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Bringing Life to San Francisco’s Downtown with Adaptive Reuse


Downtown, San Francisco, Adaptive Reuse
Photo Courtesy of Melpomenem on iStock

After the pandemic, San Francisco’s downtown area has faced its greatest disruption to life and economy since the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. The rise in commercial vacancies due to the shift to remote work raises doubts about the return of employees to physical offices, affecting various sectors such as retail, public space activity, and transportation patterns. To reinvigorate the downtown area, the City of San Francisco and Mayor Breed created the "Roadmap to Downtown San Francisco's Future." A key element of this strategy is Adaptive Reuse, a concept central to the practice at MKThink.


Adaptive Reuse is the conversion and repurposing of existing, underutilized buildings and spaces. It addresses modern needs while preserving historic charm and, in most cases, reduces material, construction, and environmental costs. Here is an example of MKThink's Adaptive Reuse project with Stanford Law School


San Francisco, Downtown, MKThink, Adaptive Reuse
Photo Courtesy of Kivilcim Pinar on iStock

The Future of Downtown Plan lists nine strategies for revitalizing the downtown area:

  1. Ensure Downtown is clean, safe, and inviting

  2. Attract and retain a diverse range of industries and employers

  3. Facilitate new uses and flexibility in buildings

  4. Make it easier to start and grow a business

  5. Grow and prepare our workforce

  6. Transform Downtown into a leading arts, culture, and nightlife destination 

  7. Enhance public spaces to showcase Downtown

  8. Invest in transportation connections

  9. Tell our story

These strategies are managed by the SF Planning Department and the Office of Economic Workforce and Development. The city tasked the Urban Land Institute (ULI) ASP panel of professionals with providing national insight on the recovery of San Francisco's Downtown and prioritizing the implementation of actions and policies.


These adaptive reuse programs are already creating productive space in downtown areas.


Among the ULI's top recommendations is to encourage office-to-residential conversions to address the housing shortage and create a 24/7 environment, restoring vibrancy beyond the 9-5 of typical office hours. This program streamlines these conversions and proposes a transfer tax waiver for conversion projects. 


Through matching entrepreneurs, artists, and non-profit pop-ups with Downtown landlords to activate vacant ground-floor spaces for free, this program aims to create a thriving community.


Investing in Public Spaces

Adaptive Reuse applies beyond buildings to space as well. The city has invested in public spaces like the Landing at Leidesdorff, Mechanics Monument Plaza, Union Square, Hallidie Plaza, Powell Street, and a new skate park at UN Plaza to create new and inviting experiences Downtown.


Interested in learning more about how adaptive reuse can enhance your space? Contact us here.

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