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San Francisco’s Union Square: From Instamatic to Instagram

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Anthony G. Reyes

As Herb Caen, San Francisco’s famous columnist once wrote, “It is hard to stay depressed in San Francisco, on a crisp November afternoon, with flowers and pretzels for sale on the street corners and the tourists going Instamatically mad at the bright wonder of it all. We are so lucky to have a proper downtown, where people can parade.”

San Francisco’s Union Square shopping district has long been regarded as a central shopping destination in this world-class, gateway city. Although the historic district is an outstanding U.S. example of a vibrant, urban, retail core, in many ways it is a microcosm of the broader changes affecting retail today. Rents are rising. Big format, department stores are shrinking. Brick-and-mortar retailers are concerned about e-commerce. And, as density shifts the city center south, Union Square has become more detached from local city life. So how can the district maintain its vitality? In other words, how can we evolve Union Square from Instamatic to Instagram?

Recently, we had an opportunity to host a panel discussion on the dynamic changing conditions of the retail industry and the impacts on San Francisco’s Union Square. We introduced the topic through a video produced by Gensler San Francisco’s summer interns. During their 10 weeks with us, students from top design schools around the U.S. were asked to participate in a group project focused on understanding evolving consumer habits and industry shifts in the context of Union Square’s building typologies and zoning requirements.

Our panel was moderated by Chris Harrelson, a retail architect and design director with in-depth knowledge on our topic gained through over 20 years of experience working with both landlords and major luxury retailers in the San Francisco market. Panelists included John Rahaim, Director of Planning for the City of San Francisco, Mark Stefan and Dan Blatteis, landlords of key Union Square properties, and Christine Johnson, San Francisco director of SPUR.

As the panel addressed questions regarding the challenges of Union Square it quickly became apparent that this district is in many ways a study of the retail industry itself. We see large format, multilevel department stores closing or consolidating space; time constrained consumers looking for seamless and convenient shopping experiences; and shoppers who desire social interaction with friends and family in a safe and fun environment.

The uniqueness of San Francisco’s architecture and public realm presents tremendous opportunities and often many hurdles. Our zoning and preservation regulations tend to create cumbersome approval processes and lengthy schedules, reducing speed to market for retailers anxious to open their branded storefronts. Landlords face the difficulty of renting upper floor spaces zoned for retail use while the office market is hot. Additionally, our traffic congestion and homeless population do not correlate with the convenience and safety needs of shoppers.

How do we maintain vibrancy and address these issues? Perhaps we put the consumers’ wants at the top of our priority list. We encourage new entertainment, food venues and social environments; we simplify the approval process for alternative uses on upper floors; we invest in keeping our streets clean and safe. The reality is that San Francisco’s retail core doesn’t differ significantly from any other retail center. We should view these changes not as obstacles, but as opportunities to breathe new life into stores, to examine new formats, and to test new ways to engage consumers.

Now is the time to attract new online retailers to brick-and-mortar and to embrace experience-oriented shopping and dining. One exciting example of this is the revitalization of Macy’s Men’s building. The seven-story, 250,000 square foot behemoth is currently being envisioned as transparent and mixed-use in nature with inviting multi-tenant retail, restaurant, office and roof top spaces.

100 Stockton (former Macy’s Mens Union Square), San Francisco. Through its planned mixed-use programming of retail, office, and rooftop hospitality, the project strives to enhance the neighborhood’s vitality and create a new paradigm for modern building repositioning. Image © Gensler.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the newly remodeled Westfield Century City in Los Angeles. Here, hospitality and social engagement opportunities reign. Packed with locals and visitors, much care was given to mix established and new brands, pop-ups and food halls, theaters and a medical clinic in a beautifully crafted setting. One visit will convince you that retail is alive and kicking.

Working closely with the offices of Westfield Design and Kelly Wearstler to bring to life their design vision, Gensler led a team of experts including engineers and specialty design consultants. This complex team of highly specialized but interrelated disciplines developed, coordinated, documented and executed the design and vision for the new Westfield Century City. Image © Irwin Miller/Gensler.

Of course, an open urban setting is very complex to manage but perhaps some consideration of the current trends for activation and reinvention of retail space would benefit Union Square. As a gateway city with a renowned entrepreneurial and innovative spirit, San Francisco will always be a destination of choice. Let’s continue the dialogue to improve Union Square. Let’s collaborate with city officials, landlords and the Union Square Business Improvement District to craft vibrancy, reinvent underutilized buildings, allow for more flexibility in zoning and address our safety issues. As SPUR’s Christine Johnson said, “We want Union Square to be of value to the city—not just chain stores, but a place.”

Barry Bourbon, AIA, LEED® AP, is a leader of Gensler’s global retail practice and a principal in the San Francisco office. With a constant eye on the latest tools and technologies that connect consumers and retailers, Barry inspires colleagues to stay focused on the rapidly evolving issues facing clients, and to design for the holistic experience of a brand. Never one to shy from a challenge, Barry is an expert problem solver who excels at leading multi-location, multi-disciplinary teams with the tightest schedules and budgets. Contact him at barry_bourbon@gensler.com.