Powell Street Promenade Enlivens the ‘Heart of San Francisco’s Downtown’

Landscape designer Walter Hood gives a walking tour of the promenade after today's ribbon-cutting ceremony and press conference. Photos: Bryan Goebel

San Francisco cut the ribbon on an innovative public space “in the heart of downtown” today that will greatly improve the pedestrian realm in the Union Square shopping district. Hundreds of people spilled into the two-block Powell Street Promenade on Powell between Ellis and Geary for the official grand opening.

“Two-thirds of the millions of annual visitors make their way down here to Union Square and that’s why it produces 10 percent of our sales tax revenue,” said Mayor Ed Lee. “They love coming here, and why not link the historic cable car stop on Market Street and make the experience of getting up here and the rest of the city a wonderful experience.”

Lee lauded the spirit of cooperation on the project between the various city departments and the Union Square Business Improvement District. He called automobile company Audi a “great corporate citizen” for providing the $890,000 it took to construct the promenade, which became an immediate magnet for passersby.

“This unique public private non-profit partnership creates a safe, green, forward thinking and contemporary space for everyone to enjoy,” Lee said in his prepared remarks.

Landscape designer and architect Walter Hood designed the eight six-foot wide parklets, which have been hailed as the marquee project of the city’s Pavement to Parks program.

Audi said the promenade “was inspired by the same philosophy of design and innovation that defines our approach to car making.” The company’s logo was clearly on display at today’s press event and its symbol emblazoned on the solar towers. No official advertising is allowed in the promenade, however.

Both Lee and Supervisor David Chiu gushed with praise for Audi. Chiu, who is car-free and gets around on an electric bicycle, even encouraged the automobile company to donate some new cars to the city.

“We could not do this without the generosity of an amazing car company and I do hope, some day, in addition to seeing the Audi symbols here as part of this parklet, that we see more Audis traveling throughout San Francisco, so feel free to donate a couple to the city if you like,” Chiu said.

“I’m still jazzed about that car that I still have in my mind that appeared in the Iron Man movie. The Audi 8, he just comes roaring in. I said, I want one of those if I ever get that kind of money,” Lee told the crowd.

"The Promenade prioritizes the needs of pedestrians, transit users and cyclists by creating an exciting public space in Union Square," said David Nadelmen of the Union Square Business Improvement District (at podium).
A large crowd assembled in the promenade on the west side of Powell to watch the press conference.
Supervisor David Chiu speaks to the crowd.

The Space

Aluminum ribbons are one of the promenade’s main features. The aluminum was fabricated into benches and tables that allow people to sit or stand while enjoying a cup of coffee, checking email or socializing. For tourists, the space provides “a comfortable place to plan.”

“We’ve taken over the parking lanes to design wider sidewalks for people to walk and take a breather,” Hood explained before giving a walking tour of the promenade. “People will be able to stroll, as well as sit, and even lie down.”

The promenade itself is “built in connecting modular segments on an ADA accessible, slip resistant aluminum and wood grating bolted to the street.” The free WiFi is connected to the solar panels along with LED lighting, which gives the aluminum platforms “a glow from the grating.”

“This idea of movement, this idea of materials, of technology, of sustainability, we tried to wrap it all up into one simple gesture,” Hood said. “We basically want to illuminate the beautiful aspects of design within the public realm.”

City officials said the promenade should also help calm traffic. Powell, famous for its cable car line, was clogged with cars at many points during today’s press conference, including a few Audis that shuttled some of the company’s executives and staff to the ceremony.

David Nadelman of the Union Square Business Improvement District said the promenade is widely supported by merchants. It will be kept clean and maintained by the Union Square BID.

Powell Street has some of the busiest pedestrian volumes in the country, just behind Times Square. Some 100,000 people will typically travel through the area on foot on the weekends. The promenade may one day lead to the pedestrianization of those two blocks of Powell, which are scheduled for a cable car overhaul and repaving in 2014.

Hood demonstrates the free WiFi. An Audi passed by right as I snapped the shot.
"You can stroll, as well as sit, and even lie down," said Hood, demonstrating the different uses of the space.
With all the restaurants and eateries in the vicinity, Hood said people can use this table to enjoy a cappuccino, for example.
"We wanted to introduce a material that created one sculptural effect," Hood said of the aluminum rails.
  • Anonymous

    Great job Walter. Really nice.

  • Bosky

    I, for one, am very excited to see how this addition will transform Powell Street, and hope that studies are already underway to document public reaction and engagement.

  • J.W.

    Great.  Now the bums and the drug dealers can do their business on brand new, professionally designed aluminum tables and benches…

  • nbotkin

    Explored the promenade yesterday. It seems like such a natural extension of the sidewalk, as if it’s always been there. People knew just what to do with the space, step aside to make their phone call, sit on a bench, or admire a planting.  Can’t believe we used to cram so many people into such a narrow space while giving so much room to the few cars who could manage to find parking on those blocks!

  • BayAreaBum

    Looks nice, but having a space to lie down is a mistake. 

    Street furniture 101: Better to design the benches so they are comfortable to sit in, but not lay on or they will each be taken over by one individual

  • mr

    not sure why this is so important. Its a very touristy street  – most locals wont experience this.

  • we really should close all public spaces because of the off-chance that they may be used unpleasantly. Lets pave over golden gate park and turn it into condos or a walmart or something….heavens forbid a bum stroll into it.

  • Caulkingproinc

    Walter  great job and thanks for hiring my girl Beth I knew she would make me proud

  • Angry San Francisian

    Waste of our tax money! SF Gov should spend more money on School District, no more budget cut on teachers, no more cut on school buses and more!! We, as the SF residents, do not need these crap to JUST DECORATE our city!

  • The city didn’t pay for it. Read the article.

  • Johnrbradfield

    As a resident on the Powell block I find the design lacking life.  It feels dead and blah.  I am happy to see a wider walking path.

  • Momchil Kyurkchiev

    also, we, SF residents, love these projects!

  • Anonymous

    I love the parklet idea, but the aluminum is cold looking, and why on Earth would anyone design street furniture to encourage laying on them? If they want to attract derelics just cone off a few parking spaces and throw some old mattresses down.

  • KG

    Extremely ugly. Would some greenery have hurt? The railing and abundance of glaring metal looks completely out of place on this street. 

  • Michael

    I love the idea but feel they should have hired a Landscape Architect. The designer seems quite adept at architectural elements but doesn’t really create a sense of place. 

  • a parklet lover

    There are severe material issues with this design that make me wonder how long it will be before the city gets sued. With all due respect to the designer, the railings and choice of 6061 aluminum is flimsy and dangerous. EVERYTHING BENDS under very little weight, including the railings out into the street. Tourist family comes into town, leans against a railing and is surprising to see they bend into the street. Now, that’s bad enough, but the failure point of aluminum is such that it will break suddenly. Why wasn’t this reinforced, why wasn’t a stronger aluminum used? I hate to say it, but I’m afraid the very beauty of this project as a designer’s dream with very little engineering is going to be jeopardized by the incredible oversights of this project. Not to mention parklets themselves once somebody gets hurt.

    Additionally. the solar tower bases are huge tripping hazards. In the group I was with, I watched somebody get a bloody toe from the excessively long base — not to mention the tower has zero triangulation and shakes flimsily along the transverse elevation of the hill.

    The failure to choose proper materials also manifests in the number of railings and tables that are bent along the top–the project is taking on a sloppy shoddy feel after just a week or two. How did 900000 get spent on this thing, and these oversights were allowed to make it through.

    This is all without any comments as to the design, which seems rather lacking and provides no emotional feel. I do like the fact that it breaks from the monotonous wooden deck feel of so many of these parklets, but the execution is poor and the installation gives me no sense or gestalt.

    The city must address the safety concerns lest the entire program be put in jeopardy. This would be a truely sad outcome to the work of so many on these ‘temporary’ installations. Let’s make good choices in the future as designers!

  • James Figone

    I had a look at it this weekend.  The project is a failure from a number of perspectives:
    1.  It does not meet its functional requirements.  It provides very little seating and does nothing to alleviate pedestrian crowding on Powell.2.  It is not in keeping with its setting.  The design, perhaps compromised at the outset by its corporate sponsor, is out of place given the historical significance of the surroundings.  The material choices were made to reflect  those found in an Audi car which is not a good thematic choice for a structure such as this.3.  It makes a mockery of the parklet concept.  By accepting nearly $1m from a car company, the Union Square BID did the parklet movement a disservice.  Any of the parklet designs we have seen which use simple, cost effective, yet durable materials would have been much better and far less costly than this design.  It is a shame that San Francisco’s most innovative street intervention has been manifest in this way on Powell Street where millions will see it.

  • Ivanogre

     And even lie down? It’s really wonderful of them to provide a little siesta spot for the panhandlers when they’ve grown weary of hassling people for their hard-earned money. Should  Union Square BID be providing pillows and blankets for them a well? I mean, if we’re going to put out the Welcome mat for the derelicts we should at leasst see to it that they’re comfortable!  Real smart move Hood, real smart…

  • keenplanner

    I find the project very disappointing. It feels very ‘vehicular’, like a car trailer or a prop from a trade show, or a highway guard rail.  It doesn’t feel grounded to its site.  It fails to relate to anything at all in its context, as if it were trying to draw our attention to itself rather than the colorful eclectic style of the crowded, human-scaled street. 
    A wider sidewalk, interesting pavement treatments, large trees, and useful street furniture would be much more effective than this cold “parklet”.  The project needs a brilliant landscape designer, and soon. I hope it’s an interim solution and that we can return it to Audi when we come up with a better design for Powell Street, hopefully one without cars (or guard rails) at all.

  • Leahcim

    Walter Hood is a Landscape Architect