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New Plan Aims To Make Downtown S.F. A 24-Hour Destination


A new plan by a downtown business group aims to shift San Francisco's central business district to an all-day community destination instead of a 9-5 commercial hub as office and retail use remain stagnant.

The Downtown San Francisco Public Realm Action Plan outlines steps to entice businesses and foot traffic, based on research performed by Downtown SF Partnership, a community benefit district that serves the Financial District, Jackson Square and parts of SoMa.

“Downtown, and primarily the Financial District, was really exposed as a 'one-use' district after Covid," Downtown SF Partnership Director Robbie Silver said. "We definitely had some business closures on the ground floor as a result. Many have come back and are definitely struggling with operations, because if people are coming back to work, they are coming back Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays."

Silver considers the Public Realm Action Plan less of a comprehensive solution to these issues and more of a step to begin a conversation.

“It’s a call to action,” he said. “We didn't hire a design team to produce a plan that would show every single rendering or every single possible blank wall. But instead, to take this more like a road map with strategies and a blueprint for success.”

The plan itself is broad in its scope, but calls for smaller improvements to the look and feel of downtown, rather than for sweeping reforms. Ideas floated in the action plan include increasing the ease of pedestrian traffic flows, increasing the number of public open spaces, and adding more greenery and commissioned art.

Silver noted that so far, in conversations with local business owners, the response has been positive, but he is also quick to point out that for those hoping the city will return to pre-pandemic numbers in terms of retail and office vacancy, that won't happen on its own.

“I think this is also an opportunity for potential funders, whether it be foundations, corporate sponsors … to say ‘hey, invest in your downtown,’ because it is definitely suffering and it is not back to the way it was in 2019,” he said.

SiteLab Urban Studio, which produced the plan, also sees this as a good opportunity for the city to change its perception.

“So much of downtown historically, as a 9-to-5 workplace, has relied on the interior workplace,” SiteLab CEO Laura Crescimano said. “It’s both a perception issue and a place issue. I don’t know that we have really invested in the public realm of downtown."

Crescimano said this plan is not meant to solve some of the broader socioeconomic issues facing the city, such as its dearth of affordable housing, but the groups that created it are well aware of the problems.

Cameron Baird, Avison Young senior vice president, retail, is optimistic about any plan that seeks to alleviate the vacancy issues downtown, noting that the firm's retail and restaurant clients have expressed interest in seeing downtown become a weeklong destination.

“Downtown gets pretty sleepy on the weekends. This pandemic has given landlords and tenants the opportunity to rethink how the financial district operates and try to master-plan a new vision for downtown San Francisco,” he said.

“San Francisco is an international city. It should be a destination [on] the weekends.”