San Francisco's Beleaguered Union Square Battles to Survive

By James Wilson August 30, 2023

As once-thriving shopping and tourist hub, Union Square, witnesses a dilution, San Francisco's fight against economic downturn continues.

"A ghost town" – that's how downtown San Francisco's Union Square district appears now. The pandemic has left once vibrant streets congested with vacant shops displaying "Retail for Lease" signs.

Union Square, once the city's heartbeat with bustling shopping malls and tourists, is bearing the brunt of COVID-19's impact on local businesses. Major chains like CB2, Anthropologie, and Nordstrom have bid goodbye according to data by market research firm Coresight. This landmark area has seen nearly 40 retail stores shut since 2020.

San Francisco’s shopping mall behemoth, Westfield, made the shocking decision to relinquish control of its Centre Mall in June. The move was the result of “challenging operating conditions,” reflecting the steadily deteriorating economic situation downtown. Many leave citing safety concerns for customers and employees, hindering economic recovery, according to Westfield's spokesperson.

The city's economic predicament is a complex issue. A significant portion of San Francisco's working population has yet to return to downtown offices, resulting in reduced foot traffic. Disconcertingly, over the past two years, San Francisco County has seen its population shrink by more than 60,000.

In addition, the city's growing unhoused population is concentrated in the downtown area. California harbors nearly 30% of America's homeless, as per a University of California survey. With San Francisco's median home price now at a staggering $1.32 million, living in the city has become increasingly unaffordable.

Pandemic-induced decreases in tourism also contribute to the economic slowdown. Lori Lincoln, VP at San Francisco’s official destination marketing organization, suggested international tourist numbers and spending wouldn't match 2019 levels until 2024. Asian tourists have traditionally been pivotal to the local economy, with China being the largest overseas source of tourist spending. Yet, China’s stringent COVID-19 measures have severely stifled travel to San Francisco.

Acknowledging the pressing economic challenges, San Francisco Mayor London Breed expresses hope in the city's potential to bounce back. In an effort to reinvigorate downtown, the Mayor's initiatives include recruiting AI companies, increasing police presence, and repurposing some commercial premises into residential properties. These steps might even see the demolishing of derelict venues such as the San Francisco Centre.

Despite the closures, the city appears to be starting on its long road to recovery, with investment rolling in. Chicago-based hotel investor Oxford Capital Group has voiced confidence in San Francisco's resilience, announcing a multi-million-dollar investment in downtown properties. Ikea, the Swedish giant, defied the prevailing trend by opening a new three-level outlet in Union Square.

With such green shoots of recovery sprouting amidst the challenges, San Francisco holds onto the hope of better days ahead. A resilient city, it continues to fight against the odds, aiming to be vibrant and bustling once more.