SF’s Bold New Plan to Clear UN Plaza Drug Markets

by on August 14, 2023

Photo shows Paris skateboard park as model for SF
Paris skateboard park is model for SF

City Will Transform UN Plaza, Fulton Mall

San Francisco is finally taking the dramatic action necessary to clear open air drug markets and illegal vending in UN Plaza: Rec and Park will transform the long troubled plaza into a 13,000-15,000 square foot street skating area. The plan is inspired by similar activations in Paris, Madrid, and Philadelphia. There will also be exercise equipment, chess, ping pong, and other fun activities for non-skaters.

The move is a game-changer. A game-changer not only for UN Plaza and the Fulton Mall but potentially also for Mid-Market and Civic Center. San Francisco cannot revive the latter two areas when hundreds of dealers/users occupy the area’s chief Civic Center transit hub—this plan offers the physical changes to UN Plaza long needed for success.

An Essential Strategy

Here’s what I wrote on February 27, 2023 (“San Francisco Must Close UN Plaza”):

San Francisco must temporarily close UN Plaza. The drug dealers and illegal vendors in UN Plaza are completely out of control. The entire plaza would be fenced off with the exception of an opening on Hyde to access the Civic Center transit entrance.The  Farmers Market would temporarily relocate to the nearby Fulton Mall.

Does this sound drastic? It is what the circumstances demand. Closing UN Plaza is essential if San Francisco is going to get its Civic Center, Mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods back on track. A temporary closure gives time for stakeholders to develop a workable plan for a space that has not met its potential for decades.

The skatepark plan emerged from extensive discussions that led to the SF Planning Department’s Civic Center Public Realm Plan. The idea is to build on Rec and Park’s transforming Civic Center Park from a haven for drug activities into a thriving space for kids with a popular café.

Rec and Park’s strategy is simple: bring fun activities into troubled spaces in order to crowd out the negative.

UN Plaza has long suffered from poor design. It’s excessive unstructured space invites illegal activities. When ACT-Strand opened across the street some of us pushed for the city to build bleachers in the plaza for outdoor shows; unfortunately, no money was available. The lack of funds to revive UN Plaza has long been an obstacle.

Fulton Plaza

It never made sense that the city uses an area between UN Plaza and Civic Center Park for truck parking. This path adjacent to the Asian Art Museum and Main Library should be filled with positive public activities.

Rec and Park’s plan for UN Plaza addresses this by shifting the Heart of the City Farmers Market and Gift Gallery one block up to Fulton Plaza. The Markets will keep the existing vendor stalls and parking spots. This shift will hopefully stop the drug activities in the Fulton Plaza, a product—as with UN Plaza—of too much unstructured space.

Unfortunately, some vendors and their supporters have chosen to misrepresent and even outright lie about the Market’s future. An “Action Alert” is headlined “Civic Center Farmers Market in Jeopardy” despite that claim being completely false.

Is there a hidden, powerful, deep state interest pushing for the demise of the popular Heart of the City Farmers Market? Of course not. Everyone wants the Market to thrive. These false attacks should stop.

Jim Haas, a longtime advocate for Civic Center’s revitalization, cheered Rec and Park’s plans: “Moving the Farmers Market to Fulton Street and activating UN Plaza are great ideas. I’m a regular customer of the market and this will prove a better location.”

Tim Hallman, Director of Communications & Business Development for the Asian Art Museum, also backs the plan. “”The Asian Art Museum welcomes creative approaches to activate healthy and positive forms of public engagement in the neighborhood. The Farmer’s Market will always be a convenient way for people from across the community to find nourishment for body and mind, and with the museum’s expanded facility — including a new exhibition pavilion, updated galleries, new cafe, and investment in more programming — the menu of ways to connect with culture and each other continues to grow.”

It’s incumbent on the city to build on the market’s positive impact in Fulton Mall so the area is inviting seven days a week. But Rec and Park is laying the necessary foundation for consistent improvement of the space.

Where Will Drug Market Go?

Rec and Parks plan still requires police to prevent drug activities in UN Plaza from resurfacing in evenings. Recent photos showed roughly 200 drug dealers and users on the McAllister border of UN Plaza. The UN Plaza drug scene coexists with the huge 7th and Market and Pelosi Federal Building drug markets (the latter so dangerous that a federal agency urged its workers to stay home).

For the UN Plaza strategy to really work, the nearby areas across the street must also remain clear. I have to believe that the SFPD, Sheriff, CHP and Federal Protective Services are aware of this. If they allow these adjacent drug markets to continue while protecting the plaza, few will deem the strategy a success.

San Francisco did not have huge open air drug markets and illegal vending in Mid-Market, Tenderloin or Mission before COVID. Once displaced from these areas the cartel and recently arrived drug tourists will likely return to their pre-San Francisco spaces. Or other areas offering the easy drug access no longer found in San Francisco.

We don’t ask where the Civic Center Park drug market went—we’re just glad its gone. Same will prove true when UN Plaza’s longtime drug market is closed.

Crackdowns on drug markets work. But they often require physical changes, like Rec and Park is proposing, as well.

I suspect many view the UN Plaza plan like Katherine Vaughn, a longtime Tenderloin resident. Vaughn told me, “I did not know there was going to be a skateboard park at UN Plaza. But it it takes drug dealers out of the area I’m all for it.”

There is a public informational meeting about Rec and Park’s plans today at 11:30am at 1128 Market St.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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