 15 that are dead or dying, while adding bicycle racks at 25 new locations and replacing another 45. 

A city report in May cataloged the city’s problems with litter and other issues. Among its findings:

Nearly two-thirds of key commercial routes reported moderate to severe street litter, compared with the 41% of citywide streets that struggle with the same problem. 

More than 70% of commercial areas reported severe or moderate graffiti. 

And San Francisco’s favorite cleanliness fixation, human or animal feces, continues to be a sore spot for the city: Almost half of the surveyed commercial areas observed feces.