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San Francisco’s Union Sq.: How restoration is doing 1 12 months after new zoning rules went into impact


SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — ABC7 has been following the story of the dramatic number of store closures at San Francisco’s Union Square. To make recovery easier and faster, the city changed zoning rules in the area nearly one year ago – but is that change helping to Build a Better Bay Area?

We think of ourselves as a progressive city, but San Francisco began the downward trend of Union Square’s economy years before the pandemic. And instead of reinventing itself like other cities have, San Francisco moved at a snail’s pace.

Union Square was once the shopping mecca of the Bay Area. Always the place to be seen, where demonstrators found a voice, bands entertained, mayors held wine festivals while another used it to launch his campaign — not to mention a U.S. president has been on the square.

The 1980s was unofficially the golden age of Union Square, and city planners did their best to keep the offices from moving into the area.

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So offices spaces stayed confined to that side of Kearny, basically preventing them from entering Union Square.

“We wanted, as a city, to really protect Union Square because it represented a global enterprise,” explained Marisa Rodriguez, the CEO of the Union Square Alliance.

But everyone knows a business district has to evolve to thrive, and it took the city decades to finally own up to that.

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“The idea that a flagship store needs two stores, maybe even three, is very much outdated,” revealed Larisa Ortiz, a former New York City planning commissioner who was called in to help understand what was keeping Union Square from succeeding.

“We uncovered that some of the zoning codes were really a bit antiquated, there were legacy codes for a time that no longer existed,” added Ortiz, who now works for Streetsense Consulting.

So in the past, the old zoning laws determined that a landlord with three leasable floors could only rent that space to one company.

“You needed three levels of retail or whatever it was. So why not do away with that and instead create flexibility and say what is it that you want to do? I just want this on the first floor, or maybe something else on the second floor and maybe something different on the third or I just want the first. Excellent, let’s make that happen for you,” said Rodriguez.

Both Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Aaron Peskin came up with the legislation to change the zoning laws here, which the Board of Supervisors then approved a year ago.

“We’re hearing, which we weren’t hearing last year, the tours are picking up, people are interested, they’re sniffing around, they want to know what they can do here and apparently they’re getting some deals done. From deal-making to opening could be a year, two years, right? It takes time,” outlined Rodriguez.

So we really don’t know how many businesses have taken advantage of the code changes. We know they work.

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Take New York City’s Wall Street, financial area. Facing a massive exodus following 9/11, the city allowed for a radical change from office-only spaces to residential and new businesses, which today has led to a thriving neighborhood.

Part of the revitalization of Union Square will depend on voter’s approving a bond measure, part of it going towards the Powell Street Improvement plan. Powell Street with its cable cars have long been the gateway to Union Square.

“I really think with the right focus, attention, the right investment, Union Square can be back in a year and a half. We will see it,” promised Rodriguez.

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