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4 Takeaways From the New Plan to Rescue San Francisco’s Downtown
Sunday, August 07, 2022

4 Takeaways From the New Plan to Rescue San Francisco’s Downtown

For many city leaders, a revitalization of San Francisco’s downtown is top of mind as the area languishes half-empty due to remote work. With foot traffic and tourism down, longstanding small businesses that rely on office workers and conventioneers have struggled to survive.  

As part of an effort to spark ideas, the Downtown SF Community Benefits District enlisted the urban design firm Sitelab to devise a roadmap to the future. The 143-page Public Realm Action Plan released this week is big on plans to revive what had previously been the city’s major economic engine. 

In shorter supply are the dollars and cents to make the ambitious plans a reality. The citywide budget recently passed at the Board of Supervisors included $8 million for downtown recovery over the next two years. But even that funding was subject to skepticism.

A full-scale transformation would likely cost many times that amount, and it’s yet to be seen whether the political will exists to follow through.

“It is clear that downtown San Francisco can’t continue ‘business as usual,’” the report states, with the underlying assumption that much of that business no longer exists. Here are some of the key highlights from the report and its vision of a renewed downtown. 

From office park to urban park

The report cites data showing downtown trips plummeting from about 240,000 in early 2020 to 150,000 in June, and underscored the need for the area to embrace mixed uses, including housing. 

A projection at One Bush Plaza in San Francisco a part of Lets Glow SF hosted by Downtown SF on December 9 2021. | Elliott Alexander for The Standard

A survey conducted by Sitelab found that residents wanted more outdoor spaces for gathering and additional greenery. Opening up streets and taking over curb space would create more pedestrian space, the report said. The plan notes that the neighborhood is one of the flattest and most walkable in the city, with easy transit access. One key improvement the plan calls for is additional protected bike lanes. The report also notes that while two of the most active bike-share locations are in the neighborhood, only streets south of Market Street feature bike lanes. And the report suggests “greening up” the environment with street trees, planters and other sidewalk vegetation. 

All the world’s a stage

Half of survey respondents said they wanted to see more arts and events downtown. The plan aims to use “downtown as a stage” through curation of arts and events at the public plazas that surround skyscrapers like One Bush Plaza and One California. It also calls for reactivating vacant ground-floor spaces in “targeted zones through investments in store frontages and incentive programs.” 

The report also calls for unearthing and celebrating the neighborhood’s history through public art. Pop-up retail, carts and various events could help activate underutilized spaces. As part of its “recipe” for vibrant public spaces, the plan includes amenities such as light fixtures, greenery and restrooms, along with comfortable seating and moveable furnishings to allow people to create their own spaces to congregate.

Beyond finance

DowntownSF Executive Director Robbie Silver has spoken about the need for the neighborhood to move past its identity as the financial district. Key to that transformation are three “priority action areas” that could be reimagined first. Those areas, according to the report, were chosen because of available public space in addition to existing plans for infrastructure improvements and private investment. 

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These action areas include the streets and ground floor retail space on Leidesdorff and Commercial Streets, which is pitched as a corridor for dining and gathering; the “Downtown Gateway,” which includes the plazas around 101 California St.; and the “Market Oasis” centered around the One Bush Street Plaza. In order to make areas more pedestrian-friendly, the plan suggests adding mid-block crossings and strategic street closures. 

Parks and ‘POPOS’

The area defined as downtown in the plan has zero public parks, and streets currently make up 36% of the district. That means turning laneways, alleyways and street segments into places for gathering and eating through parklets and temporary or permanent street closures. 

The address marker for 1 Bush Street, where the city’s first POPOS is located, in downtown San Francisco on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

With the lack of public parks, the plan characterizes POPOS, or privately-owned public open spaces, as the neighborhood’s “parks.” These include outdoor plazas like Transamerica Redwood Park adjacent to the Pyramid and One Bush Plaza, which was the site of one of DowntownSF’s Let’s Glow SF displays that attracted 36,000 visitors. 

The report notes that a majority of POPOS, however, offer no public restrooms and have no signage indicating their status as public spaces. To create a cohesive experience for visitors, the plan suggests deploying common design elements and creating a public inventory of spaces, including a user-friendly map and calendar.

Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected].
  • With downtown being infested by drugs and crime, full of homeless, full of garbage no amount of bike lanes is going to make a difference. Clean the street like they do in Berlin 3 times a day, make camping on streets illegal , arrest and prosecute drug-dealers, stop enabling drug use , and dismantle your bureaucracy that makes business life a nightmare in this town! That would make down town attractive for business and people to come back to, then you can spend money on trees and bike lanes.

  • It’a difficult for me to take this seriously, yet another after-the-fact project to fix city City’s self inflicted wounds, as turning the City over to bicyclists, Uber, Lyft, rental bicycles, scooters, mega-busses appropriating Muni’s infrastructure, and of course decades old surrender to Critical Mass, auto property crime, etc. Meanwhile, large corporate interests and major employer’s have fled the city, in part from its crime, filth, homeless and drug business. I’ve lived here 45 years, and have seen the failed leadership that panders to the latest political correct, Post-Modernist, silliness of the day. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We are either a mature, balanced, modern city, or a neurotic old alcoholic, clinging to the past and confused.

  • How about allowing ride share services and the new driverless car services the ability to use Market Street? The banning of all private vehicles from using Market Street has added to the downtown disaster and feeling of it being a vast wasteland.

    Since the private vehicle ban Market Street has become a ghost town that’s filled with crazies and criminal activity and drug dealing that’s obvious to everyone except the police. And getting to downtown is a huge hassle with this non-sensical plan to try to force people to use the city’s awful and dangerous public transit (sorry MUNI, you gotta come more than every 15 minutes, and improve safety to stop riders from getting assaulted, shot, or covered in blood splatter).

    Reality check: people actually use ride shares, and they are less likely to go downtown when they must take a circuitous route because some forms of mass transit (yeah, shared vehicles are mass transit) are banned from what used to be the city’s main thoroughfare. I will happily be among the first to use those new driverless car shares, especially if it’s a straight shot down Market Street to my destination.

    The recall of the DA should be seen as a sign that residents are eager to reverse ideas that simply fail. The Market Street closure is a complete failure. What has it accomplished? Even MUNI has NOT improved its service, which was the stated purpose. If you want people to go downtown, make it easier, faster and safer to get to downtown.

  • The Public Ream Action Plan is the solution, San Francisco! We would be absolutely foolish not to implement the proposals in this plan. This would bring the city of SF to focus on its RESIDENTS instead of mayors and supervisors catering to big businesses and unions who have made this city so transient and contributed to all the problems we have now. We just need the organization and will power to make it happen as this will help us with the problems we have been facing such as 1) Climate Change, 2) Homelessness, 3) Public Safety, 4) Affordable Housing, and 5) Residential/Community health, amongst other things. We should see a green-environment everywhere with less cars, and be an example of what a city should be like for the rest of the country. We’re far from it now, but the Public Realm Action Plan is the right direction we MUST take.

  • The comments above are so right on. San Francisco has been ceded to the homeless and their service industries. Nothing will revitalize downtown SF until the mayor/BOS gets serious about cleaning up the streets of trash, tents, passed out drug users and their pushers, and crime. Getting downtown on MUNI after dark is not safe or even marginally comfortable.

    I am seriously considering not renewing theater and symphony subscriptions this year because just getting in and out of the areas is an exercise in disgust.

  • Great news! Anything that gets cars out of downtown and eliminates the traffic congestion, air pollution, and traffic deaths caused by them will definitely revitalize our City. The POPOS parks are indeed an amazing and underused resource. The opening of Market Street to people, bikes, and transit is a huge first step; we must keep making progress.

  • Well, obviously people aren’t coming back to work in Downtown because it’s not a nice place to be. Half of the businesses have closed. People are allowed to pitch tents anywhere. Sue Bierman park never has anyone in it but drug users and homeless. The whole area smells like urine. You need to make spaces inviting. Why talk about POPA when the existing public spaces are not usable?

  • You want to get people downtown, lease for exceptionally low rates or free Justin Herman plaza, the Park on top of the Sales Force Transit Center, Sydney Walton Square, Rincon Park, Maritime Plaza, etc. to concert and comedian promoters. Allow restaurants nearby to serve food and drinks. Provide free SFPD security. Require these promoters make the tickets cheaper to reflect the low cost of the leased space. Have the City buy tickets and give them away to businesses and residents in San Francisco. Do this on weekdays, weeknights, weekends…. all the time. Everyone loves good food and good entertainment.

  • We need LARGE CORPORATIONS to return to SF downtown. That will only happen with a complete reversal of the approach this city takes to business regulation. But I fear SF has destroyed itself for good. I’ve never seen the city in worse shape in nearly 60 years of residency. I’m very angry.

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