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Mayor Breed’s $15M plan to revive Union Square smashes into stark budget realities

A woman in an orange top is speaking at a podium with a San Francisco seal. Behind her is a green foliage wall with the words "Union Square" in large, white letters.
Mayor London Breed laid out a new plan earlier this month to save Union Square that included small business pop-ups, a Filipino cultural zone and free and reduced parking fees. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Wearing a blue power suit and flanked by smiling ambassadors and local business types, Mayor London Breed laid out a new plan earlier this month to save Union Square. Many strategies were familiar: small business pop-ups, a Filipino cultural zone and free and reduced parking fees.

But one key part of the plan was launching a facelift for Powell Street, which is facing a string of visible storefront vacancies that have stood out like missing teeth to tourists waiting in line for the city’s iconic cable cars.

Initial funding for the project was mostly expected to come from $15 million in new investments in the Mayor’s budget proposal. However, the city’s independent budget analyst is recommending that funding be completely axed. 

If adopted, the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s (BLA) recommended cuts would strip $2.5 million for Powell Street improvements, $4.5 million for 24/7 patrols in Union Square and Yerba Buena, $1 million for Union Square activations, $2 million for the planned pop-up program, and $3 million for proposed free parking for visitors. 

These efforts are mainly run out of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which will likely see its own funding decline in the mayor’s proposed budget by more than $21 million. The BLA recommended an additional $500,000 in cuts on top of that total. 

“Gutting this funding would be a serious problem and is the wrong approach,” Breed said in a statement. “This is about generating the revenue through tourism, conventions and other economic activity that not only supports jobs and small business, but also generates the revenue for all the services, parks, libraries, street cleaning and more for our neighborhoods.”

Unsurprisingly, many of the same business folks who showed up to support the mayor’s announcement are peeved about the BLA’s recommendation, insisting in statements that downtown’s recovery is key to the city’s long-term economic health. 

“This funding is a down payment on San Francisco’s future economic health,” said Rodney Fong, CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. 

The coalition of business groups, which includes SF Travel, SF New Deal and Advance SF, argue that downtown—home to the majority of the city’s jobs, generating a major portion of business, sales and hotel tax revenue—is vital for funding city services. 

But one important factor to note is that the disputed funding is dedicated specifically to Union Square and Yerba Buena as opposed to the larger downtown core. 

“The Union Square and Yerba Buena neighborhoods are the absolute heart and soul of our City,” said Marisa Rodriguez, CEO of the Union Square Alliance. “We wholeheartedly urge the Board of Supervisors not to cut this critical investment in our city’s downtown recovery.”

A few eyebrows were raised when Breed’s proposed budget bumped spending up by $1.3 billion, particularly after months of hand-wringing about nine-figure deficits caused in large part by threatened business and property tax revenues.  

The mayor’s budget team avoided shrinking the general fund—the city’s main source of discretionary spending—through a combination of cuts, reduced hiring and the use of outside funding and rainy day reserves.

But the BLA’s “not-so-fast” assessment underscores the difficulty of trying to support programs and initiatives in what look like lean times in the future. 

The suggested cuts are slated to be discussed Thursday at the next budget and appropriations meeting for the Board of Supervisors.