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A Still Imperfect Union
Appraising the redesign of San Francisco's famous square.
By Clare Cooper Marcus

The fifth iteration of San Francisco's 140-year-old Union Square opened to the public a year and a half ago. This time, the 2.6-acre urban park was transformed from a place with considerable areas of green to a predominantly hard-surfaced "piazza," as its designers put it. Union Square now provides a good home for art shows and performances that require a stage and seating. At other times, however, the casual pedestrian may well wander in and out, unstimulated and unengaged.

Photo by Ed Caldwell

Redesign momentum began in 1995 when the city created the Union Square Improvement Association "to resurrect Union Square as a place of grace and elegance, as a reflection of the beautiful buildings around it, as a place of vitality and excitement and a stage for urban life." An international design competition was held in 1997, and from more than 300 entries, the grand prize went to F.M. Design (Rose Mendez, Michael Tunkey, Greg Fischer, and Elaine Chow) of Buffalo, New York, for "Union Square Park(ing)," a proposal likened to a Japanese origami design. But this proposal was deemed too conceptual and impractical because of cost and construction difficulties. And so a more traditional design, "All the Square is a Stage," another among the five finalists, was selected to be built. "It's nothing weird. It's symmetrical and dignified," says Jim Chappell, director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, a nonprofit public-policy think tank that cosponsored the competition.

The executed design is by April Philips, ASLA, who heads April Philips Design Works, Inc., in Sausalito, California, and Michael Fotheringham, ASLA, of M.D. Fotheringham Landscape Architects in San Francisco. They partnered for the competition, Philips says, and "chose an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary approach," designing "a place where people could watch a performance or become a performer in the daily life of the square." They wanted to de-emphasize the square's edges, with their steep, narrow entrances, and to make the square, in their words, "more inviting and more democratic."

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