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.