High Hopes for SF's Downtown As Offices Reopen

  • With offices reopening at 25% capacity, San Francisco leaders expressed optimism that many downtown businesses will begin to bring workers back

  • The San Francisco Giants and Golden State Warriors will also likely host a limited number of fans in the near future, said Mayor London Breed on Tuesday

  • Commuter-serving businesses have been especially hard hit by COVID, with sales tax collections dropping more than 70% in SF's downtown core between Q2 2019 and Q2 2020

With San Francisco entering the orange tier on Wednesday, San Francisco leaders are heralding a comeback for downtown as workers begin to trickle back in the coming months.


The City's orange tier status means that nonessential offices can reopen at 25% capacity, along with expansions of dining, recreation and other activities. The San Francisco Giants are also expected to welcome fans back at limited capacity, and the City is in discussions with the Golden State Warriors to reopen Chase Arena to spectators sometime before the end of the season.


Any such plans will be disclosed "soon," said Mayor London Breed at a press conference at Rincon Plaza on Tuesday.


"For {San Francisco Giants] opening day, the plan is to make sure they have spectators, so we're working on the specifics in terms of capacity and what the requirements are going to be," said Breed.


San Francisco officials expressed optimism that the gradual return of offices, and sporting events, will breathe life back into the City's near-deserted downtown. How many employers bring workers back, and when, is "the million-dollar question," said Rodney Fong, head of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.


"People have found success working from home, obviously, but we're feeling energysome companies have announced they want to come back. They want the productivity, and want folks to convene for creative reasons in-person," Fong told Public Comment. "I'm certainly feeling optimism and energy with people wanting to get back to the office, at least a few days a week, and ease back into it."


Several large tech employers in San Franciscoincluding Salesforce, the City's largest private employerhave made remote work allowances permanent for some employees. But it remains to be seen whether that approach is typical for downtown businesses at large. While many software companies have embraced remote work, recent interviews with startup founders suggest that companies in areas like design or manufacturing may be quicker to return to in-person collaboration.


"All of our businesses need to flourish: Our small businesses, our flower shops, our restaurants, our bowling alleys," said Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio. "All of the bigger business, the tech businesses, we have an opportunity to come together to build San Francisco back ...to have that pioneering spirit guide SF through its next decade, and I'm really looking forward to that."


Twilio, which builds cloud communication software, is among the larger tech employers in San Francisco and had about 900 San Francisco-based employees as of 2020.


Lawson told Public Comment that Twilio is offering its employees flexibility in remote work, but has set a target of Sept. 1 to welcome more employees back to its San Francisco headquarters in the Rincon Hill area. Likewise, other tech employers in the Bay Area, such as Google, have made plans to bring workers back on-site, at least on a hybrid basis, starting in the fall.


The pandemic has made clear the "symbiotic relationship" between downtown employers and the many small businesses that rely on commuters and office workers for revenue. A multitude of coffee shops, restaurants, caterers, and bars serving commuters saw their businesses dry up overnight as workers stayed home.


Chamber of Commerce data showed that the Financial District and SOMA had the most business closures of any neighborhood as of fall 2020. In a recent budget update, the Controller's Office noted that in the downtown core, sales tax revenue between Q2 2019 and Q2 2020 dropped by more than 70%. Low-wage industries such as restaurants and hotels "absorbed most of the office," according to the Controller.


"We know there are companies that are talking specifically about working form home in various capacities, but let me just say this: I'm tired of working from home," said Breed on Tuesday. "We have a lot of dedicated companies in San Francisco that are really, truly committed to reopening offices and having flexible work schedules."


"But I think we can all agree: Working from home is boring," she added. "I want to be around people...I want to see the City jumping again."

Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup
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