City making Union Square more inviting for visitors, plans to court new types of businesses

San Francisco leaders say they're working hard to make Union Square a welcoming place for visitors. It's all part of a comprehensive plan to make the entire area inviting going into the holiday season.

This time last year San Francisco was dealing with a surge in retail crime, this year city leaders say they're working hard to made sure that visitors have a great experience from the moment they arrive.

San Francisco's Union Square is bustling with pre-holiday activity. Now city leaders are implementing a post-pandemic multi-step program to help the area recover; focusing on first impressions.

"Clean and safe," said Marisa Rodriguez from the Union Square Alliance. "You do not pass go without clean and safe."

That commitment to a clean and safe experience for visitors extends from Union Square to the Powell Street BART Station. The station has just wrapped up a major renovation.

Hallidie Plaza is also undergoing a holiday makeover, which will feature shopping and dining options. Mayor London Breed said the idea is to have a seamless good experience as visitors arrive and shop in the city. "We're activating so many of these spaces," said Mayor Breed. "We have ambassadors. We have our police officers. We have eyes and ears on the streets. We have our street cleaners. I mean, this downtown looks really magnificent."

It was Thanksgiving time last year when brazen thieves targeted businesses around Union Square.

Police Chief Bill Scott said multiple factors had to come together to address crime in the area; including increased security in shops, a higher police presence around Union Square and that his officers have taken some of the most prolific thieves off the streets. "We are part of the CHP's organized retail theft task force; and we've got some prolific people in custody, and I believe that has made an impact," said Chief Scott. "Plus our deployment has been consistently higher, much higher than it was a year ago."

Despite the hustle and bustle, there are still more than 100 empty storefronts in Union Square, that's about 15% of the retail storefronts in the area. Rodriguez said the plan for recovery has been eight months in the making. She said the plan is to focus on critical areas over the next three to five years. She said they are looking to not only recover, but pivot to ensure a successful recovery for the long term. The Union Square Alliance just released their strategic recovery plan. 

There are plans to update zoning laws to accommodate a variety of business uses and activities. That also means changing land zoning use and policies to adapt to the modern world. The business district is looking to court small businesses as the luxury market is said to be doing very well. 

"It is night and day out here. There are no windows boarded up. People are out and about. The energy is palpable," Rodriguez said. Still foot traffic is down from pre-pandemic times. 

But for now, visitors say so far the city is making a good impression. "It looks really good. We walked by there were a couple cops looking out and it was like a good safe experience on the BART and coming off," said Leilani Chatman.

"It seems very clean, which is something, you know why. Yeah, very clear walkways, clear walking paths and it's just really nice," said Camille Pratt-Chatman.

City leaders said they're rethinking how to use the space around Union Square, that means spaces that used to be retail like the former H&M, are now being used as pop-up spaces for fun activities. Fans of the hit ‘90s TV show will appreciate that the space is now hosting ’The Friends Experience'.

KTVU's Brooks Jarosz contributed to this report.