While the story blames the pandemic, we know it is much more than that when it comes to cities like San Francisco. Permissive vagrant and drug policies, lack of police enforcement, prioritizing the homeless over the people who pay taxes, the list goes on.
Data bears out that San Francisco’s downtown is having a harder time than most. A study of 63 North American downtowns by the University of Toronto ranked the city dead last in a return to pre-pandemic activity, garnering only 32% of its 2019 traffic.
Hotel revenues are stuck at 73% of pre-pandemic levels, weekly office attendance remains below 50% and commuter rail travel to downtown is at 33%, according to a recent economic report by the city.
Office vacancy rates in San Francisco were 24.8% in the first quarter, more than five times higher than pre-pandemic levels and well above the average rate of 18.5% for the nation’s top 10 cities, according to CBRE, a commercial real estate services company.
Why? San Francisco relied heavily on international tourism and its tech workforce, both of which disappeared during the pandemic.
But other major cities including Portland and Seattle, which also rely on tech workers, are struggling with similar declines, according to the downtown recovery study, which used anonymized mobile phone data to analyze downtown activity patterns from before the pandemic and between March and May of this year.
I’ve gone to San Francisco two to six times a year for the past decade or so. In fact, I was in San Francisco and went to a basketball game right as the pandemic began. It was my last business trip for a while. While the city had its bums and nasty areas, it was a vibrant, fun city. It was also relatively safe – as far as cities go. I once took a run from Fisherman’s Wharf, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and back through the city. I never felt any less safe than any other large city. I usually stayed in the financial district or by the wharf because I liked the restaurants.
I was in San Fran again a few weeks ago. I stayed two nights in Fisherman’s Wharf. The place was a ghost town and one of my colleagues had his luggage stolen from his rental car in a smash-and-grab. When he returned the car, they said that they have difficulty maintaining inventory because the cars come back with smashed windows so often. I went for a short walk and had to avoid bums and feces. It was gross and while I wasn’t threatened, the glares made me lament that I wasn’t carrying a weapon. I cut my walk short.
It’s a shame, but the city isn’t dying. It’s being killed.