Urban Oases

… don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot!

It’s been 40 years since Joni Mitchell penned those lyrics to a Big Yellow Taxi. Then we lived in a world where the downtown areas of big cities were dominated by high-rise buildings, separated only by asphalt-covered parking lots, barren sidewalks, and traffic-clogged streets. Urban centers were concrete jungles: no trees, no sun, no soul. And, after all, who cared? People didn’t live downtown; they lived out in the suburbs. Like the tide, they swept in in the morning and back out in the afternoon.

Over time, attitudes change and a big change in some cities has been to make them more livable. That means making them more attractive, more walkable, and more inviting with trees, gardens, art, and open spaces where people can gather or eat or simply relax. Economically, it isn’t possible for cities to provide enough public parks, squares, and plazas, so part of the solution has been to encourage Privately-Owned Public Open Spaces, or POPOS. The name is awkward, but these spaces are wonderful little treasures.

In San Francisco, the transition to a more livable city didn’t happen on its own. For decades, our city planners have encouraged developers to include pubic spaces in their projects. They have given priority to downtown developments that include sun-lit, wind-protected, beautifully landscaped, and easily accessible public areas. In 1985, they added a mandate to the downtown plan requiring one square foot of public space for every 50 square feet of new office space. As a result, the downtown area now has a network of 68 POPOS. Collectively, they make our downtown much more attractive and livable. Here are a few favorites:

160 Spear Street and 135 Main Street

There are four interconnected POPOS tucked back in the alleyways of the block bordered by Mission, Howard, Spear, and Main streets. The best is 160 Spear, and it’s a gem with gingko trees set in beds of pink impatiens, tall redwoods, huge ferns, and an interesting aluminum sculpture. Toward the back (and not visible in the photo) is a really nice, water feature.

01 160 Spear [36] (Z28-2-827)
02 135 Main [35] (Z28-2-844)


Behind and through a walkway to the right, is the 135 Main POPOS with its unusual fountain.


03 201 Mission [32] (Z28-2-777)

201 Mission Street (along Beale side)

Although the building has a Mission Street address, this urban garden is along its Beale Street side. Here smallish open spaces zigzag among concrete planters that are densely filled with flowers, shrubs and trees.


04 100 First-Rooftop [43] (Z28-2-805)

100 First Street (enter on Mission)

This location was one of the nicest surprises we found as we sought out the best POPOS. Next to the entrance to a parking garage on Mission, there is a wide, inviting staircase leading to a rooftop plaza. It’s big and it’s really nicely landscaped with lots of trees and flowers. There is ample seating and an interesting fountain made to look like waves.


05 50 Beale-Bechtel [30] (Z28-2-785)

50 Beale (Bechtel HQ)

This large tree-filled plaza at Bechtel’s headquarters also has a history museum for the corporation. The museum is housed in a replica of “WaaTeeKaa,” the railcar that served as living quarters for the Bechtel family on remote construction sites.


560 Mission Street

The Zen-like simplicity of this 16,000 square foot plaza, at JP Morgan's West Coast Headquarters, is very peaceful and calming. As you enter from Mission Street, there’s a reflecting pool set in black stone and backed by grass-covered terraces. Behind the pool and grass, is a beautiful and graceful grove of ginormous bamboo with a path running though it.

06 560 Mission [49] (Z28-2-660)
06 560 Mission [49] (Z28-2-654)


07 525 Market [25] (Z28-2-686)

525 Market Street

The smallish, but nicely designed plaza sits between two high-rise buildings. The garden features two granite water walls that face each other and have benches in between. Behind one of the water walls is a half-circle garden with a circular path and benches running through it. A Chipotle Mexican Grill opens onto one side of this plaza.


08 343 Sansome [6] (Z28-2-865)

343 Sansome Street

This amazing space is a terrace on the 15th floor of this high-rise and is only open from 10a–5p. The opposite end of the terrace (not in the photo), has lots of olive trees, more flowers and more seating.


09 100 Pine [16] (Z28-2-858)

100 Pine Street

This is a beautiful little space tucked between tall buildings and accessible through a passage off of Front Street. The opposite end (not in the photo) has more seating, more plants, and an interesting sculpture.


10 Redwood Park [1] (Z28-2-693)

Transamerica Redwood Park

Although the Transamerica Pyramid is the tallest and most recognizable building in San Francisco, few people know that nestled beside it is a beautiful little redwood park. In addition to the 50+ redwood trees towering over lush little fern and moss gardens, the park has a fountain with whimsical bronze lily pads and jumping frogs and a delightful life-size bronze sculpture of six children jumping puddles. Alas, a casualty of San Francisco’s persistent homeless problem, the park is only open to the public during Transamerica’s business hours

10 Redwood Park [1] (Z28-2-695)


Change doesn’t happen fast, but it does happen. When I lived and worked in San Francisco in the early 1970s, the area south of Market was a slum, Market Street was, well, just a street, and the Embarcadero was under an ugly elevated freeway. All of these areas have since been transformed, and POPOS are a big, and very much appreciated, part of the transformation.


Giving credit where credit is due:

While writing this blog, I actually visited most of the 68 POPOS in San Francisco. I was helped immensely with the map and list contained in: Secrets of San Francisco: A Guide to San Francisco’s privately-owned public open spaces. This guide was published by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) Association and it’s located here.

For more information, check out these columns:

Little-known open spaces enhance downtown S.F. - By John King, March 23, 2008

Unlocking San Francisco’s Privately Owned Public Open Spaces - By Matthew Roth, January 20, 2009

Cracking San Francisco's Private/Public Spaces - By Tim Halbur, January 24, 2009

© Virginia E. Vail 2012