San Francisco Should Shut UN Plaza

Stop runaway drug scene

San Francisco has to temporarily close UN Plaza. The drug dealers and traffickers in the UN Plaza are completely out of control. The entire square would be fenced off except for an opening at Hyde to access the Civic Center transit entrance. The Farmers Market would be temporarily relocated to the nearby Fulton Mall.

Does that sound drastic? It is what the circumstances call for. The closure of UN Plaza is imperative if San Francisco is to get its Civic Center, Mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods back on track. A temporary closure gives those involved time to develop a viable plan for a space that hasn’t lived up to its potential in decades.

UN Plaza failed

UN Plaza is populated by drug dealers more than ever. And that says a lot, because the square has long since failed as a quality public space.

It’s a great spot when the Farmers Market is open. And the mid-market revival that began in 2011 brought ACT across the street and gave momentum to the plaza’s revitalization. Mayor Ed Lee tried to build on that energy by introducing food trucks, music and kids’ activities for robust Friday Night Markets.

But those times are over. And plans to transform UN Plaza have always lacked funding. Unlike Civic Center Park — where Parks Director Phil Ginsburg got a philanthropist to fund two children’s playgrounds and also open a café — UN Plaza never got the funding to make the plaza more welcoming.

COVID has devastated the middle class. Before the city’s disastrous decision to open a safe injection site in the area, the situation at UN Plaza was deteriorating. Known as the Linkage Center, UN Plaza made it more lawless than ever. San Francisco spent $22 million to encourage drug activity. The center killed prospects to attract new positive investment in and around the square.

Exhaust police resources

UN Plaza is a huge drain on police resources. Its closure allows police to focus on closing down the long-running drug market at 7th and Markt. The closure of the UN Plaza also frees up more officers to attack the 8th and Mission areas, two of whose open drug markets were recently shut down but require ongoing attention.

Where will the traders go?

Some fear displaced UN Plaza vendors will open shops in their neighborhoods. But as I recently wrote about the Tenderloin crackdown (“Can the Tenderloin crackdown be sustained?”), correctly performed disruption doesn’t move the dealers into adjacent blocks. The raid on Tenderloin has not resulted in the opening of new drug markets nearby.

The crackdown has cleared the two main drug markets at 600 Eddy (pictured above) and 300 Hyde for the vast majority of days. It has increased trading on Eddy’s 700 block, which has been a problem for a long time. It also increased dealers in the 300 block of Golden Gate after 8:30 p.m. — but that block had more than fifty night dealers before the raid.

The Tenderloin crackdown has shut down two major drug markets without dealers simply relocating to previously drug-free blocs. The same impact will likely entail the closure of the UN Plaza drug scene.

No excuse for inaction

It is an insult to residents, workers, businesses and others affected by UN Plaza to argue that the drug scene should remain there as a quasi-containment zone. It’s also foolhardy and destructive to the city’s economy.

If we want people to visit theaters, museums and other cultural events in the Mid-Market, Tenderloin or Civic Center, they must feel safe using transit at UN Plaza. That is not the case now. I suspect part of the reason the City of San Francisco has so many job openings is that people don’t want to take jobs that require the use of Civic Center transit stations.

A temporary fix

UN Plaza should remain closed pending a viable recovery plan. The smaller adjustments that have been pushed in the past — like the dog park and more food trucks — aren’t enough. Physical changes must be made to the space that discourage open-air drug dealing. The city must also promote a positive and active presence in the square’s office buildings; this is the key to its revival.

A UN Plaza mayoral board task force should have a year to come up with workable ideas. I’m usually critical of task forces because they become a substitute for action. But we need a process for stakeholder buy-in that creates an actionable plan.

The closure of the UN Plaza could bother some commuters. But those who access Civic Center BART and MUNI will appreciate not confronting drug dealers as they drive to their destinations.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is editor of Beyond Chron and director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw’s latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four previous books on activism, including The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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