SF Uses Events, Construction Projects to Clear Streets Ahead of Pacific Rim Economic Summit, Other Gatherings

Three colorful carnival attractions — a Ferris wheel, a wavy slide and a tea cup ride — are being set up on a street in San Francisco's Civic Center neighborhood. Several trucks are parked nearby.

Madison Alvarado//San Francisco Public Press

Mayor London Breed’s “Roadmap to San Francisco’s Future” plan to clean up the city includes activating public areas with new events, such as a family-friendly carnival last weekend that included games, a Ferris wheel and other rides, seen here as workers set it up on Aug. 23.

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu went before a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week to try to overturn a federal court order that makes it very difficult for the city to permanently remove homeless encampments.

The court has not ruled on the appeal. Meanwhile, the city is pursuing other strategies to reduce visible homelessness and drug use in several locations ahead of a fall filled with high-profile events, including the 30th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting, which will put San Francisco in a global spotlight.

The city will also host Salesforce’s Dreamforce in and around the Moscone Center Sept. 11-13 and Fleet Week, with official events along the Embarcadero and at Fisherman’s Wharf, Oct. 2-10.

In the Civic Center neighborhood, San Francisco is employing a variety of strategies — moving a farmers market, adding a city-sponsored carnival and accelerating construction in a prominent public plaza — to allow it to clean up and hold a perimeter on areas that could be in many camera shots this fall.

The APEC summit, a Nov. 12-18 gathering for the heads of 21 Pacific Rim economies, could offer city leaders a chance to counter the prevalent “doom loop” media narrative. But depending on where attention is drawn during the event, news coverage could also reinforce the idea that the city is failing on an epic world stage.   

Early this year, Mayor London Breed declared her intentions for cleaning up the city’s image in “Roadmap to San Francisco’s Future.” Her office posted a status update this month that called out areas near City Hall where the city has “launched efforts to enliven public spaces and plazas, including the family-friendly Civic Center Carnival, a new skate park to be installed in UN Plaza” — all part of a strategy to “enhance public spaces to showcase Downtown.”

The update noted the APEC gathering as a progress point in the city’s strategy to “tell our story through proactive marketing to emphasize our strengths and reclaim our brand.”

Representatives of countries representing 40% of the global population and 50% of world trade will converge in San Francisco for the meetings, according to the conference website.  Heads of state as well as 30,000 governmental and business delegates, are expected to attend sessions at the Moscone Center and other locations across the city.  

Some of the most visible signs of the city’s failure to address extreme poverty and addiction persist in UN Plaza, the Civic Center and the Tenderloin neighborhood. The plaza holds the city’s largest open air drug market, with numerous tent encampments scattered nearby. 

Politico reported earlier this month that Gov. Gavin Newsom put pressure on city leaders “to get their collective house in order” for APEC.  

Super Bowl Set a Precedent 

San Francisco faced a similar dilemma when the city hosted Super Bowl 50 festivities in February 2016. (The Bay Area is slated to host again in 2026.) 

Then-Mayor Ed Lee was hoping to polish the city’s reputation with Super Bowl logos against the backdrop of iconic San Francisco imagery — all part of his effort to attract jobs and investment in the city. His administration was accused by advocates for the homeless of trying to remove unhoused people from anywhere near the Super Bowl events.

No Bay Area teams were in the showdown and the game itself was played in the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara. 

Activists angry over Lee’s tactics held a large protest and tried to set-up a tent city within the Super Bowl “fan village” on the Embarcadero. It was met by a cordon of police, providing exactly the kind of news coverage city leaders were hoping to avoid. 

In 2016, San Francisco used policing and anti-camping laws to sweep the streets leading up to football’s annual showcase event. 

The current federal court order prohibits the city from clearing encampments — unless it is moving tents for street cleaning, construction or events. 

Those exceptions are central to the city’s new strategy — sweeping the streets through “street activation.” Some of the most ambitious and quickest projects will be in the UN Plaza area. 

The first change was a four-day Civic Center Carnival on Fulton Plaza between the Asian Art Museum and the Main Library that ran Aug. 24-27. The event is not a yearly occurrence and was only announced by city hall on July 31. 

Fair-like events have happened before at Civic Center, including the two-day Pride celebration in June, but other longer fairs are not typically situated next to City Hall.  

The Civic Center Carnival will be followed beginning Sept. 1 by a much larger and longer construction closure east of Fulton on UN Plaza. Daniel Montes, communications manager for San Francisco’s Department of Recreation and Parks, said the plaza will undergo a significant makeover as it is turned into a skate park and multipurpose entertainment zone.  

“The skating elements and other activities including pickleball, ping pong, tables for chess, exercise equipment will take about six weeks to prep and install,” he wrote in an email responding to questions about the project.

The street activation plan will displace the Heart of the City Farmers Market, which has been operating at UN Plaza since 1981. It will be moved to a much smaller space at Fulton Plaza on Sept. 3. 

The farmers market operates on Wednesdays and Sundays, and the city has noted that market days bring a dramatic drop in the size and intensity of the illicit drug market in and around UN Plaza. 

Heart of the City Farmers Market Executive Director Steve Pulliam said the city asked the market if it wanted to take over the plaza seven days a week, but Pulliam said there is not enough business to operate full-time. 

The city told the market that because it couldn’t occupy UN Plaza every day, the city would proceed with an experimental skatepark pilot project to try to improve conditions in the area.

Pulliam said that “metrics for success have not been defined” but added that the city assured him that it would restore the plaza and invite the farmers market to move back to UN Plaza if the plan fails to improve conditions at that site.  

Civic Virtue or Desperation Move?

Montes told the San Francisco Public Press that this was the best plan state, local and federal officials could come up with to change conditions in UN Plaza and adjacent areas in the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods. 

“Rec and Park rangers have been closely monitoring the plaza since earlier this year in partnership with local law enforcement and community outreach workers with the ultimate objective to make these San Francisco public spaces safer for all,” he wrote.

Pulliam said he has been told that more Recreation and Parks rangers and ambassadors from Urban Alchemy — a nonprofit that hires people who were formerly incarcerated to help keep streets clean and engage with community members who might need help — will be assigned to UN Plaza when it reopens. 

Urban Alchemy ambassadors are already stationed in the area. Last Wednesday, a person wearing the Urban Alchemy logo told a group of people crowded into a corner of the plaza to “clear out — you need to move your stuff or it will be taken!” 

Additional reporting by Madison Alvarado and Yesica Prado.

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