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Downtown San Francisco’s revival plan wants greater than dwell music and lightweight projections

If you want a handy guide to the small-scale interventions that are in vogue these days for urban America — from parklets to pop-ups to cultural programming — a newly released “action plan” for downtown San Francisco is a valuable place to start.

If you also want a document that offers a realistic blueprint for bringing the city’s Financial District back to life, keep looking.

That’s the challenge in trying to gauge the merits of the often-inventive Public Realm Action Plan released this week by Downtown SF, a business nonprofit that provides services to 43 blocks stretching from Jackson Square south past Market Street almost to the Embarcadero.

It’s a smart assessment of how streets and outdoor spaces in the tower-studded terrain could evolve in coming years. It also concedes that, 28 months after we were all told to go home and shelter in place to ward off the coronavirus, barely half of the district’s workforce has returned to their offices.

A pedestrian walks past a building for lease inside a sunken public plaza surrounding One Bush Street at the corner of Market and Sutter streets in San Francisco.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

And that’s the problem: what frames negative perceptions of the Financial District right now is empty storefronts and mostly vacant high-rises, not the lack of shady trees or lunchtime concerts.

To their credit, the people behind the plan acknowledge that their vision to activate dormant sidewalks is just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

“This is not going to solve all the issues downtown; we know that,” said Claude Imbault, deputy director of the nonprofit. “This is a tool to start the conversation.”

The plan draws heavily on what’s known in planning circles as tactical urbanism, where the aim is to jump-start an area’s potential with small enticements rather than wait for large-scale investments. The idea is that plenty of people working and living nearby are eager to explore the civic landscape, if they have a reason to do so.

A pedestrian walks past a staircase leading to a sunken public plaza surrounding One Bush Street at the corner of Market and Sutter streets in San Francisco.

A pedestrian walks past a staircase leading to a sunken public plaza surrounding One Bush Street at the corner of Market and Sutter streets in San Francisco.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Of the six areas targeted by Downtown SF as potential spots to focus on short-term, the so-called Market Oasis gives a taste of what upgrades are envisioned — and the challenge of pulling some of them off.

The oasis would transform the north side of Market between Sansome and Front streets, a concentrated dose of what sets the Financial District apart from other neighborhoods. Ignore the vacant storefronts, look up instead, and the 29-story Shell Building thrusts skyward with 1920s aplomb directly across from One Bush St., 20 stories of bespoke midcentury modern.

For history buffs there’s the Mechanics Monument, a muscle-bound iron celebration of labor by sculptor Douglas Tilden from 1901. The shell of a 1910 banking temple holds one of the district’s most prominent privately owned public spaces, which are required by the city in new commercial development projects.

The action plan would enliven the scene via “an improved experience of significant public spaces” — one that would include colorful tables and chairs, planters filled with flowers and trees, light projections at night and lunchtime concerts or other events throughout the week.

As for the zone’s prominent but empty retail spaces, including a circular pavilion rising from the sunken plaza at One Bush, it’s suggested that a “buzzy lunch spot” could go into one, while “a collection of short-term pop-ups” could fill another. The pavilion is envisioned as holding “a highly visible downtown destination.”

An empty walkway leads through a sunken public plaza surrounding One Bush Street at the corner of Market and Sutter streets in San Francisco.

An empty walkway leads through a sunken public plaza surrounding One Bush Street at the corner of Market and Sutter streets in San Francisco.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

But the plan is vague on how this happens, much less spell out where the money might come from to jazz things up. The goal instead is to take the plan and its pilot projects — starting with Leidesdorff Street, a short alley that ends at the Transamerica Pyramid — to gauge what interest there might be from building owners and public agencies.

Even if workers were clocking in upstairs at pre-pandemic numbers, there’s no guarantee that “Market Oasis” would magically blossom. The plan envisions a string of buoyant spaces within two short blocks, including the sunken moat-like plaza and the city-owned Mechanics Plaza on the east side of Battery Street, where Tilden’s sculpture resides. There are only so many workers to go around — you can imagine one or two spaces coming alive, but not all of them at once, on an ongoing basis.

So, what happens when the novelty fades? The city’s Public Works department freshened up Mechanics Plaza back in 2014, replacing tattered wooden benches with bright metal street furniture while adding stands for people to recharge cell phones or fill their water bottles. The vitality ebbed within a few years. When I stopped by Monday, a grand total of one person was eating lunch on a granite block next to an empty planter.

The plan’s creators acknowledge that while snappy designs and short-term pop-ups can generate buzz, they aren’t enough.

People eat lunch at the foot of a statue inside Mechanics Plaza along Market Street in San Francisco.

People eat lunch at the foot of a statue inside Mechanics Plaza along Market Street in San Francisco.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

“Whatever we do has to be a campaign,” said Laura Crescimano, whose Sitelab Urban Studio crafted the plan for Downtown SF with John Bela and Fehr & Peers. “These things happen in layers. People want to go to ‘a thing’ that’s a series of things.”

Ultimately, the value of the “action plan” might be as a tool kit to draw on, whether in the Financial District or other commercial districts.

“I appreciate the thoughtful approach they’ve taken … it’s a wonderful resource,” said Kate Sofis, director of the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Her office has the task at City Hall of finding ways to revive the larger downtown scene. “Some of the things they want to do are exactly the things we want to do.”

San Francisco’s Financial District won’t be returned to its bustling heyday by a more humane concept of public space. But small moves can add up — and with luck, some of the ideas offered by Downtown SF will help to move things along.

John King is The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. Email: jking@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @johnkingsfchron

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