From clean skate park to 'dangerous' drug market: The different faces of SF's UN Plaza

"When the skaters are not here, it's like a zombieland," said Frankie Francisco.

Luz Pena Image
Wednesday, January 31, 2024
The different faces of SF's UN Plaza from day to night
San Francisco's newly-renovated UN Plaza may look safe, but one man who has been documenting the area says the change is a matter of day and night.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- In San Francisco, there's a debate about whether things really are better at the United Nations Plaza: a spot long known as an open-air drug market.

City officials say their changes are working at the plaza across from Civic Center but a San Francisco resident who has been documenting the area at night says the positive change is a matter of day and night.

Around 11:30 am, U.N Plaza in San Francisco is clean. Skateboarders are out enjoying the new skate park the city opened in November.

"I think we brought some new life to it. It's a desired place in San Francisco to come skate," said Austin Kanfoush, skateboarder and owner of Kanfoush Custom Concrete.

Mayor London Breed posted on X, "Our work to improve UN Plaza is making a difference."

VIDEO: San Francisco's UN Plaza reopens with skate park, fitness area, ping pong tables

Renovations which include a skate park and a fitness area have been completed at San Francisco's UN Plaza in an attempt to deter open-air drug use.

Employees of nearby businesses and vendors at Heart of the City Farmers Market are reporting safer conditions and skateboarders are flocking to the new skate park.

San Francisco resident Frankie Francisco who covered his face to remain anonymous, says there's a clear shift around at UN plaza at night.

"It's hard to tell it in words sometimes. The footage doesn't lie and that is why I started recording. That is why I started sharing it," said Francisco who posts his videos on X.

At night, Frankie goes out with his GoPro attached to his body. Over the weekend, Frankie captured what he describes as chaos with people overdosing and illegal activity throughout the plaza. His latest videos were shot between midnight to 3 a.m.

"Rampant drug selling. It's basically lawless when the police are not here," said Francisco. "It's dangerous for residents. We often have to wake up people who are in the middle of overdoses just to get through our doors. That is a very dangerous thing that happened and it's not a new problem."

MORE: New San Francisco walking tour claims to show city's 'worst' areas

San Francisco invested $2 million to renovate UN plaza last year, turning it from what was known as the epicenter of San Francisco drug crisis to a skate park and an area for residents to workout.

There's been a positive change during the day time but Frankie says that crisis is still alive at night.

Luz Pena: "Are you concerned for your safety?"

Frankie Francisco: "I am. That is why I'm hiding my identity because it's a small world here. It's the same thing. Same people. Very organized criminal element. So, I am but this is where I live and I can't really change that at the moment."

Moinnette Harris is a peer counselor for the nonprofit RAMS. She patrols the area and is grateful for the skate park but wants those in need to get more help.

VIDEO: ABC7 News rides along as plainclothes SFPD officers make drug arrests

ABC7 News rode along San Francisco police officers as they made drug arrests. Here's what we saw.

"Having Urban Alchemy and different agencies out here monitoring the traffic kind of helps slow everything down, but really all it's doing is making them relocate to another area. They are not here on Market Street but they are around the corner on Hyde. I don't think things are being addressed. I think it's a Band-Aid put on it," said Harris.

Austin Kanfoush is a professional skateboarder and also the sub-contractor who worked on building the skate obstacles. He views the skate park as the start of something positive despite the shift at nightfall.

"I think it's the start. It is probably a little bit of a Band-Aid but if this can be the beginning of things to come that involve the community and everyone together trying to work towards a better good, then what better Band-Aid to have than to start with one," said Kanfoush.

SFPD has officers on the plaza, but acknowledge they are short-staffed.

"During the day, we typically have more police officers that are working and focused in on this problematic areas; the staffing issues continue in the night times. We are focused on the Tenderloin still however, we are not able to conduct certain operations that we have been able to successfully take people under arrest during other parts of the time," said SFPD Officer Robert Rueca.

MORE: SF celebrates revamped United Nations Plaza, feels hopeful for future of Civic Center

Residents like Frankie want to see the change 24/ 7.

"When the skaters are not here, it's like a zombieland," said Frankie Francisco.

In a statement, the Mayor Breed office said:

"The difference that we see at UN Plaza is proof of what's possible when we work together to deliver safe, clean, and vibrant public spaces to our communities. We will continue to collaborate with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, City stakeholders, and the community on this two-year pilot project to define how this space can be into the future.

The Mayor will continue to prioritize initiatives to disrupt open-air drug markets and reduce surrounding crime, funding for ambassador programs to provide on-the-ground support throughout the neighborhood, and operations to offer people services and move individuals living on the street into shelter."

Now Streaming 24/7 Click Here

If you're on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live