Why downtown SF is the latest death in the US in the recovery from the COVID pandemic

One by one, downtowns across the country have slowly come back to life after the dark days of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where is San Francisco?

It doesn’t have to be that way. San Francisco’s sister cities, such as New York, Boston and even neighboring Seattle, are all rebounding much faster.

By the end of May 2022, only 31% of San Francisco’s activity, as measured by mobile phone data, had returned, compared to the same month before the pandemic (May 2019). Compare that to 52% in Boston and Seattle, and an impressive 78% in New York.

Even more shocking: in May 2020, during the first lockdown, Boston, New York and San Francisco all accounted for just over 30% of pre-pandemic activity. Only San Francisco failed to return.

Our study calculated these metrics using visits from 18 million smartphones to downtown points of interest provided by data company SafeGraph, to measure downtown activity. This indicator is much more comprehensive than office vacancy rates, transit ridership and retail spending totals that others have used to track the downtown recovery.

Our study included visits over time to 62 North American city centers, comparing the most recent activity (as of May 31, 2022) to pre-pandemic levels (in 2019). We saw a wide variation in the extent of the recovery, with activity ranging from a low of 31% of pre-pandemic levels in San Francisco to a high of 155% in Salt Lake City, likely due to the construction of new homes downtown.

Earlier this year, most downtowns that rebounded were in the southern United States, while northern downtowns continued to struggle. But now, in this late pandemic time, people are returning to cities everywhere… except San Francisco.

What explains why cities come back?

We examined the role of 43 employment and socioeconomic variables, including the composition of downtown employment industries and the characteristics of downtown residents.

Overall, the main factors driving recovery rates were the density of population and businesses downtown, as well as reliance on cars for travel. Downtowns with high concentrations of employment sectors that support remote working were also a crucial component. The most important variables, however, are the percentage of jobs in information, professional, scientific and technical, accommodation and food services, health care and social assistance, and finance. and insurance. Recovery rates were also correlated with mode of travel, average travel time, education level of downtown residents, business and population density, and type of downtown housing stock.

Overall, many of these drivers are also very similar for Boston, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. So something else must be at work.

There is only one factor that sets downtown San Francisco apart from the rest: its lack of economic diversity. San Francisco has become too specialized.

This is not rocket science. Decades of economic studies have shown that the most resilient economies are diverse and that overspecialized cities are particularly vulnerable to shocks.

Downtown San Francisco has 31% of its jobs in professional, scientific, and technical services — a category that includes law, accounting, advertising, architecture, and consulting firms, as well as building design. computer systems – i.e. the types of businesses where highly skilled professionals work alone productively and are therefore well suited to remote working. In comparison, only 18% of workers in downtown New York work in this industry. Additionally, more than 9% of downtown San Francisco’s jobs are in news, twice that of Boston.

And then there are the areas where San Francisco falls short. Health care and social assistance make up just 2% of jobs downtown, compared to 14% in Seattle. And only 1% of downtown San Francisco’s employment is in arts, entertainment and recreation. Seattle’s is double that.

Many of the quality of life issues San Francisco faces stem from this lack of diversity. High housing prices and travel have been partly due to the rapid growth of professional and technical workers in the city. High crime is often linked to lack of round-the-clock activity and “eyes on the street”, urban theorist Jane Jacobs’ idea that dense concentrations of shopkeepers and local residents contribute to safety by surveilling permanently on the street.

The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed age-old debates about the future of downtowns in North America. Experts have predicted the death of downtown time and time again, but most urban cores have seen a move back to the city. Many city centers have even moved from day-use office areas to bustling 24-hour mixed-use spaces.

Recent surveys suggest that remote working is likely to be a permanent feature in companies where productivity does not depend on face-to-face contact. Even when employers impose in-person work requirements, tight labor markets for highly skilled workers mean employers have little leverage.

It’s time for San Francisco to reinvent downtown by putting it to work.

The city should use every tool at its disposal, from zoning to its tax code to workforce development, to diversify its economy. And it should place particular emphasis on sectors like the arts and healthcare that will bring a steady stream of workers and visitors to downtown.

Part of the diversity, of course, is mixed land use. Only by allowing more residents to live downtown in meaningful numbers will San Francisco’s financial district have the density it needs to become a 24-hour place. The city should help developers to convert former office buildings for residential, institutional and recreational use, and to fill the space with non-profit organizations. Retail pop-ups can help bridge the middle stages of this transformation until bigger changes can be made.

San Francisco must recreate its downtown for the people, attracting diverse segments of the population to work, live and visit. This may require significant public-private collaboration, given the extensive intervention required to remake the space.

And, in fact, San Francisco recently announced programs to do just that, led by both the city and the private sector. The mayor’s ‘Downtown Recovery Plan’, along with similar plans for the Mid-Market district, are centered around hosting events, community ambassadors and improved policing in the region. Meanwhile, the “Public Realm Action Plan” proposed by the Downtown SF business group proposes to better activate downtown public spaces with events and a greater emphasis on pedestrians versus cars.

But guess what? These plans won’t be enough if we don’t attract a variety of economic uses, workers and residents to the downtown core. Tactical city planning, public safety initiatives and street fairs address symptoms, not causes.

As the famous saying goes: it’s the economy, you idiot.

Karen Chapple is Director of the Urban Displacement Project and Emeritus Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley and Director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

David H. Henry