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As retail dies, should Union Square turn into a residential neighborhood?

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San Francisco’s Union Square with its massive Macy’s buildings.

Barney’s. Outfit. Macy’s Mens Store. Aardvark Books. Gump’s. Body.

Big and small, brick-and-mortar retail is dying across San Francisco—and beyond. While city lawmakers scramble to plug a hole in the fissured dam, once-grand major department stores, which typically charge far more than their online counterparts, are losing their lives with alacrity.

It’s sad to watch unfold, but seeing as how the city is in need of housing—and the centrally-located neighborhood is rich both with transit and some of San Francisco’s most gorgeous buildings—it’s time to think about phasing Union Square into a residential hub?

There are already a handful of mid-rise residential units in the small neighborhood: The Landmark building on Grant, Lofts at One Powell, and Odeon apartments on O’Farrell (now closed) have been here for years. There is precedent.

And most glamorously, the idea of living inside Macy’s landmark I. Magnin building on Geary will become a real possibility. J.K. Dineen’s recent article for the San Francisco Chronicle reports, “A year after Macy’s sold the building, which it long occupied, at 233 Geary for $250 million, the new property owner is proposing to convert the building to a mashup of retail, office space, and housing.”

Sand Hill Property Company (developer of the Vallco housing project in Cupertino) wants to convert the top three floors of Macy’s into 21 condos, as well as add a roof deck, while the basement and lower three floors would remain retail, and floors four through eight turned into office space. (Fingers crossed that the Timothy Pflueger-designed sixth-floor women’s bathroom, with its green marble walls and Art Deco pedestal sinks, gets a stay of execution.)

Other buildings that, with a little rezoning finesse, would make fine condos are the recently shuttered Barneys New York’s flagship store at 77 O’Farrell, and the Forever 21 store in the same building, also just a memory.

And now that WeWork has fallen from grace, the Whittell Building at 166 Geary, which the troubled startup leased in early 2019 with plans to turn into a work-share space, could make a great historic setting for condos. After all, the last thing this city needs more of is office space. (Curbed reached out to WeWork for comment. We will update if the company responds.)

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district encompasses Union Square, told Curbed, “I’m definitely interested in learning more. Union Square has long been a premiere retail destination, but as the landscape changes and traditional retail anchors downsize or shut down, I also understand that engaged and invested residents are key to a thriving retail economy.”