In recent months, Mayor London Breed and her office had been touting a proposal to revive San Francisco’s moribund city center that they called the “Downtown Economic Recovery Plan.”
In February, she unveiled the “Roadmap for Downtown San Francisco’s Future.” Perhaps someone noticed that the former acronym for the big plan was “DERP.”
So, that got changed. That’s new. But not everything in this Roadmap is. The Roadmap is a set of goals, and a spiffy website. But the new plan is neither new, nor a plan.
And that’s a bit bewildering, because if ever this city could use a cunning plan, it’d be one to save downtown, a realm of empty office buildings, failing ancillary businesses meant to serve nonexistent office workers, and ever-degrading street conditions. Even in the best of times, the FiDi/downtown was not a place San Franciscans visited if they didn’t have to.
Out of sight, out of mind: Until the bills come due. Downtown is this city’s economic engine and, at present, San Francisco is a very pretty, well-upholstered car with a growing colony of possums under the hood in lieu of a functioning motor. Sooner or later, this will affect our ability to operate the vehicle — and pay for its upkeep.
So it was, again, a bit bewildering that three of Breed’s most-touted points in the Roadmap — simplifying and speeding up permitting; allowing developers to defer paying impact fees; and expediting the transformation of office buildings into residential — are decidedly not new and revelatory. These are some of the very first ideas the city proposed at the dawn of the pandemic.
In fact, they’re three of the very first proposals listed in the October, 2020, Economic Recovery Task Force Report, an effort convened by Breed and then-Board President Norman Yee. This report requires some half-a-dozen pages just to list the people who worked on it both in government and adjunct to it; it has more writers than Saturday Night Live.
A lot of people spent a lot of time assembling this report, which has 41 suggestions for the city. Hardly any of them have been enacted, let alone initiated. Let alone even read, it seems. That includes the three listed above. And these are things a mayor could’ve gotten the ball rolling on; the department heads work for her, after all. She didn’t necessarily need to legislate. And she didn’t need to take it to the voters, who won’t be able to weigh in until mid-2024.
In fact, prior to local, state and federal covid emergency measures recently expiring, the mayor could’ve acted far more decisively on this with emergency powers. It is, again, bewildering to ignore urgent proposals when you can act quickly and unilaterally on them and then re-propose them — years later — when you cannot.
A small army of people put together the Task Force Report that Breed commissioned years ago, and this did not escape their notice. San Francisco doesn’t have a coming-up-with-plans problem. We have a reading-the-plans problem. And we have an implementing-the-plans problem.
With all that said, are many of the things Mayor Breed wants to do downtown good ideas? Hell yes, they are. If you want to keep the city’s pedantic codes from preventing art studios or life sciences or a gumdrop store or anything unusual moving into downtown and if you want to ease the conversion of office buildings into housing, marvelous.
San Francisco doesn’t need to coddle corporate bad actors or roll over the way Texas did for Tesla, or Nevada did for Zappos (or the Raiders). But it also doesn’t need to perpetuate an onerous, even disdainful business climate. For too many businesses in San Francisco, the punchline of Dave Chappelle’s PopCopy sketch — “Why treat the customer this way? Why? ‘Cause fuck ‘em, that’s why!” — is likely deeply triggering.
Improving this situation would be an unmitigated good, come what may downtown. It would be nice for San Francisco to be governed properly, right?
But even that, as well as the more controversial tax breaks and other measures Breed is bandying about, likely won’t make more than a marginal difference in the state of downtown.
Simply put, city government didn’t make downtown into the tech Valhalla it was, with soaring rents and minuscule vacancies and rivers of tax revenue.
“I can tell you that I was the director of economic development. And we didn’t do anything to get tech into San Francisco,” recalls David Prowler, who worked for the city between 1988 and 1999. “We really didn’t aggressively court it. We were as surprised as anybody else to see the tech boom. We were so focused on biotech, we didn’t see the tech boom coming.”
Adds a veteran City Hall hand of more recent vintage, “The idea that San Francisco did something to only attract tech tenants — this is looking back on history and assigning intention and agency where none existed.”
Tech companies, by and large, sited here because this is where the talent was, and where the talent wanted to be; if, by some alchemy, the talent wanted to live in Sitka, Alaska, they’d have likely gone there, with tech workers wearing Patagonia parkas instead of Patagonia vests.
Tech companies had so much money, they could monopolize this city’s office space to the point of absorbing it before it was even created. In retrospect, this was a problem — how many stories did we hear about nonprofits, etc. being pushed out to Oakland and beyond? — but it was hard to argue with the money pouring into city coffers. While there were city figures warning about a budding downtown monoculture, they were, by and large, not listened to.
So it remains to be seen if San Francisco’s government can artificially re-create the success it didn’t initially create. Or how much any one city can push back against global trends.
“Every downtown is dealing with this to a greater or lesser extent. San Francisco is just a bit more vulnerable,” says Michael Berne, a San Francisco real-estate consultant with a focus on urban downtowns. “But these are much larger forces. Can San Francisco play on the margins? Probably. But we’re part of a larger universe and these same trends are affecting all cities.”
Mayor Breed has, of late, touted Artificial Intelligence as the city’s next big thing. But AI is just another tech company; its workers do not figure to head to central offices five days a week from 9 to 5 and prop up the flagging $18 lunch salad industry.
There is also talk of luring biotech to downtown. This seems downright fanciful. Biotech has purpose-built buildings in Mission Bay. Or, for that matter, in the South Bay, where their workers also have sprawling parking lots and won’t have to hopscotch over human effluvia on the way to work.
All of which gets to the underlying problem facing San Francisco: The increasingly untenable situation of misery and drug use on our streets. It is very hard to imagine any sales pitch to would-be San Francisco businesses not being strained because of this. Even during periods of fabulous wealth and prosperity, San Francisco was a city awash in desperation and antisocial behavior.
The reams of statistics that indicate San Francisco’s violent crime levels are on the low end for a major American city do not resonate with people nearly as much as the lurid details of individual incidents, such as the middle-aged couple being savagely beaten on Super Bowl Sunday near Dolores Park for the high crime of telling two women on a motorized scooter to not ride on the sidewalk.
This incident will resonate all the more, because the victim said police “had no sense of urgency.” To wit, it was the victim, not the cops, who purportedly took it upon himself to collect the scooter the assailants left behind. Yes, you have to punch in a credit card to ride one of these scooters; yes, this appears to be a bewildering oversight by the SFPD.
Anecdotal evidence hits harder than statistical evidence; ask Chesa Boudin how that goes. And, anecdotally, it feels like the police, who long ago lost interest in property crime, are increasingly indifferent to violent crime, too.
Keeping the streets clean and safe “is the normal job of government. That should not be triggered by a crisis,” says Prowler. “These are the things government should be able to do. And they’re things San Francisco didn’t do a very good job of when fiscal concerns were less pressing.”
So it’s hard to imagine businesses elbowing each other out of the way to repopulate downtown while this situation persists, and worsens. Or, for that matter, regular folks heading there hoping to spend a little money on a Friday night.
Your Humble Narrator worked for more than 10 years in the FiDi (in the same building for two different newspapers, hilariously). And, come sundown, you can all but hear the workers shouting “Yabba-dabba-doo,” sliding down the dinosaur and heading nearly anywhere else. It clears out at nights and is bereft on the weekends.
Little wonder: “Cleanliness and homelessness grab a lot of attention. But if you remove the trash and find a place for the homeless, you’re still left with a built environment that’s pretty grim,” sums up Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City and a longtime former BART commissioner.
Every effort Breed or her predecessors has made to make downtown a destination has fizzled. And that was before the pending devastation of BART and Muni.
“BART was designed to keep San Francisco the economic and cultural center of the region. That is its purpose,” says Radulovich.
“San Francisco, especially downtown, is more dependent on BART than any other place in the region.”
City Hall is a Manichean place, where if you’re not being cynical you’re being naive, and vice versa.
So the many folks who watched proposals that they came up with in 2020 being sent back at them in 2023 — “like yesterday’s mashed potatoes without the gravy,” as one put it — were not surprised.
Controversial tax break measures, especially when undertaken without input from labor, will certainly induce some level of rancor. Politicians who poll worse than the mayor will weigh in. This doesn’t actually solve problems, but does offer her the chance to counterbalance and distinguish herself; a winning political strategy, thus far.
Any single elected official who lashes themself to the resurrection of downtown will be politically immolated. San Francisco hasn’t successfully transformed mid-Market, let alone the Tenderloin, and this is potentially far more complex.
So, politically, it’s good to spread things out. Even if the city’s myriad departments could’ve been spurred into action by executive fiat years ago.
Perhaps, in retrospect, it’s unfortunate the mayor ditched her plan’s original title. After all, the acronym “DERP” also works for Declare Everyone Responsible for the Problem.