Union Square, San Francisco
Union Square is a 2.6-acre (1.1-hectare) public plaza bordered by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton Streets in downtown San Francisco, California. "Union Square" also refers to the central shopping, hotel, and theater district that surrounds the plaza for several blocks. The area got its name because it was once used for Thomas Starr King rallies and support for the Union Army during the American Civil War, earning its designation as a California Historical Landmark.
Today, this one-block plaza and surrounding area is one of the largest collections of department stores, upscale boutiques, gift shops, art galleries, and beauty salons in the United States, making Union Square a major tourist destination and a vital, cosmopolitan gathering place in downtown San Francisco. Grand hotels and small inns, as well as repertory, off-Broadway, and single-act theaters also contribute to the area's dynamic, 24-hour character.
Union Square was originally a tall sand dune, and the square was later set aside to be made into a public park in 1850. Union Square got its name from the pro-Union rallies held there on the eve of the Civil War. The monument itself is also a tribute to the sailors of the United States Navy.
Union Square was built and dedicated by San Francisco's first American mayor John Geary in 1850 and is so named for the pro-Union rallies by Thomas Starr King that happened there before and during the United States Civil War. Since then the plaza has undergone many notable changes, one of the most significant happening in 1903 with the dedication of a 97 ft (30 m) tall monument to Admiral George Dewey's victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish–American War. It also commemorates U.S. President William McKinley, who had been recently assassinated. Executed by Robert Aitken, the statue at the top of the monument, "Victory," was modeled after a voluptuous Danish-American stenographer and artist's model, Alma de Bretteville, who eventually married one of San Francisco's richest citizens. Another significant change happened between 1939 and 1941 when a large underground parking garage was built under the square; this meant the plaza's lawns, shrubs and the Dewey monument were now on the garage "roof." Designed by Timothy Pflueger, it was the world's first underground parking garage.
This design was to prove problematic in a number of ways. Insertion of the garage raised the square above sidewalks on two of its four sides, creating problematic pedestrian barriers. In addition, designed to be impressive when looking down from adjoining buildings, the layout provided little actual useable space. Lawn areas and planted beds were raised behind 18” granite curbs, and further lined with hedges, making them inaccessible for public use. As social conditions deteriorated, and as the once low hedging grew, the lawn areas became campsites for the homeless who were not as easily deterred. Plant materials were randomly replaced as they died, and the park looked forlorn. At the very heart of the city’s premier retail and hotel zone, it became a place to walk around, not through. And in addition, the waterproofing on the roof deck had failed, pouring water into the garage below. (https://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/roho/ucb/text/chappell_jim_2017.pdf)
During the late 1970s, and through the 1980s and 1990s, the area became somewhat derelict as the homeless began to camp in the space. San Francisco's rowdy New Year's parties used to happen yearly at the plaza with some sort of civil disruption and rioting happening afterward. In early 1998 city planners began plans to renovate the plaza to create more paved surfaces for easier maintenance, with outdoor cafes, and more levels to the underground garage. Finally in late 2000, the park was partially closed down to renovate the park and the parking garage. On July 25, 2002, the park reopened and a ceremony was held with then Mayor Willie Brown. In 2004 Unwire Now, a company founded by entrepreneur Jaz Banga, launched a free Wi-Fi network in Union Square which was championed by Mayor Gavin Newsom.
San Francisco’s population peaked in 1950 and went down for the next fifty years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_San_Francisco), during which time the city’s budget was stressed, and Union Square began to suffer from under-maintenance and management. In 1995, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), the city’s non-profit good planning and governance group, and the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), published a report, “Union Square: Managing San Francisco’s Landmark Retail and Visitor District”. (SPUR Newsletter/Calendar. Report 329, May 1995). The report highlighted both the civic and fiscal importance of the district centered on the square itself, and called for establishment of a Business Improvement District. The district was formed in 1999 and continues to manage and maintain the district and Union Square itself.
UNION SQUARE REDESIGN
Activist Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr., was inaugurated in January 1996, and that summer announced that there would be a design competition to redesign Union Square. The vehicle for the competition was the San Francisco Prize, a consortium established in 1995 by the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of Landscape Architects, California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco Beautiful, the SF Museum of Modern Art, and SPUR. Financial sponsors of this, the Second Annual San Francisco Prize, included the City and County of San Francisco, Macy’s and The San Francisco Prize.
The design competition to redesign Union Square was officially announced on March 21, 1997, by the Planning Department of the City and County of San Francisco. The competition was titled Toward a More Perfect Union: an International Design Competition for the Future of Union Square. Evan S. Rose served as the Planning Department Competition Project Manager. The Competition Advisor was Bill Liskamm, FAIA. SPUR staffed the competition, sending out over 1,000 competition packets to landscape architects and other designers around the world.
The competition was conducted in two stages: Stage One, to select five winning designs for further consideration in the subsequent stage, and Stage Two, to select the one of the five winners to actually be built. Monetary prizes were awarded to the five winners. The City and County of San Francisco then interviewed each winner for selection as part of the final design team for the renovation of Union Square.
Aaron Betsky, Critic and Curator of Architecture and Design, SFMOMA, San Francisco (footnote credentials)
Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Graphic Designer, New Haven, Connecticut
Gerald G. Green, Planning Director, SF Planning Department, San Francisco
Allan B. Jacobs, Urban Designer, and former Planning Director, San Francisco
David M. Kelly, Industrial Designer, founder of IDEO, San Francisco
Thom Mayne, Architect/Urban Designer, founder of Morphosis, Los Angeles
Louis Meunier, Executive Vice-President, Macy’s, San Francisco
Achva Benzinberg Stein, Landscape Architect, founding principal, Benzinberg Stein Associates, Los Angeles
Results of the Competition - Stage One
The two-stage competition received 309 submittals from 20 states and 10 countries. In July 1997, five Stage 1 winners and four honorable mentions were selected On July 28, 1997, The San Francisco Prize announced the winners.
Grand Prize: “Union Square Park(ing)” E. M. Design, Buffalo, New York Rose Mendez, Team Leader
Winner: “All the Square is a Stage” Philips/Fotheringham, Sausalito and Martinez, California
Winner: “De Young Museum Relocation” Robert Edmonds, San Francisco
Winner: “Meet Me at the Golden Plate” Jones Partners: San Francisco
Winner: “Union Square” Martinez/Kaufman, San Francisco
“Synthetic Square” Joseph Bula, New York
“Urban Weave” Denise Hoffman, Cambridge, Massachusetts
“Bar Code” Archifax James Haig Streeter and Nigel Sampey, San Francisco
“Posturing Toward a More Perfect Union” Sisyphus Arbeit Studio, Brighton, Massachusetts
In their collective and general comments, the Jury “pointed out that the winning schemes were chosen not because they presented ready-made solutions, but rather ideas that showed a Square re-invigorated by new users, new landscapes, and new ways of thinking about the way we make the public space, which we own together, our own. In response to a call for ideas for ‘a more perfect union,’ the winning designers proposed innovative, sometimes startling, but always buildable suggestions for how Union Square could become a place with clear uses, defined spaces, and a sensible grandeur befitting the heart of San Francisco. The jury was delighted by the breadth and sophistication of the schemes, and looks forward to seeing the designers develop them to make that more perfect union of form, function, space and place” (quoted from the press release provided by SPUR on July 28, 1997).
Comments on the Grand Prize Winner - “Union Square Park(ing)”
“This gently folded plane lets us see the slope of Union Square and makes it inhabitable. For the first time since it was a sand dune, Union Square would be one single space for all to enjoy. In place of the confusion of ramps, stairs, planters, bushes and paved area that now take up the Square, F. M. Design proposes one plane that unwraps itself over the garage like a piece of origami. While opening the Square up, making it part of the streets around it, and letting light into the parking garage, this urban napkin also manages to shelter an indoor/outdoor market and other uses. Out of this landscape, a majestic bandstand and skating rink area rises as a counterpoint to the Dewey Memorial. The jury felt that the very abstraction of the scheme would give the designers a chance to work with the neighborhood groups and the City and citizens of San Francisco to find the appropriate materials and details that would turn this brilliant idea into a beautiful square.”
Comments on the Winner: “All the Square is a Stage”
Underneath eye-catching graphics, this scheme presents a simple idea about a square that steps down in broad strips of paving to the south. The designers married this movement with a monumentality that gives the square a clear center. Held between the Dewey Memorial and a new stage, this central area serves as a truly grand heart to the Square. The jury felt that the rather busy detailing of the scheme could be simplified, but admired the desire to incorporate the surrounding streetscape with the Square through paving patterns.
Comments on the Winner: “De Young Museum Relocation”
The jury chose this scheme because it offers a radical alternative to the current Square. By proposing that the garage be converted into the new home for the De Young Museum, the designers have offered a provocative contribution to the debate about the relationship between open space and cultural monuments in our city. Even if such a startling marriage of Square and Museum would not occur, the jury thought the idea of sinking the Square to create a defined space focused on a densely-packed object was well thought out. The design of the plaza combines functional uses with accessibility and places of repose, though the jury felt the access from Geary and Stockton [Streets] could be improved.”
Comments on the Winner: “Meet Me at the Golden Plate”
Both witty and wise in its use of space, this scheme uses the imagery of the Golden Gate Bridge, one of San Francisco’s best-loved icons, to ennoble another part of our city’s infrastructure. By lifting up a set of grass planes above the streets, Jones Partners creates an amphitheater and other defined spaces. A Visitors Center both functionally and structurally anchors the proposal. Jones Partners have re-thought the very notion of an urban square as a machine for gathering, seeing, learning and escaping from the City without leaving its exciting realities. The jury did feel that the scale of some of the pieces could be reduced without damage to the integrity of the scheme.
Comments on the Winner: “Union Square”
In this sensitive and sensible scheme, the Square becomes a series of interconnected planes stepping down towards the corner of Geary and Stockton [Streets]. The Square becomes much more open to both Geary and Powell, while two strips of water help define a much gentler and simpler central space. Strategically located planting define both these spaces and paths throughout the Square. All of the spaces are continuous, but their off-set location creates some complexity and sense of layering. Balancing civic grandeur with visibility, simplicity and a gentle sense of scale this is a thoughtful rethinking of the nature of this space.
Results of the Competition - Stage Two
For the month of August, all 309 entries were publicly exhibited in Macy’s furniture store on Market Street, then at SPUR, the AIA, and other public locations around the city. Visitors were asked to fill out comment cards to guide both the Stage Two selection, and design refinements prior to construction. (SPUR Newsletter/Calendar Report 355, August 1997) SPUR also established five principles to which a final design must adhere, in order to produce an attractive, enticing urban open space that would be accessible to a diverse population and enhance the quality of the entire district: 1. Connectivity: Integrate the square with its immediate surroundings 2. Functionality: Promote positive urban design principles such as sun, sight lines, comfort and sensible traffic patterns 3. Creativity: Create unique opportunities out of the square’s parking garage 4. Programmability: Facilitate the flexible use of the square for a variety of programmatic uses 5. Feasibility: Accomplishable with respect to the inherent constraints of budget, time and the laws of physics. (SPUR Newsletter/calendar Report 356, September 1997)
During Stage Two, each of the five Stage-One finalists was invited to interview with a City of San Francisco selection panel. The entry titled "All the Square is a Stage", was selected by the City and County of San Francisco as the final winner of the Competition, based on the five SPUR principles, the comments from the public, and the experience of the design team. Two local landscape architects, April Philips and Michael Fotheringham, were the designers of “All the Square is a Stage.” They had both worked at EDAW, Inc, previous to joining together for this Competition.
The designers proposed a formal and programmatic open space solution organized on a set of bi-symmetrical cross-axes and stepped terraces. The arrangement of functions invites a range of social and cultural experiences. The new design acknowledges individual and group needs by shaping and linking intimate and grand outdoor spaces, utilizing furnishings, materials and surfaces that evoke refinement and comfort. A grand central plaza, focused on the Dewey Memorial at the heart of the Square, is framed by retail uses and a performance stage. Existing slopes of the garage roof were augmented to create a level granite-paved central plaza with garden and lawn terraces at the edges and dramatic entrances at each corner. Paving materials recall the natural origins of the site–sand and water. A variety of trees and shrubs offer an infusion of natural cooling and color. Visitor amenities include ticket box office, cafe with outdoor dining, ample seating areas, light sculptures, elevator, and lawn terraces. Temporary chair seating is added in the central space during stage performances.
The Philips/Fotheringham Partnership was invited to enter into contracts with the City and its qualified design team (see below) to provide design and construction documents for the renovation of Union Square. A community committee was formed, co-chaired by Linda Mjellem, Executive Director of the Union Square Association/Union Square Business Improvement District, and Jim Chappell, Executive Director of SPUR. The committee met with the Philips/Fotheringham Partnership team throughout the final design process. Construction began in the Fall of 2000, and the newly renovated Square opened to the public on July 25, 2002.
Project Design Team:
Owner/Client: City and County of San Francisco City Project Manager: Don Alameida, Department of Public Works Sponsor: Union Square Association: Linda Mjellem Sponsor: SPUR: Jim Chappell Design Competition Winners: Philips + Fotheringham Partnership Design Landscape Architects: Philips + Fotheringham Partnership Landscape Architects of Record: Royston, Hanamoto, Alley & Abey Architects: Patri Merker Architects Civil Engineers: Olivia Chen Consultants Structural Engineers: Faye Bernstein & Associates Mechanical Engineers: Takahashi Consulting Engineers Lighting Design: Francis Krahe & Associates Graphic Design: Debra Nichols Design Fountain Design: CMS Collaborative Irrigation Design: James D. Eddy Associates Artists: R.M. (Ron) Fischer (Light Sculptures) & Vicki Saulls (Glazed Tiles)
Visitor amenities include a ticket box office, cafe with indoor and outdoor dining, a stage area for weekly events, light sculptures, art tiles at two of the corner entries, and an elevator connecting all four parking levels to the roof-top public space.
The Phased Opening of Union Square & Programming
July 25, 2002
Light sculptures installation Restoration of the Dewey Memorial Monument Performing Art Series with SF Jazz (9/7), SF Symphony (9/14), SF Gay Men’s Chorus (9/21) and SF Opera (9/28)
October, 2002 (tentative)
Half price ticket booth opens on the Square MUNI Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest (10/18)
Café opened Macy’s Holiday Tree Lighting Ice Rink returned to Union Square for the Holiday Season
Festival of Lights
The Unique Ownership and Tenancy of Union Square
The operations of Union Square involve several entities. The City and County of San Francisco owns the land. The Department of Recreation & Parks has jurisdiction over the park and plaza. Recreation & Parks subcontracted the management of the park to MJM Management Company, to handle leasing and management of events in the Park. Rec & Parks and MJM jointly maintain the park. MJM was also selected by the Union Square Business Improvement District to manage the entire district. The Department of Parking & Traffic has jurisdiction over the garage. The Department of Public Works was the owner’s representative on the project. The non-profit Uptown Parking Corporation is the tenant that operates the parking garage. Funding for construction came from both the Uptown Parking Corporation revenues and the City’s Open Space Fund. (https://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/roho/ucb/text/chappell_jim_2017.pdf)
The redesign of the park has been judged a great success: it has gone from a liability to the City and neighborhood to a major generator of activity and revenue. Each year, over 100 events are programmed and permitted, including musical performances, dances, art exhibitions, rallies and spontaneous events which drive a sense of community and bring thousands to the area, which contribute to the success of many surrounding businesses. These events generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue to the Recreation & Parks Department. (https://oqude46pekg2hhkab2visep1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Union_Square_Case_Study_10_14_19.pdf)
Union Square hosts many public concerts and events. Public views of the square can be seen from surrounding high places such as the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, Macy's top floor, and the Grand Hyatt hotel. The Union Square Business Improvement District was founded in 1999 and focused primarily on cleaning and safety issues. The BID also deals with marketing, advocacy, streetscapes and capital improvement programs. The Union Square BID has been criticized by some as acting in a harassing manner toward homeless people at times, to deter them from being there.
At the center of Union Square stands the Dewey Monument, an 85-foot (26 m) column on which stand a 9-foot (2.7 m) statue of Nike, the ancient Greek Goddess of Victory. The monument is dedicated to Admiral George Dewey, a hero of the Spanish–American War for his victory at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. The monument was dedicated in 1903.
As part of the redesign of the Square, the San Francisco Art Commission commissioned two artists to add artworks to the new design: -R.M. (Ron) Fischer designed four Light Sculptures located along the southern edge of the central plaza. -Vicki Saulls designed a series of Glazed Tiles located at two corner entrances to the Square–the corner of Post and Powell, and the corner of Geary and Stockton.
The Tiffany Building is an 11-story, 100,000-square-foot (9,300 m2) building at Union Square.; the bottom two floors contain a Tiffany & Co. store, while the upper floors contain offices. Cathay Pacific maintains its North America regional headquarters on the third floor of the Tiffany Building, The Cathay Pacific North America headquarters moved from Greater Los Angeles and opened in the Tiffany Building in 2005.
The only hotel actually located on Union Square is the Westin St. Francis hotel which is celebrated for its historic Magneta Grandfather Clock. It is believed to be the only hotel in the world that offers its guests, as a courtesy, a coin washing service. The process originated in 1938 at a time when high-society ladies wore white gloves that were easily tarnished during the exchange of money. It uses borax soap in an antiquated, manually-operated burnisher.
Union Square has also come to describe not just the plaza itself, but the general shopping, dining, and theater districts within the surrounding blocks. The Geary and Curran theaters one block west on Geary anchor the "theater district" and border the Tenderloin. Union Square is also home to San Francisco's TIX Bay Area, a half-priced ticket booth and Ticketmaster outlet. Run by Theatre Bay Area, tickets for most of San Francisco's performing arts can be purchased the day of the performance at a discounted rate.
At the end of Powell Street two blocks south, where the cable cars turn around beside Hallidie Plaza at Market Street, is a growing retail corridor that is connected to the SOMA district. Nob Hill, with its grand mansions, apartment buildings and hotels, stands to the northwest of Union Square. Directly northeast is Chinatown, with its famous dragon gate at Grant Avenue and Bush Street.
The city's historic French Quarter northeast of Union Square and centers on the Belden Place alleyway, between Bush and Pine Streets, and Claude Lane off Bush Street. This area has many open-air French Restaurants and Cafes. Every year the area is the site of the boisterous Bastille Day celebration, the nation's largest, and Bush Street is temporarily renamed "Buisson."
Directly east of the Square off of Stockton Street is Maiden Lane, a short and narrow alley of exclusive boutiques and cafes that leads to the Financial District and boasts the Xanadu Gallery, San Francisco's only building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—with its interior most notable for being the predecessor for New York City's Guggenheim Museum. The square is part of the Barbary Coast Trail, linking many San Francisco landmarks.
Over the years, Union Square became a popular shopping destination. Several department stores sit within the three-block radius of Union Square, including Neiman Marcus, Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Barneys New York. Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom anchor the nearby Westfield San Francisco Centre, a shopping mall built in 1988 on nearby Market Street.
A mix of upscale boutiques and popular retailers occupy many of the buildings surrounding Union Square. Among the luxury retailers that front Union Square are Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Bulgari, Loro Piana, Moncler, and jeweler Tiffany & Co.; while flagship Victoria's Secret, Williams Sonoma, Nike, and Apple stores also occupy buildings surrounding Union Square. Other notable brands in the surrounding area include Chanel, Prada, Burberry, Salvatore Ferragamo, Shapur Mozaffarian, Goyard, Dior and Cartier.
Two cable car lines (Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason) serve Union Square on Powell Street.
In addition, Union Square is served by many trolleybus and bus lines and the F Market heritage streetcar. The Muni Metro and BART subway systems both serve the area at nearby Powell Street Station on Market Street. In 2012, Muni began building an extension of its Muni Metro system to connect Union Square and Chinatown with Caltrain and other neighborhoods in San Francisco. After several delays, the extension, known as the Central Subway, is scheduled for completion by 2020, and the new Union Square station will be called Union Square/Market Street.
In popular culture
- Scenes of the square and the surrounding neighborhood were featured in Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Vertigo (1958) and the opening scene of his The Birds was filmed at the edge of the square—the character Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) looks up and sees hundreds of birds flying in a circular pattern around the column at the center of the square.
- Francis Ford Coppola shot numerous scenes of The Conversation (1974) in Union Square, where the bugged conversation which forms the foundation of the movie takes place.
- Philip Kaufman's 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers also features scenes of the square.
- In Blake Edwards' 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, Jack Lemmon (as Joe Clay) looks at his reflection in the window of the Union Square Lounge on Maiden Lane and realizes he is an alcoholic "bum."
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