The hundreds of thousands of pedestrians who travel north on Powell Street to Union Square every week will have a little more room and a lot more seating options starting Wednesday.

Promenade installations that transformed several loading zones into seating and pedestrian areas between Ellis Street and Geary Street opened today to praise from city officials, the Union Square Business Improvement District and Audi, all of whom collaborated on the project.

“Two-thirds of the city’s millions of visitors every year make their way down this street to Union Square,” Mayor Ed Lee said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The site hosts 100,000 tourists and locals alike every weekend, he continued, so the city wanted to make the landscape more inviting and pedestrian friendly.

Designer Walter Hood was instructed to take his inspiration from German automaker Audi–whose U.S. operation financed the $900,000 project — so he incorporated aluminum, LED technology and curves mimicking the body of the cars into the benches, planters, railings and sidewalk gradients of the promenades, he said.

Chairs and tables will be set out for eating, chatting or surfing wireless Internet that has been made available, and new bike racks are being installed soon. LEDs powered by solar panels will also bathe the promenades in a welcoming glow at night.

Hood said the goal of the project was to give people more space, but that overtaking the loading zones only widened the sidewalk by six feet on each side.

“That’s not a lot,” he said. “So how do you make that feel wider?”

He said he achieved the desired effect by running the pieces parallel to the sidewalk, using lighter materials, and making sure not to fill up the space. Design and construction started at the end of January, he said.

The merchants surrounding Union Square were heavily involved in the project and worked out schedules to share the remaining loading and drop-off spaces, said David Nadelman of the Union Square Business Improvement District.

The district will be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the project, which was envisioned as a semi-permanent fixture that could be altered in a few years if the area’s needs shift.

“Everybody is really excited,” Nadelman said. “It’s good for business, good for tourists, good for residents.”

Janna Brancolini, Bay City News

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