The issue isn’t whether or not Union Square “should” be a residential neighborhood — it’s how to provide services to those who live there. (Courtesy photo)

Housing at San Francisco’s Union Square? Maybe the time has come

This is no fantasy scenario; it’s real…if Sand Hill properties gets its way.

Picture this: You wake up on a cool December day. From your bedroom window overlooking Union Square you can see the ice skaters, the giant Christmas tree, the decorations on the St. Francis, all of it. You’re in a festive mood so you take the elevator down to Geary, cross the street and get a cappuccino at Emporio Rulli, sit on a bench and soak up the holiday vibe for a few minutes before starting your day.

This is no fantasy scenario; it could be real … if Sand Hill properties gets its way. The South Bay developer just submitted plans to San Francisco city officials for its latest project: turning the I. Magnin building at 233 Geary St., purchased from Macy’s last year for $250 million, into a mixed-use giant combining street-level retail with five floors of office space, 21 condominiums on floors seven, eight and nine and a roof deck.

The idea has raised a few hackles among locals wondering if it’s OK to add housing to Union Square, the jewel of San Francisco destination shopping, but maybe they’re asking the wrong question. Maybe we should just accept that the glory days of retail are over and instead ask what happens next.

Sand Hill’s project at the I. Magnin building is a good one. It mostly leaves the exterior of the building alone and updates its usage into something that’s more relevant for the world we live in today. Blame it on Amazon, blame it on the internet as a malevolent force, blame it on the day “shopping downtown” became a chore and not an eagerly anticipated event; we live in a time where the living room couch is our favorite place to shop. That won’t be changing any time soon. In this reality, what happens to all of those empty storefronts and department stores?

We can, and probably will at least for awhile, continue to churn business in and out of spaces like the Barney’s building and the Ben Sherman store (which left its suddenly ghostly banner eerily waving for several months after it closed), but maybe adaptation and re-use are better and more sustainable futures for these grand old edifices. Union Square has already been adapting for decades. Witness the sepia-toned photos from the 1950s of women in pillbox hats and white gloves shopping at the City of Paris department store and the old I. Magnin’s. Nobody wears a pillbox hat to shop at Zara.

The issue isn’t whether or not Union Square “should” be a residential neighborhood. It’s that you can’t just drop people into the middle of a commercial district and ask them to make it home without doing more to make it home. Otherwise you’re encouraging, on purpose or not, another Rincon Hill — where residents may as well be living in the farthest-flung exurb for all the practical amenities and communal warmth their neighborhood provides.

It’s easy, when your neighbors are a shoe store and Williams-Sonoma, to pull into your building garage, take an elevator up to your floor and stare out the windows at the city below. For a grid of streets and buildings to become a neighborhood, residents need a compelling reason to go outside. Williams-Sonoma is sometimes a compelling reason to go outside (especially at Christmas, when they have peppermint bark), but it’s not going to be part of someone’s daily life unless they have an insatiable need for flatware.

So condos. OK, but only as a starting point. If Union Square is to morph into San Francisco’s next address, it’s going to take more than a few isolated projects; it’s going to take a plan. That plan will need to address how to create a thriving pedestrian culture by including businesses that encourage street-level community and serve the day-to-day needs of a functioning residential neighborhood — grocery stores, pharmacies, access to schools — so that the people who live there can really live there, not just sleep there at night.

It can happen without compromising Union Square’s brand as a premier shopping district. Boutique retail stays; department stores transform; a grocer takes over Barney’s. You’ve already got the world’s largest Walgreens on Powell, plus easy access to transit, the waterfront, the financial district, museums, parks and the theater district. It just takes vision — and a solid, comprehensive plan, though unfortunately this city has a history of aversion to executing solid, comprehensive plans.

But without it, what does future Union Square look like? A return to the elegant glory days of downtown? Or, more likely in our mail-order world, a string of increasingly ephemeral clothing stores and an eventual Amazon brick-and-mortar, opened to great fanfare, that resembles nothing more than a Sharper Image store from the 80s? All with 21 condos looking down on the whole thing.

The Market Musings real estate column appears every other Wednesday. Larry Rosen is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, podcaster and recovering former Realtor. He is a guest columnist and his viewpoint is not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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