J. K. Dineen, San Francisco Chronicle, July 24, 2022

As a former assistant district attorney and the head of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis, Marisa Rodriguez has little on her resume that would have made her a natural fit to oversee the Union Square Alliance, the business improvement district that handles the city’s center of shopping and tourism.

So when Rodriguez received a call last fall asking whether she would be interested in taking over for retiring Karin Flood, the organization’s longtime director, she was a little baffled.

“I was like, ‘What do tourism and luxury retail have to do with me? What does commercial real estate have to do with me?’” she recalled. “I have zero retail background and zero background in hotels or hospitality.”

Still, she was intrigued enough to agree to be interviewed. And when she got down to Union Square, she was thrown off by how desolate it looked, 18 months into the pandemic: store fronts boarded up, sidewalks empty, hotels still shuttered. “I was brokenhearted because it looked just so barren,” she said.

A Richmond District native whose nurse mom moonlighted as a hairdresser at a Union Square salon, Rodriguez started to think about what the district meant to her and to the city. She thought about the chambermaids and bellhops and dishwashers and retail clerks who rely on the tourism industry to make a living. She recalled all the special occasions she spent in Union Square — buying a prom dress, Christmas shopping, celebrating a graduation — and also the boring afternoons she spent there waiting for her mom to get off work.

“I’d spin around in the chairs and get yelled at,” she said.

She took the job.

Being the head of the Union Square Alliance is like being mayor of a 27-block city with 12,000 hotel rooms, 70,000 workers and virtually no residents. Its membership roster comprises the owners of approximately 650 buildings. Its tenants include some of the fanciest names in retail: Tiffany, Tory Burch, Bvlgari, Hermes, Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. While those luxury stores are out of reach for many city residents, about 40% of the city’s service workers of color have jobs in Union Square.

“When I came down here, Union Square was eerie in a way that I hadn’t seen in other parts of San Francisco, which was compelling to me,” Rodriguez said. “Union Square was hit harder than every other neighborhood because it doesn’t have residents. The reason I decided to take this work on was to dig in and find out: How do we as a travel destination, a visitor destination, survive the next big storm?”

Now, nine months later, Rodriguez is fully immersed in a world that is in some ways a microcosm of the city and in other ways the opposite of most of the city’s neighborhoods.

Union Square reflects the struggles San Francisco is grappling with — empty office buildings, persistent homelessness, lack of conventions — but also the potential for a resurgence as visitors and locals rediscover the city center’s galleries, theaters, restaurants, alleyways and historic hotels. But it lacks the residential foot traffic that kept other neighborhoods afloat during the lockdown.

The solution she came up with included both short-term and long-term plans. The immediate goal: lure locals back to Union Square. The alliance now hosts Saturday night dances in the square and is working on partnering with local music venues about putting on other concerts. Part of the greater “San Francisco in Bloom” programming, Union Square is getting a full program of events, including movies, a silent disco, arts and crafts, food trucks and outdoor fitness classes.

“We want our locals to come back to the Square — it’s for them,” she said. “I’ll do everything in my power to make that happen.”

For Rodriguez, part of bringing locals back is making it safe and clean. A month into her tenure a large group of mostly teenagers went on a huge theft spree, overpowering security guards and making off with millions of dollars’ worth in merchandise from stores like Louis Vuitton and Burberry in Union Square and Bloomingdale’s in the Westfield mall.

In reaction to the crime spree, the San Francisco Police Department set up a mobile command center in Union Square and most of the luxury stores have beefed up security.

But Rodriguez isn’t just sitting in her office trying to find the answers. On Wednesday, she worked a 13-hour day studying the neighborhood’s nuances.

In the afternoon she visited an art gallery, CK Contemporary, and then met with alliance staffers Lance Gorée and Stacy Jed about planning a booth for National Night Out, an annual community policing event. She met with Alex Bastian, the new president of the San Francisco Hotel Council, and Sebastien Pfeiffer, the general manager of the Beacon Grand hotel, the former Sir Francis Drake, which just reopened after a two-year closure. She stopped to hug Serena McKnight, a Union Square ambassador who spends her days directing tourists and keeping the plaza clean.

Rodriguez spent that evening with a cleaning crew — six power washers and two street sweepers — a job that “is not for the faint of heart.”

“Our power washers work overnight so the wet surfaces, their hoses and bulky equipment don’t create a hazard during the more populated daytime hours,” Rodriguez said. “The challenges that exist on our city streets become more apparent at night, and this team encounters it firsthand.”

In the long-term, Rodriguez would like to pump life into the neighborhood by converting underutilized office buildings into housing. The alliance has hired Ken Rich, former development liaison for Mayors Ed Lee and London Breed, to study what zoning changes and other incentives would be needed to make it easier for property owners to convert buildings into residential opportunities. Currently only retail is allowed on the first and second floors of buildings in Union Square.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he is open to crafting legislation to help facilitate housing conversions in the area. “Housing is a permitted use in Union Square, and the reality is the FAO Schwarzes of the world ain’t coming back,” he said.

Meanwhile, vacancies continue to plague the district. The lower blocks of Powell Street are riddled with empty storefronts after the closure of Uniqlo, H+M and the Gap. The first block of O’Farrell — formerly the home of Macy’s Men’s and Barneys — is dark except for a boba kiosk. The 200 block of Post Street has vacancies at 220, 240, 259, 272 and 278.

Julie Taylor, a prominent broker with Colliers International who handles much of the leasing around Union Square, said more zoning flexibility is needed. “The sooner the city allows market forces to fill space by removing zoning obstacles, the sooner we can bring the city to health, both Union Square and the greater downtown,” Taylor said. “We have all kinds of space that wants to become something.”

Still, there are reasons for optimism, she said. An Australian furniture company, Coco Republic, is opening its first U.S. outlet in the former Crate & Barrel space at 55 Stockton. French luxury fashion brand Chanel has purchased a building at 340 Post St. in Union Square for $63 million and will open a three-level store.

Taylor said that the recent efforts to tackle quality-of-life issues — crime, litter and drug dealing — have “given retailers a lot more confidence that San Francisco is going to make the changes needed.”

“The cable car lines are back to historic levels, people are carrying shopping bags, and you can hear foreign languages on every block,” she said.

Rodriguez said the amount of progress she has seen in her nine months on the job has been encouraging. The reopening of the Beacon Grand — the historic Starlite Room will reopen next year — was another big milestone. The hotel has gone from three to 100 employees in the past few months and will hire another 200.

Bastian, the new Hotel Council president, was in law school with Rodriguez and is also a veteran of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. He said the next year will be key.

“This is a pivotal moment for the city,” he said. “We sink or swim together.”