Stockton Street in Union Square Becomes a Plaza for the Holidays

Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Two blocks of Stockton Street in the bustling Union Square shopping district are being converted into a pedestrian plaza for the holidays. The roadway has been occupied by Central Subway construction machinery for a couple of years now, but now crews are taking a break and covering up the site with turf for what’s been dubbed Winter Walk SF, “an inviting open plaza in the heart of Union Square” that will run until the new year.

The two blocks “will be open for winter merriment with a nightly light art show projected on the Macy’s Men’s Building featuring Jack Frost’s adventures as he spreads festive icicles throughout San Francisco,” states the Union Square Business Improvement District on its website. “Expect caroling, demos and other wintery surprises.”

The pedestrianization project should boost the bottom line for Union Square merchants during the big holiday shopping season. When Stockton was closed to cars in 2011, and remained open to buses, taxis, and people walking and biking, they said they saw a jump in business. However, ever since construction ramped up with cranes, and pedestrians have been corralled into a narrow passage, some merchants have complained that they’ve lost business.

Union Square’s throngs of shoppers could certainly use more pedestrian space, and the Stockton plaza project could leave many wondering why cars should ever return to Stockton in the long run. Stockton and Powell Streets seem like good candidates for transit malls — streets populated solely by people, bikes, buses, and cable cars. SFMTA planners say they plan to look at ways to reconfigure the car traffic flow around Union Square after subway construction ends. In the meantime, it seems that many lost drivers apparently end up on Powell instead of on intended detours on streets like Mason.

Adding space for people and businesses on Stockton, rather than giving space back to cars, seems to be a growing trend during peak holiday shopping seasons. On the Chinatown segment of Stockton, car parking has been temporarily replaced with space for merchant stands and pedestrians during the last two Lunar New Year seasons.

A rendering of the finished plaza, via the Union Square BID.
  • Steve

    Glad to hear this. I’ve always thought that the area around union square should be closed off to cars (at least private cars) permanently. Seriously, who is crazy enough to drive there? All great European cities have successful pedestrian plazas and it’s something sorely lacking here.

  • GarySFBCN

    While I agree with having more pedestrian plazas, the comparison with European cities falls short because of our lack of decent public transportation. Pedestrians have to get to the plazas.

    I spend a lot of time in Europe, especially Barcelona, and in the midst of their worst financial crisis, their public transportation is so much better than ours in every way measurable.

    Ditto for bicycle infrastructure. But many among us cannot ride bicycles and that is why we need a robust and safe public transportation system.

  • As Steve says below, the city should also pedestrianize Powell between Geary and Market (allowing cable cars, of course), and Geary, O’Farrell and Ellis between Stockton and Powell (still allowing buses and bikes). Then we would be approaching European pedestrianization levels that exist not just during holidays, but all year around.

    This would actually be a great kindness to drivers. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas they are far, far, far better off parking in the monster parking garage between Bush and Sutter and then walking than driving anywhere near Union Square. (Or park at the 5th and Mission garage. Or take a taxi. Or bike. Or take BART/Muni. Or parachute from a plane. Anything.)

  • murphstahoe

    One very good way to get decent public transportation to a plaza is to … close off the street leading to the plaza to private cars. QED

  • GarySFBCN

    Maybe. But closing the street isn’t going to give us clean and well maintained busses, it isn’t going to solve the problem of so many busses being crammed with people, and it isn’t going to make MUNI management more accountable.

  • jonobate

    That’s ridiculous. As things currently exist there is no reason for anyone driving to the Union Square area to drive on the last block of Powell, or the last block of Stockon. They’d be much better off heading to one of the huge, underused garages a couple of blocks away, where parking is easier.

    So improving public transit is not required before pedestrianization; but demanding that public transit improves before we can improve the pedestrian environment is a sure way not to get anything done.

  • GarySFBCN

    Who is “demanding” anything? And I believe the entire area should free of private cars, not just these two blocks.

    But thinking that somehow a better transit system is going to evolve because of these pedestrian plazas is ridiculous.

  • vcs

    > Seriously, who is crazy enough to drive there?

    People going into the parking garage underneath? Totally crazy theory, I know.

    Also, Jack Frost better keep his festive icicle to himself.

  • maaaty

    Now how am I supposed to park my Ferraris in front of the Ferrari store???

  • MorganDriver

    “underused garages” ???
    I would never drive close to Union Square but have been turned away from one of those “underused” garages more than once.

  • jonobate

    Sure, but you’ll have a better success rate at the garages than trying to find street parking, and SFpark data backs this up.

  • Justin

    Wow sure looks like a thriller with potential, it fits perfectly in a dense compact downtown environment like Stockton St and the whole shopping area though too bad it won’t be a permanent thing, would be nice though if it was

  • Festive holiday motorists congestion is a tradition! Cancel Christmas.

  • Mario Tanev

    Sometimes, that’s how things start. Humans are risk averse. They don’t see opportunities until they try them. Let’s hope both the business owners and the people will demand this to become permanent (not necessarily just in this area, Powell St, Grant St are also good options).

  • Mario Tanev

    I believe in the ancient chicken and egg question. The answer really is evolution. Neither would exist without the other. There is a feedback loop that leads to a final product.

    Likewise here, creating an area that incentivizes use of transit, also incentivizes pressure on transit to improve. That can be a virtuous cycle.

  • hailfromsf

    Crazy? What was crazy about it? Stockton was a major road connecting North Beach & Chinatown to 4th St and the freeways.

  • I haven’t driven since I moved to SF. In fact one of the main reasons I moved here was because I hate driving and wanted to get rid of my car and live in a walkable & transit-friendly city. The N Judah stops right outside of my apartment, and when it isn’t having one of the frequent meltdowns, it gets me downtown in about 10-15 minutes.

  • lightingout

    I walked by this today. It’s astroturf, not sod. Proponents of Prop H should probably avoid Union Square for the holidays.

  • thielges

    This sounds like the old “make Muni perfect against some undefined standard first before doing anything to encourage active transport” argument. That’s neither practical nor politically feasible in the current environment so it boils down to “never make improvements for active transport”.

  • This looks awesome. I hope it gives people some big, bold ideas about how we should _really_ be using our public right-of-way.

  • GarySFBCN

    That’s what you got from reading the entire comment string? Because that is not at all what I wrote.

    Regardless, there are very well defined and well known standards for a successful public transit system.

    I never wrote that we shouldn’t have these plazas or that changes to MUNI needed to happen first.

  • octoberstar

    What does this have to do with Prop H? Completely different context. This is not a historically naturalistic setting being replaced with artifical turf. This is historically a public street — the alternative is pavement, not real grass.

  • Steve

    How do we hijack Jack Frost’s festive authority to try out these kind of temporary experiments all over the city?

  • hp2ena

    It would be good if this were permanent. On the condition that they figure out how to keep the 30 and 45 running through as well.

  • murphstahoe

    Regardless, there are very well defined and well known standards for a successful public transit system.

    Link please.

  • sfwest101

    Ferraris Store has been gone Duh!

  • paulc1978

    I don’t think you have to make muni perfect just hold it somewhat accountable for actually collecting fares. I thought I read something a few years back that muni collects something like 25-30% of fares. Set out to make that 50% and then 60% and then a final goal of 80% or whatever the number is. It’s not that difficult to have objective measurements on what need to happen.

  • coolbabybookworm

    It’s hard to know where to start if you make up numbers, or maybe you’re confused between fare box recovery rates versus fare evasion rates. Fare evasion is less than 10%, or collection is <90%, already beating your distant goal for MUNI

  • paulc1978

    It sucks to forget a number and just as bad when a link no longer works.

    I was able to find a link that fare-box recovery rates are 25%. Perhaps start there and improve?

  • 94103er

    Sure, but ‘farebox-recovery rates’ are always kind of bogus measurements because it implies other modes of transit don’t cost anything or are revenue-neutral or whatever. Hint: Car travel has nowhere near a high ‘farebox-recovery rate’

  • coolbabybookworm

    Link is fixed, but it doesn’t really matter either way since the problem is a confusion between fare box recovery rate (how much transit riders cover operational expenses) and fare evasion rate (how many people ride transit without paying). The evasion rate is under 10% and that appears to be what you were originally concerned with.

    here’s another article about fare evasion dropping:

  • paulc1978

    Even so every 1% decrease in fare evasion leads to approximately $2 million extra in revenue for muni. That’s a lot of cleaning supplies and maintenance for the muni buses which is what Gary SFBCNs comment was about.

  • coolbabybookworm

    Is fare evasion the hill to die on? Over 95% is great and far better than your original goal of 80%. It’s especially good considering all door boarding enables much faster service and efficient loading/unloading. There are much bigger transportation problems than fare collection and much better ways of raising funds. Sunday meters anyone? Congestion pricing?

  • paulc1978

    Perhaps get over the fact that my data wasn’t correct the first time through because it was from memory years ago. It doesn’t change anything. Someone commented that they would like a clean and maintained fleet. A good way to get money to do that is to get the money that is there.

    That is all, nothing more, nothing less. There’s no hill to die on because I’m not fighting a battle with you.

  • coolbabybookworm

    The issue wasnt with the number so much as confusing fare box recover with fare evasion. A few extra million isn’t going to change anything in this city, it can barely buy a house.

  • murphstahoe

    There is common, and understandable oversight in your theory.

    When I ride MUNI, I always pay. I do so because that’s what I do, I’m honest, I have the funds, I want to pay my share, it supports transit, etc… The cost to collect my fare is near zero on the margin.

    Most MUNI riders have a pass. They always pay because they pay for all their rides in one shot.

    Most of the rest of the riders pay because they are supposed to.

    Now we’ve covered the vast majority of riders. We’ve now gotten down to a very small number of people who will opportunistically fare evade and a small number of those who try very hard to fare evade. The cost to collect the fares of these groups is very high. It requires infrastructure, fare inspectors, courts, police. And really it requires front door boarding only – which is expensive to the other riders in terms of their time.

    If it costs you $3 Million to retrieve $2 Million all you’ve done is padded the bueracracy.

  • paulc1978

    I agree with your hypothesis to a point. I’m pulling the numbers from a link I shared that stated they would get another $2 million for each percent increase. There is certainly a law of diminishing returns on that. The study also did not take into consideration those that pay some but aren’t paying their entire fare. They were not considered far evaders.

    Muni has such a huge debt burden that I would think they would want to get any money possible. The most logical thing to me would be to go after the money that is already there rather than finding new revenue streams or cutting service.

    Anyway, the point is moot.

  • YES THIS IS WHAT POWELL STREET SHOULD BE LIKE BETWEEN GARY AND MARKET…. Just let the cable cars and human traffic only…

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