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Inside Downtown San Francisco’s Plan to Reinvent Itself

The city’s pre-pandemic office culture may never return. A new plan considers how its half-empty financial district could adapt. 

By activating its streets and restricting vehicle access, the Downtown San Francisco Partnership hopes to bring more people back downtown.

By activating its streets and restricting vehicle access, the Downtown San Francisco Partnership hopes to bring more people back downtown.

Credit: SITELAB urban studio

For a city known for its green space, San Francisco’s downtown is mostly gray. In the 43 blocks that are commonly considered the core business district, more than a third of the space is taken up by car-filled streets, and none by public parks or pedestrian-only roads. Three-quarters of the built square footage is offices.

But there are also 34 privately owned open public spaces — called POPOs, for short — hidden within that radius, along with many examples of historic architecture, 15 alleyways, about 300 units of housing and, according to planners, a lot of potential.

Unlocking that potential is the goal behind San Francisco’s Public Realm Action Plan, a new 143-page report commissioned by the Downtown San Francisco Partnership, a community benefits district that has jurisdiction over the area composed of the financial district, Jackson Square, and part of the SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood.