The Biography of 100,000 Square Feet

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: In the center of San Francisco, there’s a plaza with no benches. Its Central feature at the entrance of the plaza is a unique fountain that was designed by Lawrence Halprin in 1975. The water shoots out at various angles from inside, the sunken pit filled with large granite slabs. It’s a design that kind of pulls you in and invites you to take the steps down to the water and climb in between the hulking stones. And that’s part of the problem. In 2004, radio producer Ben Temption created a really fantastic documentary of UN Plaza called “The biography of a 100,000 Square Feet” that first aired on a radio program I produced called, “Invisible Ink” in May of 2004. The doc takes this really hard look at UN Plaza when it was at its absolute worst and asks, what I think is a really interesting question: “Is there a point where good intentions and idealism of a certain design becomes so removed from reality that it actually borders on negligence?”

All right. Here’s the show. I like to thank my pal Ben Temption for giving me the honor of premiering the piece back in 2004, and then letting me play it for you again more than seven years later as part of 99% Invisible. Things have changed a bit since this doc was produced, so stay tuned and I’ll give you a short update on UN Plaza after the piece. Here’s Been Temption.

BT: This is the biography of 100,000 square feet. At the heart of San Francisco, there is a Crossroads where Market Street meets the Civic Center. It is called United Nations Plaza or less formally, Urination Plaza. And for most of the past three decades, it has been San Francisco’s most public theater of squalor, misery, and sickness.

Male Participant 1: That place, UN Plaza, was a madhouse! You can go there any hour of the day and see needles, liquor bottles, people fighting, people urinating and defecating in that fountain there. That’s unsanitary.

Female Participant 1: I’ve seen people shoot up at one end go to the other end and die. I saw that.

Female Participant 2: It’s not Italy. People don’t stroll down streets and sit and you know, play Bocce. It’s just not the mentality to use these big wide open plazas. It’s never worked.

BT: I worked in UN Plaza for a summer, walked across the brick paving, through the wide view to San Francisco is imposing City Hall. Past the granite fountain protected by a yellow plastic chain, through the thicket of the dull-eyed crack smokers and dealers who circled among the bronze stumps; all that’s left of the benches since they cut them out with saws and removed them.
I started spending time in United Nations on my days off, talking to the people there. The question I was after was, “Why does a public space fail?” Derek Armstrong was there most days I was. Derek was enormous, weighed at least 400 pounds, and he sat on the planter bed walls every day eating from bags of Cheetos and listening to his radio. I asked him, “Why do you come down to UN Plaza?”

Derek Armstrong: Because UN Plaza is centrally located to a lot of homeless services that I use. Mainly Saint Anthony’s going ahead- [crosstalk]

BT: UN Plaza is on the Glide path between two of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods: The Tenderloin and Soma.

DA: …. delivered post office….. centrally located, you know I use those facilities.

BT: One Saturday I went down to watch some evangelists preach to the lost souls in United Nations Plaza. One of the preachers used to be homeless there himself.

Preacher: I had to doubt in myself! I had to doubt in my own ways! And when I died to my old ways, and when I took on a new life, I wanna took on a new life…. [crosstalk]

BT: Off, away from the main body of the audience. I saw a man sitting against the black metal poles circling the fountain. He was behind the preachers and their loudspeakers watching, and I asked him, “Why are you sitting over here and not over there?”

Wendell Edwards: Because I don’t want to partake in anything right now, I’ve pretty much closed myself away from everything.

Ben: His name is Wendell Edwards.

WE: I got arrested for sleeping on the sidewalk and let out the same day. And I lost a lot of love for the United States flag behind that because they made me feel like an enemy, like I was part of the, Taliban or something, and my father died fighting for this country. So when I was arrested that mentally really hurt me against the flag, because I could have been breaking in somebody car. I could have been hurting any of these people and taking a wallet at night, catching them coming out of the store or house or anything, and I did none of that. It wasn’t in my heart to do that, but it was in their heart to arrest me for sleeping, merely sleeping on the sidewalk and I’ll never forget that. I still got the ticket in my pocket, it was just last week. And the devil keeps telling me that since that happened, “Don’t you see what they’re trying to do to you? Go out and pay them back. Go rob a store because you don’t have no flag, you don’t have no country. You don’t have nothing. They don’t want you to be a part of it. That’s just a nice way of saying, “Nigga, get out of San Francisco.”

BT: How did it get this bad? How did the space commemorating one of the great institutions in human history, at the heart of the richest city and the richest country in history? A place of so much promise, turn out so wrong?

Lawrence Halprin: My assignment was to develop Market Street over again as a new promenade from the ferry building to the City Hall.

BT: This is Lawrence Halprin.

LH: My idea and the whole idea for the city and our team and design was to make a formal entrance to City Hall, that people would admire and would perceive as an important part of the formal quality of the downtown area, like Paris. Have you ever been to Paris?

BT: In 1972 the city spent 24 million dollars beautifying Market Street, which had been torn up for the installation of a subway system. The final section of the redesign was United Nations Plaza. The city hired Halprin to make the design.

LH: There is this quality of formality that we were after and expressive the culture of a city. That was what we were thinking about, the importance of linear visual experiences. The linking of one place to another, instead of the kind of informality of neighborhoods where little streets go wandering around and you don’t get any long views.

BT: Lawrence Halprin is one of the most celebrated Landscape Architects alive today. He has been awarded the presidential medal of the Arts. He designed the FDR Memorial in Washington DC. He designed the Promenade around Jerusalem. He has designed some of the most noted and famous public plazas in the country.

LH: We wanted to make a statement there, in a Greek sense. The visual qualities have to express what the politics of something are, not little sort of political this’s and that’s. It’s a major quality of what a city ought to be like and what it stands for as a government.

BT: Was it called United Nations Plaza?

LH: Hell no. There wasn’t anything like that.

BT: City planners designated the space, UN Plaza after the decision was made to close the intersection. The intersection was closed because of a unique aspect of the city’s Urban Design. Peter Basilan, chair of the Department of Urban Planning at the University of California explains.

Peter Basilan: There’s a peculiar geometry about San Francisco. Market Street was lined up to connect the Waterfront with a set of hills called Twin Peaks, but it is not aligned to the city grid. Market Street runs at a 45 degree angle, creating all kinds of strange intersections where streets enter Market Street never 90 degree angles, always 45 degree angle. And even for San Franciscans is very confusing to find the connection between the south of Market grid and a north of Market grid. Very few streets line up.

BT: The design Halprin came up with for United Nations was a stately Gateway for Marchers to pass through. The Marchers would be funneled from the wide edge of the plaza that runs along Market Street between two lines of trees and raised planter beds. And then out through the space between the library and the Asian Art Museum to the vast green Lawns of Civic Center Plaza. The centerpiece is the 165-foot long Fountain. It contains 673 blocks of granite weighing somewhere between three and four million tons.

LH: I took the idea of the High Sierra surrounding the bay itself ,and down in here you can see the bay. And I even developed a system of the tides coming in. There was an hour long title action where the tide was out and then enlarged and grew and grew till it was up on these Peaks. What you see in other words is a three-dimensional Plaza, which is unique as an idea.

BT: Does that happen now?

LH: This title system no longer exists because maintenance was so terrible and it’s gone to hell. Pumps are a lot like relationships between people unless you take care of them, they go to hell.

BT: The fountain design was not immediately popular with city planners. In December 1970 the chairman of the Civic design committee said, “It was awful, flamboyant, an example of a designer’s egotism being passed on to the people as a piece of art.” Ruth Asawa, an acclaimed San Francisco sculptor said, “As corny as this may sound you have to design places in the city for people to sit on the grass, sit under trees, for flowers and birds. Even herb Kane got into it when he called the Fountain “a monstrosity that must be stopped.” But after five years of planning in arguing it was built anyway. Chris Adams has worked in the Plaza for more than 20 years.

CA: When that fountain blew water it was supposed to work with the wind. If the wind blew too far the water was supposed to go down. I’ve been here since that Fountain was put in, and I’ve never ever seen it work correctly. It’s blowing 50 feet in the air in the winter, and the water is just pouring. And the fact that it did start to stink. The chemicals that were put in there killed all the trees that were around it. Children wanted to play in there, and of course, you don’t want kids in that water.

BT: Many of the worries expressed by critics of the design quickly came to pass. In June of 1979, less than a year after the fountain was completed, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner wrote an article about ‘The Vandals, Derelicts and Social Misfits” who were turning the space into “a garbage-strewn graffitied-defaced mockery of Civic Grandeur.” Kevin Starr wrote, “What should have been the new, triumphant entrance to our Civic Center is a resort for derelicts and bums.”

Bob Prentiss: Merchants all along Market Street, held great hope that the transformation of Market Street would occur, and it never happened. Things went the other way.

BT: Bob Prentiss was the director of homeless Services under mayor Art Agnos from 1988 to 1992.

BP: The merchants were extremely frustrated because of these frustrated expectations that took the form of now, people actually hanging out in the Plaza. It was just a tinderbox. That was the environment of the UN Plaza pretty much from the time that I started working in the mayor’s office.

BT: In 1980, The Market Street Association, an organization of business owners and property owners called for a farmers market to be put in UN Plaza. Chris Adams runs the farmers market.

CA: I know it wasn’t raining. It was a nice sunny day, 1980-81 and I believe it was Springtime. 12 farmers drove up with their trucks and they did not sell out, but as they came weekly, we just put our roots down there and we’re here to stay.

BP: There were some people in the neighborhood who were trying to think of the ways to heal the plaza and the farmers market was part of that. Poor people are here, it’s harder for them to get by. It’s not about you know, driving them away, it’s about civilizing the places where they live.

CA: They can come out, they can breathe out there. It is part of the Tenderloin, that’s their front room. I’ve been told that by almost all of, “This is our place.” You can see the refrigerators, couches, chairs. They do live down there. I don’t want to push them out of there. I just….share it.

BT: Bob Prentiss again.

BP: It was a way to take over some use of that Plaza with a purpose that supported everybody. The idea that you would bring a farmers market to the heart of the city, where there was no retail grocer, where people who lived on the lowest incomes could not get decent food at decent prices, say to me: that’s the spirit behind dealing with the seeming inevitability of poverty without being mean-spirited about it.

BT: Chris Adams, the director of the farmers market.

CA: I’ve been homeless.

RM: When?

CA: 1970? I lived in a car for two weeks with my kids. There was no way I was going to stay like that. That’s one reason I was hired. Not that I could do office work, but I got along with the people outside. I can get along with the all the nationalities.

LH: I enjoy it. I think it’s fine as a place that occurs every now and then

RM: You think it’s a good use of the space?

BP: Yes, I do.

BT: On Wednesdays, office workers in the besieged neighborhoods skip microwave lunches gobbled at their desks, and head out instead to the Heart of the City Farmers Market. On Sundays, it’s a neighborhood crowd moving between the white tents that fill the Plaza, folding tables covered with yellow squash, blueberries, salad greens, all organic. The customers are from all over. The farmers are from all over.

CA: That’s why I love being where we are. I mean Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, Italy, all over the world!

BP: “The Heart of The City” was a perfect name for it because I thought that solution demonstrated a kind of heart. And not like there wasn’t tension between the street people and the ones that ran the market there. I remember that, but we worked it through. You think, you know, this is a civil way to make do with a situation that so far has been pretty lousy.

Female Participant 1: Oh my gosh, it’s United Nations.

BT: But on days when the Farmers Market and the newer, less successful antique / flea market aren’t in the plaza, United Nations reverts to what it used to be. At the East End of the plaza between the glass windows of the fast food franchise and stairs down into the subway station, the Thieves Market moves In. Black Market salesman filled the 20 feet with neatly laid out closed hand tools, pornographic videos and consumer electronics of questionable providence. Two days before Thanksgiving I went down to the Plaza to ask the salesman, “What have you got to sell today?”

Zachary: I got the sweater, a purple sweater and I got glasses, I got a hat. I get a new pair of underpants. I got shoes, and I got a jacket and I got a woman’s blouse. My name is Zachary. I was born in Ventura but I came down here about 15 years ago, and lived here since. My mother died in January and like– what’s that March? I started to go gambling and I lost all my money, so, I’m out here now. I was just choosing everything to me, you know? And I ticked it out by gambling. And somewhat you know, cursing God.

BT: While we were talking, the drug addicts distinguishable from the merely homeless by their lack of luggage, began to line up against the windows of the Carl’s Jr.

BT: Look, everybody’s all lined up. Why are they all lined up?

Zachary: I have no idea. Why they lined up? Oh, I don’t know.

BT: He’s bleeding. That guy with the dreadlocks, he’s taking blood off his nose and now they’re putting that guy in handcuffs.

Zachary: That’s what makes them say, “Okay, they’re uncivilized.” Yeah, the guy must have punched the guy”. That’s sad.

BT: So, you’re going to clear up?

Zachary: Yeah, I gotta go down the way.

BT: As Zachary packed up his meager merchandise, I went to find out what was going on. A tourist had bought food at the Carl’s Jr to give away to the homeless.

Khadisha Morris: My name is Khadisha Morris. My intention to be in California is to buy two big buildings to take the homeless off the street. It’s hard to explain. It’s a dream I had and it’s coming to pass. I’ve been driving around this block twice. And this was the sign the people in front of Carl Jr. So, I know this was the place to rest.

BT: People were lining up against the wall.

Manager: Everybody outside, please. If somebody touch I’m going to drop it on the ground.

BT: As the manager try to bring the food out to them.

Manager: I give you to you out if you got the food, right?

Male Participant 3: There’s now seven police officers.

BT: When he got outside the line collapsed, order broke down completely. A woman got smacked.

Manager: No grabbing, no touching. Are you gonna do like animals gonna do it? You guys be civil, he doesn’t have to do this. Do you see how it is? I mean a little manners goes a long way.

BT: This is Mohammed the manager of the Carl’s Jr.

Mohammed: I’m in this, we try to serve the food to the hungry homeless peoples. Then I told them go wait outside on the line, so I will as soon as I get ready, I will be outside. They start fighting to each other. I don’t know why they start fighting? When I came outside and they start grabbing the food from the boxes. It’s as soon as we came out with the boxes, everybody jumps on us. In two minutes have all the food is gone.
BT: In miniature, this food Riot restates the failure of UN Plaza itself. A dream that proved no match for its burden. Halpern too had a vision for something decent, of the grace of public spaces. But this dream was overlaid on a real place. It just didn’t work out.

LH: I’m not sure even now, if I were going to be asked to design this if how much I would change. I mean, why would I say, you’re talking about my life’s work for Christ’s sakes. I was the first person who ever designed a Plaza and Fountain so that people could use it. People should not be told you can’t get inside of it and use it. All places should be usable by people in the city. Now having said that, why would I design something to prevent homelessness? I mean, homelessness is a social problem that cannot be designed for. In the sense of aesthetics and culture. Of course, they should be friendly.
The real question is what do you mean by friendly? Nobody has ever said to me. “I want you to design an unfriendly place.” But you know, it depends on who you talk to. I mean, when you say you’ve talked to people who say that sort of thing, who are they? Sounds like a pretty stupid thing to say actually. I would absolutely challenge it. I can’t imagine that anybody could say anything like that.

BT: In 2000, the Department of Public Works applied for, and was awarded Federal grant money to clean up the 28-year-old Plaza, almost a million dollars. Enough to make real changes to the design. This is Judy Mosqueda, a project manager for the Department of Public Works.

Judy Mosqueda: I first got to know United Nations Plaza back in 1979. I used to take BART into the Plaza with my sister. I was about 12 years old. I was not a fast walker, and I remember so vividly my sister walking as fast as she could up Leavenworth Street because there were men harassing us along the way, and I would have to jog alongside her to keep up with her, and that was embarrassing to me.

BT: When Judy came on as a project manager, a plan for the redesign had already been drawn up.

JM: Landscape Architects here at the department at Public Works had made some recommendations for improvements to it. Things like replanting the planter beds with flowers instead of the grass that’s there now. Something that would add color, a little bit of life to the Plaza. As we went to the Board of Supervisors, the fencing around the Planters became a contentious issue.

BT: In December 2001 the plan drawn up by DPW was rejected by the Board of Supervisors. They didn’t like the fences. A 15-member task force was created by the city. The task force asked Roma Design to make some recommendations. This is Boris Dramof, a principal at Roma.

Boris Dramof: The Mayor’s office, he was not too pleased with what was being proposed and I said, “There are the standard kinds of things to prevent people from using space. The first step is you take out the benches. Then you put little fences around the green areas. Then you put barriers for people so they can’t sit down. And I said, “Frankly, I’m not interested in the negative approaches.”

BT: 15 people with an interest, sometimes competing interests were appointed by the supervisors to come up with a plan that would fix up the Plaza without displacing anyone. The chair was Lynn Valente of the Market Street Association. This is the same Market Street Association that had created the popular Farmers Market 20 years before.

Lynn Valente: People that are part of Market Street Association, that have properties and who will live and work up there, their number-one request: “Get that Fountain out of there.”

BT: Why?

LV: Because people were essentially living in, and defecating and urinating in the fountain, and shooting up drugs at the fountain, all that kind of stuff, having sex… I mean, they’ve seen everything.

BT: In the end, the task force left Halpern’s dream for UN Plaza behind. Roma recommended they remove the fountain, put a street through the Thieves Market in effect change United Nations from a formal place a place for marches, “a Public Square” in Halpern’s words, “representative of the ideals of a government and a city.” and turn it instead to exactly what Halpern didn’t want.

LH: The informality of neighborhoods where little streets go wandering around and you don’t get any long views.

Ben: This is Boris Dramof.

Boris: This is really a street end that’s been closed predominantly for traffic reasons. Fulton Street created a very awkward intersection with Market Street, and Traffic engineers don’t like triangular intersections so they tend to eliminate them. Not because they thought it was the best place to create a gathering space. One has to question whether they should be an open space of this size in this location. Why would you put it here?

BT: In spring of 2003 the Plaza hit bottom. The plan drawn up by the task force appointed by the Board of Supervisors after year and a half and more than 20 meetings was rejected by the Board of Supervisors. Around the same time, Channel 4 ran an extremely unflattering news account of the squalor in the plaza.

Newscaster: Everywhere you turn, people smoking crack. All day, every day. The mayor says he’ll consider shutting down the fountain, removing the benches and building gated playgrounds.

BT: Within hours, mayor Willie Brown had made his decision about United Nations Plaza. City workers cut through the bronze legs of the 24 benches and by morning they were gone.

Willie Brown: I think people felt like they lost the battle of UN Plaza. That they’re vacating the premises now, that they’re taking the benches out, its contested terrain where they’ve given up hope and they’re going to win.

BT: Lynn Valenti of the Market Street Association.

LV: And more come up with now, after years and years and years of community input of which I did eight or nine or however many years it is I’ve been working on it. What we’ve got now is a caution tape around the fountain. No, it’s not caution tape anymore, it’s a yellow plastic fence. I don’t understand how that happened. I mean, I understand how it happened, but it just sticks in my craw that the first plan that they came up with, the fencing that we’re proposing was no higher than three feet tall was not acceptable. Then Roma design came in.

WB: I’d open up the street. I’d let people drive down, or bicycle down.

LV: That was unacceptable. Now, we’re down to the chain-link fence around the fountain.

BT: And that’s how it’s been for almost a year. No flowers. No fences. No benches. The crack addicts have mostly been pushed out by the pervasive police presence and the street sweepers that circle constantly like fish in an aquarium. The homeless people who used to sit on the planter beds are fewer in number, but they’re still there. Many of them have shifted 50 feet towards City Hall where they sit inside a large sculpture of San Francisco’s pioneers in the middle of a traffic circle. It would be a stretch to say this is an improvement.

BT: Have you been to United Nations Plaza recently? Have you seen?

LH: No, I purposely don’t go there usually.

BT: Have you seen the pictures of the chain-link fence around the fountain?

LH: No, I know about it though. The city and the project manager for that project has been very careful about keeping us advised about what’s going on. She’s trying to recapture some of the original quality of the place and also deal with some of the social issues and neighborhoods that are encroaching on the place.
JM: I think some people want to turn that into something it’s never going to be. It’s not going to be a renaissance, that’s not going to happen. I mean, this is part of the Tenderloin and that influence is always going to be there. I’m sorry, but I think that’s how it should be. I really do.

WB: Why do you cut off the daily life of the city in order to create a space for special events that only occur a few times a year? I would question whether we should have an open space of this size at this location, rather than allowing the traditional elements of city form like streets, sidewalks to exist.

BT: Judy Mosqueda is optimistic, but it is a resigned optimism.

LV: The funds were to be expended by I believe June 2003. Obviously, I’ve missed that deadline. I’m now shooting for June 2005 and I hope to be successful for that. And if San Franciscans can’t come to a consensus on what should happen in this Plaza, I may ask for another extension, or we may decide that San Francisco doesn’t know what to do with this Plaza at this point in time.

BT: Before San Francisco gives up on United Nations Plaza, we might want to consider some words of advice given by President Harry Truman when the Charter for the real United Nations was signed almost 60 years ago.

Harry Truman: Oh, what a great day this can be in history. Out of all the arguments and disputes and different points of view, a way was found to agree.

BT: Truman is speaking to the delegates who would sign the UN Charter and the War Memorial Opera House, six blocks away from the present-day United Nations Plaza.

HT: It was the result of a spirit of give and take. Of tolerance for the views and interests of others. Those problems and scores of others, which will arise are all difficult. They are complicated. They are controversial and dangerous. If we keep to our principles, and never forsake our objectives the problems we now face and those to come will also be solved.

RM: That was “The Biography of a 100,000 Square Feet” produced by Ben Temption in 2004. I’m recording this on November 17, 2011, and I was down at UN Plaza today, recording the fountain and taking pictures. The Art Market was being set up, and the water was flowing in the fountain. That was marred by a bit of trash circling in the beddings, but nothing too grotesque or unexpected. The yellow chain that cordoned off the fountain 2004 is gone, and this morning with the Art Market being set up I got a much stronger feel for the intention of the Plaza than was evident then when it was at its worst, but the big issues were still plain to see.

Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin who designed UN Plaza and is featured in the piece has since died. If this is your first exposure to Halprin, I really recommend you look him up and check out his other work. He is absolutely revered in much of the landscape architecture community. And the very principles of interactivity and engagement that worked to the detriment of the UN Plaza yielded stunningly successful results in other places. So, it’s worth exploring more of his legacy if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I think you are because you just listened to a half-hour documentary about the failure of public space, which means you’re a big old nerd, like me. God love ya.

RM: This episode of 99% invisible was produced by Ben Temption and made possible with support from Lunar making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, local public radio 91.7 in San Francisco, the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco and the Centre for Architecture and Design. To find out more go to the website, It’s

Ben: Before we go I want to tell you about a new mini-series from fellow Radiotopia Show. One of the original Radiotopians, the OG Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything. The miniseries is called Failure and it’s all about a set of ideas and technologies that are making our world great again.

Benjamin Walker: Rich people are specially qualified geniuses. Therefore we should deploy them to fix our schools, fix our diseases. They should be president of United States.

Female Participant 4: Democracy is actually a word I didn’t like very much because I came of age in the odds when George Bush was bringing democracy to Iraq, so on a gut level. I was like “Ugh, democracy.”

Female Participant 5: Women have never been befriended by a democratic government not because they’ve always been excluded.

Benjamin: It’s fail son. So the idea is that you failed, and you’re someone’s kid. I mean, my wife is– she would be considered more of a success daughter.

Female Participant 4: The dark web itself, is like this horrible world of cyber criminals and like child pornography. I never heard of it until the intellectual dark web came along. Free speech, YouTube isn’t that much better, but we have to come up with something.

Participant 6: You’re a big boy. You have to clean your apartment anyways. You should be cleaning your apartment anyway! You’re a big boy!

Ben: Benjamin Walker is brilliant. I hope you check it out. The miniseries is called Failure. Subscribe to Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything at or wherever you listen.

Comments (4)


  1. Erica

    Love this fountain! I have very fond memories of swimming in it at the gay pride parade when I was little, feeling transported by the bizarre nature of the structure.

  2. Mrwoodchuck94

    Maybe i am late for this comment, but i don’t think to change the Plaza, i think they had to change the people ther. The people in the plaza is the thing thats wrong and not working and yes i know you can’t change peoples you can only to the thing they did an put cops ther but i don’t think this helps someone cause who is ther if not the poor, homeless and the drug users? Who benefits frome a plaza with no peoples?

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