The picture of the event on Jan. 17 at Manny's.
Rich Hillis, Sujata Srivastava, Rodney Fong and Manny Yekutiel (from left to right) at the event, Jan.17. Photo by Chuqin Jiang

When asked, “who goes downtown for work five days a week?” fewer than 10 people raised their hands Tuesday night in the back room at Manny’s Cafe, packed with about 200 people.

And, right there, the audience demonstrated the problem that city officials are facing in reviving San Francisco’s moribund downtown. On Tuesday, a panel including Rich Hillis, the director of the city’s Planning Department, Sujata Srivastava, an urban researcher of SPUR and Rodney Fong from the city’s Chamber of Commerce discussed solutions to what The New York Times described last month as “perhaps the most deserted major downtown in America.”

Remote work has far outlived the pandemic, and San Francisco’s office buildings are using Kastle security systems at an occupancy rate of 40 percent at the end of 2022. That was slightly less than other major cities, including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. The office occupancy rate in 2022 for Fridays was below 25 percent, even lower than the rate in 2021, according to Kastle’s weekly occupancy report .

Graphic by Kastle, a company that estimates office occupancy in 10 metro areas from its key card data.

“People like to say we’re the worst. But we’re not this huge outlier,” pointed out Sujata Srivastava, the director of the San Francisco think tank SPUR. She said she didn’t see a future where people are still working “nine to five, five days a week in the office.” New ways of using office space can emerge, including shortened leases and large teamwork tables where workers can gather for certain projects.

She also said that the demand for premium office space remains high for some types of buildings. The Transamerica Pyramid, completed in 1972 but under renovation since last year, for example, is seeing rents rise. 

One concept is to convert other vacant, older buildings with no refurbishment to housing. But such conversion can be costly and complex, as one Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office report concluded in January. 

“A combination of reforms in the City’s development project planning and approval processes, and financial incentives and subsidies, could help facilitate such conversions for affordable and/or market rate housing,” read the report.

And Rich Hillis, the city’s Planning Director, pointed out that, right now, new investment to conversion hardly makes sense because of high risk and shrinking profit. “In many instances it’s as expensive as building a new building,” said Hillis of doing conversations. “And the rents and the sale prices have dropped more downtown than in other parts of the city.”

Despite heated discussions, there is only one project currently being proposed — a very small floor plan of the Warfield Theatre building at 988 Market St.

Deserted Financial District in 2020. Photo by Leslie Rabine.

Other ideas were also discussed including incentives to encourage such conversions, converting offices to hotels or turning them over to nonprofits. Srivastava said SPUR is studying the feasibility of conversions with the Urban Land Institute and pointed to case studies in Washington, D.C., in which incentives have helped the District build 2,400 units. “It’s not a small amount, considering San Francisco as a whole gets about 3,000 units built a year,” said Srivastava.

Hillis said conversions were more likely to happen first in the smaller, older buildings around Union Square and Jackson Square. “Those would be wonderful places to live and convert some of those old, older Class B, Class C office buildings to housing. So we’ve got to figure out why that’s not happening, or what’s standing in the way of making that happen,” he said.  

Rodney Fong, the President of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and a former Planning Commissioner, said that downtown needed to keep its hotel stock because tourists will return. But, he pointed out, that many of the city’s smaller, boutique hotels on Sutter and Post streets were once apartments that were then converted. “So the argument of going back retro to putting people in the downtown that were originally there is not far-fetched,” Fong said. 

“Our challenge ahead is to try to transform downtown into an area that you want to spend time in.” Fong saw an opportunity to reimagine downtown into one of the world’s cleanest and greenest  — San Francisco’s North Star, as he put it. 

Fong reminded the audience of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition that followed the 1906 earthquake. “You can paint whatever picture you want, but I think we need to have the North Star,” he said, suggesting a focus on sustainable science, technology and advances like seawall protection.

“As we talked about what we like about downtown, there’s so much … from museums to Union Square to theaters to the cable cars, to the Ferry Building to the Embarcadero,” said Hillis. “It needs a boost. We have somewhat ignored downtown in the last decade or so.”

Downtown view from the Mission. May 9, 2020 around noon. Photo by Kerim Harmanci.

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INTERN DATA REPORTER. Chuqin has two degrees in data journalism and she is passionate about making data more accessible to readers. Before arriving in the Mission, she covered small business and migratory birds in New York City while learning to code and design at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She loves coastal cities, including SF and her hometown Ningbo.

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  1. Move the prostitutes from our residential zones to the Financia District.

    We live, in a residential neighborhood, where prostitutes & their customers, are a source of noise; the pimps are a source of violence a shootings.

    If prostitution is relocated to a non-residential district, it will serve residents & the prostitutes as well. I don’t see a conflict of interest.

  2. I love how Sujata Srivastava minimizes the problem: “People like to say we’re the worst. But we’re not this huge outlier” — as if it’s okay to be the worst if other cities are nearly as bad. This is the problem with SF City government. They like to have panels and meet, but they don’t really have any implementable plans, except for injection sites.

  3. What if they made most or all parking free? Even the parking ramps, for, maybe up to 6 hours or figure something out so that it’s not so expensive to go out to restaurants or whatever downtown. I have paid over $25 just to park in Union Square or Westfield so that is the main reason I stay away. I heard many cities created free parking and small businesses stayed open and those downtown areas thrived.

  4. I would like to see worker accommodations so they can spend less time in traffic and increase productivity. Feuding with Elon Musk is counterproductive, petty politics. Convert some empty offices into educational facilities for schools, colleges, & job training purposes. Museum exhibits might also be feasible. Long term strategies are going to take years to implement. We need short term solutions in the interim.

  5. artists lofts, small business, places of learning, independent restaurants and cafe, unique music and performing arts establishments… we had all that downtown- they were all displaced by tech- assited by the city government- given tax relief to boot. STOP DESTROYING ESTABLISHED HOME GROWN SMALL BUSINESS AND ARTS, STOP displacing long term residents. When tech has a downturn, and they always do, the hard working individuals who filled our downtown are gone and we have this discussion AGAIN. It’s a shame

  6. Cleanest greenest, is nice, but isn’t exactly appealing. You know what used to be appealing about SF? The artistic side of things, the freaks, the creative people doing something unusual, the enchanting magical alure. But the techies came and sort of painted over all that with their sterile brushes that got rid of the human aspect. At some point I remember I couldn’t walk down the road without bumping into someone, because they would be staring at their phone, as of they weren’t on this plane of existence… So we had the aloof techies taking over like a robot army pushing out all the things that made SF interesting. Why did they even show up, they seemed completely uninterested to even be here in SF. Yet they were here. The the city government did little to collect tax, because the tech really taxed this city like no one ever did before. And now we’re stuck with degenerates showing up from every corner to make things worse. Does any one care anymore? Does the city government care? Pride isn’t always a good thing, but it does hurt to take pride in the place that you live in. Or else at least don’t mess it up.

  7. Campers,

    Did you know that at one point Havana grew 90% of what they ate in their backyards?

    The empty parking lots are strong enuff to support a hydroponic jungle.

    I can see a thousand apartments like that eye engineer had in Bladerunner.

    Hey, Rich !!

    You need 82,000 dwelling spaces and you got 2 million square feet of empty offices ?

    Hillis best known for the Octavia Commons and Skateboard Park and he put together Outside Lands and did Art Galleries at Fort Mason when he was Exec dir. there plus the Food Truck festivals in their huge parking lot next to Marina Green (his Office had a boating slip underneath its windows) …

    Personally, I’d advise people to put a duplicate house to their house under their house.

    Not nuclear proof but close.

    Go Niners !!

    h.

  8. The only way to clean up downtown S.F. that is to re-open S.F.Housing Authority. Have top notch people running it. Start putting portal toliets around for use. Humans, do have to release themselves. And it’s time to put in action mental clinics, and less drug clinics. The city is worse than a jungle. No one is safe on market street without protection for themselves.

  9. Nothing good will happen in San Francisco until the supervisors get serious about crime, especially drug dealing. With Ronen and Breed working to open a drug use site in the Mission, it will attract more dealers and street crime to our neighborhood. Our elected officials are giving residents a huge finger.

    1. Hahaha… the corruption within the city government ought to be taken care of, before expecting anything meaningful to come out of it. London Breed is no shining example.

  10. How many of these office spaces can be turned into low-cost workspaces for artists or arts organizations needing affordable space? As the film “A Kaddish For Bernie Madoff” mentions, that’s a program that NYC used with their vacant office space.

  11. SF’s downtown office economy is in hospice care and is not going to be coming home. The Chamber and SPUR larded all of SF’s economic eggs into their members’ baskets and now those economic propositions no longer hold.

    So we will see “Downtown SF” proceed through the phases of grieving, starting with “denial.” I’m popping the popcorn!

  12. It’s obvious: clean up the streets. There’s way too much human feces on the streets here. I’ve been to more than 50 countries and I have never seen a city with as much human feces on the streets.

    Then, stop being so tolerant of junkies. I walked downtown yesterday, from our home in the Mission all the way down to 2nd St and back. In addition to having to watch my step for human feces, I passed several people yelling into the air, gesticulating wildly. Crazy people are unavoidable on the streets because of California law, but we’re exacerbating the problem by being so fentanyl-friendly.

    1. NYC has a competent government and the general population is rational moderates. Thankfully get to travel there regularly enough for work and reminded how a proper major city operates. Would move if not for the winters. The power dynamic of the mayor and BOS creates a chaotic city hall and more flexing than results. NYers don’t tolerate the shit happening on the streets here. Through COVID their street conditions deteriorated and now you are seeing A+ Adams getting sh*t done.

      1. Well credit where credit’s due. Mayor Breed and Supe Ronen can be seen tripping over one another in their rush to get a consumption site up and running /s

    2. If rich folks did not spend their money to sue to stop shelters, residential facilities for drug addiction and mental health and low income housing we would have places for the mentally ill and addicted to go. WE DO NOT HAVE ANYPLACE for them to go today, large part due to NIMBYs.

  13. Was their discussion about less creeps, dealers and crazed mentally ill addicts covering the street? Like who would live downtown if there are options in other locations? Stop ignoring the obvious. Walked home down Market St. yesterday. From the Embarcadero to Van Ness it is absolutely disgusting and it’s spilling into our Downtown. When this is addressed people will fill into every open apt and condo in our downtown just like they do in other major city development projects. Downtown LA, The District D.C., The Pearl in San Antonio, west side redevelopment in NYC (so many examples of this happening in NYC you can basically pick any area), West Loop in Chicago. Incentivize conversions and the businesses that move into the immediate area of these conversions to promote well rounded lively communities.

    To those who say all this office space should be converted to housing for the homeless. Absolutely. Prioritize the people who are living out of their cars and rvs while working essential jobs that keep our city functioning. But absolutely don’t fill it will crazy Cora, meth boy Matt or scabby Sammy types. That will just shift the dealers and create an expensive disaster worsening the failures of the past decade.

    Dray locking down Porzingis was masterful.

    1. Agreed! Tone of dysfunctional ones show up to SF, thinking they can get away with their BS, know very well they couldn’t where they came from.

  14. Convert office buildings into homeless shelters and “supervised injection sites”. This would bring thousands of new people downtown.

    1. San Francisco: “Send us you degenerates for we will give them free services, shelter, drugs and more!”

  15. Oh geez – an evening of pointless talk about stuff they can’t do. 25% this 1,000 units that, yayade. What an embarrassment. So here’s what can be done, starting today: Make the place not suck. That can be done without all the panel fodder. The list is long, from the top of the head: That layer of grime downtown that built up over the pandemic may have been washed away for now, but bottom line, the place needs to feel crisp like it used to. Props to Muni for turning over the old buses and spiffing up the underground stations, but then you walk the street having to tiptoe around overflowing trash cans no matter where you go. Move them from their spots, deep clean, empty these friggin’ things and keep them empty, starting right now. Look after BART especially during times you hope ppl might be riding in for shopping, concerts etc. What else… Oh, that creepy ex-con vibe that some of the ambassadors emit doesn’t help. Send them to charm school. Next up, public safety. What with all the griping about how it’s supposed to be all perception and crime’s down. SF is in the penalty box, stop the denial. DA Jenkins “got it”, time for others to get up to speed. What we don’t need is nonsense like Mayor Breed, entourage in tow, dropping by Union Sq before the holidays, declaring how peachy things supposedly were now. Finally, if you want to attract and keep businesses around, have a sit down with the SFCTA and stop floating congestion pricing.

    1. It’s getting better,

      When I joined Manny’s and Mission Local I volunteered to be ‘Picky Picker – I consider cigarette butts to be gold nuggets …

      That was bit over year ago and Manny went from around ten volunteers and last week a volunteer told me there were 50 for the one hour Sunday ‘Disco Trash’.

      I got into it heavily and did entire stretch of Valencia from 14th to 17th by myself.

      Then, all of Clarion ‘Gallery’ Alley.

      People started copying me !!

      Worst spot was trash can by liquor store 16th and Valencia and it could take an hour to cut up the cardboard and use pieces to clear the gutter all the way to corner.

      I took month and a half off to go out of town and pet sit and when I got back ?

      Place looked like when I left it cause the shopowners and tenants who lived there saw me day after day and month after month and when I disappeared they started doing it themselves these people who offered me always revoked money and always accepted food or water or juice drinks.

      Hey, when I first came here in 1966 the place was famous as hell.

      Not for being clean.

      Gold Miners weren’t that clean either.

      Don’t just volunteer.

      Be friendly.

      Be a ‘picky picker’ even if you only cover a hundred square feet of 16th and Mission in your hour being real for Manny’s and the City.

      Go Niners !!

      h.