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Union Square: Bowed but Unbroken

By Jennifer Blot

Karin Flood, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District, is planning for brighter days with a recovery task force of business owners, retailers and developers. (Spencer Brown)

Beset by pandemic, riots and the internet, Union Square plans its return.

Central Subway construction. Chapter 11 filings. The dizzying rise of e-tail.

Union Square was confronting a bevy of issues long before coronavirus closures silenced the neighborhood, only to see it erupt in rioting and vandalism during those tumultuous days of late May. With a return to “normal” uncertain, there are still plenty of reasons for merchants to wallow. Instead, most spent the month of June mobilizing. Inside the stores, retailers moved forward with preparations — securing signage, social distance marking tape, hand sanitizer dispensers, disposable masks and thermometers for staff — to reopen mid-month. Outside their doors, Karin Flood, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District, helped businesses board up broken windows, paint over graffiti, and file police reports.

Rallying for the City’s most notable shopping district comes naturally to the fifth-generation San Franciscan. Flood’s great-great-grandfather built the flatiron Flood Building on Market Street in 1904; and her father, the late Jim Flood, helped establish the USBID in 1999, creating a system for area property owners to self-assess and pay taxes to fund services — including a team of safety, hospitality and cleaning ambassadors — beyond what the City provides.

“We don’t specifically do economic development,” Flood admits, “But it’s starting to feel like we need to.”

Flood, who comes across as calm and unshakable even in times of crisis, is preparing for a rebound. In the short term, she’s helping spruce up the area with temporary murals on boarded-up businesses. Long-range plans will rely in part on the efforts of a recovery task force that Flood is forming with property owners, developers and retail brokers to address what she sums up as: “What is Union Square going to be after all of this?”

In the meantime, retailers have been finding new ways to connect with patrons who are anxious about in-store shopping. The majority offer private appointments, curbside pickups and virtual shopping sessions. And some, like Kiton, will not be going back to the way things were pre-COVID-19.

From now on, the luxury clothing boutique will provide in-store shopping by appointment only. “That’s how we are going forward,” explains Kiton general manager Fritz Boneberg. “The [client] will be the only one there — it’s their store for that period of time. We can provide them with a safe experience, and a very personalized experience.”

Boneberg, who has worked in retail in Union Square since 1982, likens the current lack of foot traffic to the weeks following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And while institutional memory for tough economic times remains sharp — the year 2009 continuously comes up —there are retailers who’ve endured countless ebbs and flows, such as Shreve & Co, which predates the 1906 earthquake and fire.

“Shreve & Co. has definitely seen San Francisco’s share of strange events, but each time we’ve seen the community come back stronger, and that’s what is helping us continue to have a positive attitude amidst the current atmosphere,” acknowledges Shreve’s director of marketing, Kiley Schiffman Storrs.

Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel, the City’s convention and visitors bureau, admits, “The COVID-19 pandemic has tested San Francisco in ways we never expected. It has also brought out the teamwork and resilience that is part of the City’s DNA. This has been especially evident in neighborhoods like Union Square.”

Jeff Garelick, director of stores for Wilkes Bashford, gives much of the credit to the USBID. He calls its work “phenomenal,” citing the recent graffiti removal and ongoing commitment to making the streets more welcoming.

Garelick spent eight weeks prepping for Wilkes’ mid-June reopening, putting in place a strict protocol, including daily health screenings for staff and special face shields for tailors, modified fitting rooms, and a new policy requiring clothing that has been tried on to be placed on a rack for 48 hours before returning to the sales floor. The store’s security guard is now a safety ambassador, providing masks and hand sanitizer.

“We had a doctor comment, ‘Listen, you guys have done even better than I’ve expected’,” notes Garelick. “We’ve made an environment that’s enabled visitors to feel safe, recognizing that we’ve taken this super seriously. A customer visiting the store can’t miss all of the things we’ve done.”

Garelick notes some interesting new patterns: More gift giving. More jewelry sales. And customers taking advantage of services the store has long offered, including curbside pickup and on-approval shopping, or “memo,” as it’s known at Wilkes.

Paul McGinlay, vice president of William Glen & Son and the Whisky Shop, reopened the Sutter Street store last month but encourages curbside and courier delivery services. While sales of kilts and imported foods have been sluggish, McGinlay notes that whisky sales — despite a shift from in-store to online tastings — are thriving. For retailers, creativity and reaching out to loyal customers have been key. For shoppers, in many ways, there are more choices than ever — not to mention tempting discounts and less traffic. It’s an opportunity, Flood says, for locals to start coming back downtown.

In time, others will follow.

“We absolutely are going to rebound from this and rebuild,” she says. “We’re the heart of San Francisco.”

Retail therapy is back.

Union Square has plenty to offer shoppers. Here’s a look at some of the most coveted items on display right now.

“T” time: Tiffany’s T1 collection reimagines the iconic “T” motif with its unbroken circle that represents “individual strength and self-empowerment.” Available in 18K rose gold, with and without radiant Tiffany diamonds.

Mediterranean inspiration: Kiton’s turquoise deconstructed jacket, crafted from cotton and linen shirt fabric, epitomizes luxury leisure. Hand-cut and sewn by master artisans in Naples.

Sporty meets chic: The showroom at Saks Fifth Avenue now carries Saint Laurent’s luxe line of handbags, including the contemporary Loulou Puffer Leather Crossbody Bag in red with gold hardware and an adjustable shoulder chain. Also available in black with silvertone accents. Made in Italy.

Perennial favorite: Shreve & Co. celebrates spring — belatedly — with this sparkling trio of festive flowers. The dazzling Harry Kotlar 18K yellow gold Lily Artisan Pavé diamond necklace is so fabulous, you’ ll want to wear it year-round.

Celebrate the SIP cocktail hour: Gump’s Robbe & Berking Martele Bar Set features handcrafted silverplate barware with a fun mix of polished and textured finishes. Set includes a cocktail shaker with Schott Zwiesel glass, a two-measure jigger, strainer and bar spoon.

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