A More Perfect Union?
After five years, LAM
returns to Union Square to ask: Is this a “people space” for downtown San
By Morris Newman
Photo by Peg Skorpinski
Something remarkable is taking place this cold February
afternoon in Union Square, the San Francisco plaza located at the center of a
busy retail, hotel, and theater district. Following hours of rain, the sun has
reemerged, and long rays of afternoon light are beginning to dry the puddles on
the granite pavement of the square. Within a few minutes, the square fills up
with hundreds of people. Where did they all come from? It’s not hard to
understand why they are here, however: A moment of sunbathing is delectable
during a soggy Bay Area winter, when you can almost feel each photon of
sunlight as it lands on your skin.
The night of the same day, however, the square looks very
different. As earlier, the retail district is alive with people. With signature
stores open late for the weekend crowds, the Powell Street sidewalk, which runs
along the western edge of the park, is three or four people deep. Bands are
playing on the corner. Union Square itself, however, is nearly empty, except
for a dozen or so people who are quickly cutting across en route to Powell.
Amid one of the most active scenes of nightlife in the city, the park is nearly
These two very different responses to Union Square hint at
what is working, and what is not, as the fifth anniversary of the square, one
of San Francisco’s most prominent open spaces, approaches.
Controversy continues to swirl around the scheme, designed
by the competition-winning team of Michael Fotheringham, ASLA, principal of M.
D. Fotheringham Landscape Architects in San Francisco, and April Philips, ASLA,
head of April Philips Design Works Inc. in Sausalito. Their design replaces a
sloping park, planted with trees and hedges. The new scheme has terraces,
mostly hardscaped, that cascade downhill toward Geary Street on the south. The
dominant feature of the new design is a 235-foot-long “piazza” in the center.
The redesigned square is notable for its stark simplicity, an emphasis on
expensive materials (gray and black granite, green marble, and stainless
steel), limited planting, and very limited shade cover.
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