San Francisco’s Union Square has been a study in contrasts: while surrounded by the ritziest retailing in the city, the park’s tall hedges disguised homeless squatters. And accessible only from its four corners, the park felt like a trap — until now. After an 18-month, $25 million construction project, a kindler, gentler Union Square reopened on July 25.

According to Mike Fotheringham, president of M.D. Fotheringham Landscape Architects, the new Union Square provides "access from all of the edges, and basically the concept is that there is a perimeter of gardens that connect with the sidewalk. So you come in right off from the sidewalk. We have mid-block entries and corner entries." Fotheringham and April Philips won the San Francisco Prize competition to redesign Union Square in 1997.

In addition to making Union Square more inviting for loungers, lighting, staging and café and ticketing pavilions diversify uses and enhance programming activities.

Philips, president of April Philips Design Works, also notes that funds were committed to improving Union Square’s underground garage. The redevelopment is supported by a revenue bond issued by Uptown Parking, a non-profit organization that leases the space from the city.

Now that Union Square is conducive to more law-abiding types, "it should certainly be an attraction to somebody who might be considering a lease," says Linda Mjellem, executive direction of the Union Square Association, an association formed in 1979 and whose membership includes more than 250 local businesses. "It help makes the area unique."

Uniqueness could be helpful, because like all of San Francisco, where office vacancy now hovers at 21%, Union Square’s retailers have seen better times. For example, Mjellem notes, "Bally of Switzerland left their lease on Stockton Street side and now that’s in play," but "usually there are bidding wars over any available retail space."