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Union Square is dying. Here’s the mayor’s new plan to save it

A woman in a blue suit speaks into a microphone at an outdoor event, while another woman in black stands beside her. A city light rail train is in the background.
Mayor London Breed rolled out a new plan on Tuesday that aims to fill the vacant storefronts in Union Square and Yerba Buena. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

With a slew of deserted (or soon-to-be empty) storefronts increasingly pockmarking downtown San Francisco’s premier shopping districts, city leaders have been looking high and low for how to spark a turnaround. 

Mayor London Breed’s new pitch? Getting vacant spaces filled quickly with pop-ups populated by local businesses and investing in a Filipino cultural zone that supporters hope could even help revive the languishing Emporium Centre mall. 

“We’re making investments and working together to transform downtown into a neighborhood that we can enjoy, for the people who work here, visit here and live here,” Breed said at a press conference Tuesday at the Powell Street cable car turnaround. 

Flanked by cops, orange-jacketed welcome ambassadors and business leaders, she laid out her vision to bring “activation, excitement, fun and the joy that we so desperately need” to downtown. One idea surprisingly drew cheers from the crowd, even in an ostensibly transit-first city: increasing free parking options.

The plan, which includes legislation, investment and new programs, will tackle the revitalization of downtown’s “HEART,” an acronym for hospitality, entertainment, arts and culture, retail and tourism. Funding is meant to come from $15 million in new investments included in the Mayor’s recent budget proposal, as well as a $390 million bond measure on the November ballot. 

Sarah Dennis Phillips, executive director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), said, the changes are slated to begin in 2024, given the budget’s passage.

“These are all investments over the next year,” she told the Standard.

But with major deficits looming, these are relatively lean times. For example, the mayor’s proposed budget would actually cut funding to OEWD by $21.1 million.   

A woman stands in front of a microphone with a crowd of people behind her.
Breed laid out her vision Tuesday to bring “activation, excitement, fun and the joy that we so desperately need” to downtown.
| Source: Jillian D'Onfro for The Standard

Downtown San Francisco’s struggles, from retail departures to office vacancies, have attracted national attention, making it the poster child for post-Covid malaise. Meanwhile, half of all San Francisco visitors pass through Union Square and Yerba Buena, according to the city, so the neighborhoods’ impact on the tourism industry is significant.  

The Powell cable car route up from Market Street has become somewhat of an embarrassing symbol for the city as retailers like Uniqlo, Jins and Zumiez shuttered their locations during the pandemic along what is a top tourist draw.     

The plan’s initiatives are familiar to those tracking downtown revitalization efforts, including increasing events downtown, improving public safety and street cleanliness and policies to promote office conversions. But newer schemes include allowing businesses to sell booze in designated entertainment zones, enhancing overhead lighting and introducing cheap (or free) parking in the neighborhood.

“Of course we want you to take public transportation and bike to downtown, but we know some of you won’t get out of your vehicle and that’s okay,” she said, noting that her budget proposal includes funding for free parking downtown. 

Another part of the plan includes relaunching a Powell Street-specific version of the city’s Vacant to Vibrant program, which grants businesses several months of free rent to activate empty storefronts. The inaugural cohort included sellers of vegan donuts and Senegalese food, and most of the program’s initial tenants have since signed long-term leases at their outposts. 

A revamped version of the program would need to adapt the larger retail spaces on Powell Street for small business tenants that make sense for the corridor’s combination of tourists and locals, according to Jacob Bindman, cofounder and head of programs for SF New Deal, the nonprofit that runs the Vacant to Vibrant program with funding from OEWD.

“What we’re most excited about through a pilot program here is using it as a way to reimagine the entirety of what Union Square can be, through this container of Powell Street,” he said.

A man with a blue and yellow shirt looks into the camera.
Desi Danganan, executive director of nonprofit Kultivate Labs, has proposed that the Emporium Centre mall could become a hub of Filipino cuisine and culture. | Source: Jillian D'Onfro for The Standard

The Mayor’s plan also includes fostering a Filipino business district and cultural hub, using SOMA Pilipinas, the heritage district the city established in 2016, as a starting point. “When people come to San Francisco for cultural tourism, they often think of Chinatown or Japantown,” said Desi Danganan, executive director of nonprofit Kultivate Labs and a Filipino community activist. “And we want Soma Pilipinas to rank up there in the top three.”

For example, he wants to turn the fourth floor of the mostly vacant Emporium Centre mall into a hub for Filipino cuisine, shopping and culture. Danganan said he’s already had multiple conversations with JLL, the mall’s broker.

“If we had a central hub, like a mall, it could become a cultural attraction,” he said. “We’ve already had several conversations with the mall, and they’re very receptive to our ideas.”   

With its tenuous funding and in light of the competitive mayoral race this fall, the revitalization plan is still very much up in the air. 

For tourists, though, any changes downtown would be welcome, at least according to Ana and Cristina Nicolescu, a mother-and-daughter duo visiting San Francisco from Romania. They were stunned by all the empty storefronts they couldn’t help but notice while exploring Union Square. 

“It’s quite sad,” Ana told The Standard while waiting for the cable car Tuesday morning. “It’s a gorgeous place, and you can see the skeleton of it, but it’s completely abandoned. It looks so post-apocalyptic at times— it looks like it has suffered.”