Bring people back to the shopping district

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As a former assistant district attorney and head of San Francisco’s cannabis bureau, there’s little on Marisa Rodriguez’s resume that would have made her a natural fit to oversee the Union Square Alliance, the business improvement district that oversees the commercial and commercial center of the city. tourism.

So when Rodriguez got a call last fall asking if she’d be interested in taking over from Karen Flood, the organization’s longtime director, she was a bit taken aback.

“I was like, ‘What does luxury tourism and retail have to do with me? What does commercial real estate have to do with me? “”, she recalls. “I have no retail experience and no hotel or hospitality experience.”

Yet she was intrigued enough to agree to be interviewed. And when she arrived in Union Square, she was devastated by how desolate it was, 18 months into the pandemic: shuttered storefronts, empty sidewalks, hotels still closed. “I was heartbroken because it looked so sterile,” she said.

A native of the Richmond district whose nursing mother moonlighted as a hairstylist at a salon in Union Square, Rodriguez began to reflect on what the neighborhood meant to her and the city. She thought of the maids, bellhops, dishwashers and retail vendors who depend on the tourism industry for a living. She recalled all the special occasions she spent in Union Square — shopping for a prom dress, shopping for Christmas, celebrating a graduation — and also the boring afternoons she spent there at waiting for his mother to leave work.

“I would toss and turn in the chairs and get yelled at,” she says.

She took the job.

Being the head of the Union Square Alliance is like being the mayor of a 27-block city with 12,000 hotel rooms, 70,000 workers and virtually no people. Its membership list includes owners of approximately 650 buildings. Its tenants include some of the classiest names in retail: Tiffany, Tory Burch, Bvlgar, Hermes, Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. While these upscale stores are out of reach for many city residents, about 40% of the city’s workers of color have jobs in Union Square.

“When I got here, Union Square was weird in a way I hadn’t seen in other parts of San Francisco, which convinced me,” Rodriguez said. “Union Square was hit harder than any other neighborhood because there are no people there. The reason I decided to undertake this work was to dig in and find out: how can we, as a travel destination, a tourist destination, survive the next big storm? »

Now, nine months later, Rodriguez is completely immersed in a world that is in some ways a microcosm of the city and in other ways the opposite of most parts of the city.

Marisa Rodriguez walks past stores near Union Square in San Francisco. As a child, his mother worked in the shopping district. Now she leads the Union Square Alliance and tries to bring people back to the famous shopping district.

Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

Union Square reflects the struggles San Francisco is grappling with – empty office buildings, lingering homelessness, lack of convention – but also the potential for resurgence as visitors and locals rediscover galleries, theaters, restaurants, alleys and hotels historic downtown. But it lacks the residential foot traffic that has kept other neighborhoods afloat during the lockdown.

The solution she proposed included both short-term and long-term plans. The immediate objective: to attract residents to Union Square. The Alliance now holds Saturday night dances in the square – this week features Brazilian music – and is working to partner with local music venues to organize further concerts. Part of the larger “San Francisco in Bloom” lineup, Union Square receives a full schedule of events including movies, a silent disco, arts and crafts, food trucks, and outdoor fitness classes. air.

“We want our people to come back to the square – it’s for them,” she said. “I will do everything in my power to make this happen.”

For Rodriguez, part of bringing locals back is making it safe and clean. A month into his tenure, a large group of mostly teenagers went on a massive looting spree, overpowering security guards and taking millions of goods from stores like Louis Vuitton and Burberry in Union Square and Bloomingdales in Westfield Shopping Centre.

In response to the crime wave, the San Francisco Police Department set up a mobile command center in Union Square and most luxury stores have increased security.

But Rodriguez isn’t just sitting in her office trying to figure out the answers. On Wednesday, she worked a 13-hour day studying the nuances of the neighborhood.

In the afternoon, she visited an art gallery, CK Contemporary, then met with Alliance staff members Lance Goree and Stacy Jed about planning a booth for National Night Out. , an annual community policing event. She met Alex Bastian, the new chairman of the San Francisco Hotel Council, and Sebastien Pfeiffer, the general manager of the Beacon Grand Hotel, formerly Sir Francis Drake, which has just reopened after two years of closure. She stopped to kiss Serena McKnight, a Union Square ambassador who spends her days directing tourists and keeping the square clean.

Serena McKnight (left) and Marisa Rodriguez chat at Union Square in San Francisco.  Rodriguez, the new leader of the Union Square Alliance, is working to bring more life to the neighborhood as it struggles to bounce back from the pandemic.

Serena McKnight (left) and Marisa Rodriguez chat at Union Square in San Francisco. Rodriguez, the new leader of the Union Square Alliance, is working to bring more life to the neighborhood as it struggles to bounce back from the pandemic.

Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

Rodriguez spent that evening with a cleaning crew – six pressure washers and two street sweepers – a job that “is not for the faint-hearted”.

“Our pressure washers run overnight so wet surfaces, their hoses and bulky equipment don’t create a hazard during the busiest daytime hours,” Rodriguez said. “The challenges that exist on the streets of our city become more apparent at night and this team encounters them firsthand.”

In the long term, Rodriguez wants to breathe life into the neighborhood by converting underused office buildings into housing. The Alliance has hired Ken Rich, former development liaison for Mayors Ed Lee and London Breed, to study zoning changes and other incentives needed to make it easier for owners to convert buildings into residential opportunities. Currently, only retail businesses are permitted on the first and second floors of Union Square buildings.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he was open to developing legislation to help facilitate housing conversions in the area. “Housing is a permitted use in Union Square and the reality is that the FAO Schwarz’s of the world are not coming back,” he said.

Meanwhile, vacancies continue to plague the neighborhood. The lower blocks of Powell Street are riddled with empty storefronts following the closure of Uniqlo, H+M and Gap. The first block of O’Farrell – formerly the home of Macy’s Mens and Barney’s – is dark except for a boba kiosk. The 200 block of Post Street has vacancies at 220, 240, 259, 272 and 278.

Julie Taylor, a major Colliers International broker who handles much of the leasing around Union Square, said more zoning flexibility was needed. “The sooner the city allows market forces to fill space by removing zoning barriers, the sooner we can bring the city back to health, both in Union Square and in the greater downtown area,” said Taylor. “We have all kinds of spaces that want to become something.”

Still, there are reasons for optimism, she said. An Australian furniture company, Coco Republic, is opening its first US outlet in the former Crate & Barrel space at 55 Stockton. French luxury fashion brand Chanel has purchased a building at 340 Post St. in Union Square for $63 million and will open a three-level store.

Taylor said recent efforts to tackle quality-of-life issues — crime, litter and drug trafficking — “have given retailers much more confidence that San Francisco is going to make the necessary changes.”

“Cable car lines are back to historic levels, people are carrying shopping bags and you can hear foreign languages ​​on every block,” she said.

Rodriguez said the amount of progress she’s seen in her nine months on the job has been encouraging. The reopening of the Beacon Grand – the historic Starlite Room will reopen next year – was another milestone. The hotel has grown from three to 100 employees in recent months and will hire another 200.

Bastian, the new chairman of the Hotel Council, studied law with Rodriguez and is also a veteran of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. He said next year would be key.

“This is a pivotal moment for the city,” he said. “We sink or swim together.”


JK Dineen is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @sfjkdineen

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