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Plan to Revive San Francisco's Deserted Downtown Takes Shape

Updated: May 28, 2021

  • Mayor London Breed is proposing more than $17 million in investments to revitalize San Francisco's empty downtown through arts programming, enhanced public safety measures, and subsidies for conventions

  • Retired police officers will act as "community ambassadors," serving to assist visitors and merchants and to remediate quality of life concerns around Union Square

  • A downtown event series called SF Wednesdays, featuring local music, dance and arts programming, will kick off this summer

  • Breed also took the Board of Supervisors to task for stalling two small business-focused proposals, which include a plan to make Shared Spaces permanent and another to simplify new business permitting

With commuters and tourists still largely shying away, Mayor London Breed unveiled a plan to breathe new life into San Francisco's deserted downtown.

Speaking at Union Square on Tuesday, Breed and a group of officials made the case that the recovery of downtown is part and parcel with the City's recovery as a whole. Prior to the pandemic, about 40% of total jobs in San Francisco were based in downtown according to the Planning Department.

"It's about creating jobs, and it's about creating an increased tax base to support the services we all want," said Breed. "These two things go hand in hand."

To help bring more visitors back to downtown, Breed is proposing a budget carve-out of $9.5 million to fund arts programming and "community ambassadors" intended to boost public safety. Many of those ambassadors are retired San Francisco police officers who act as "eyes and ears" in the area, liaising with the community and helping to steer people in crisis towards services, said Breed.

That safety program, which was first piloted last year, is intended to complement another public safety initiative focused on the Tenderloin and Mid-Market areas.

The Tenderloin and Mid-Market plan added additional beat officers to those areas starting last week, and will also leverage Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit that contracts with UC Hastings and surrounding areas, to add more "safety ambassadors" to the area starting in mid-June. Those ambassadors, alongside enhanced police patrols, are intended to deter drug dealing, provide safe passage and help resolve quality of life issues.

“We have an opportunity to make visitors feel safe and welcome as we begin to bring them back and show them all that our beautiful city has to offer," said Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association. "This focused investment on the downtown core will reap huge benefits for the city at large.”

To make downtown more vibrant, and to lure back visitors who have avoided the area during the pandemic, Breed plans to allocate $1 million to an event series called "SF Wednesdays," which taps local artists and performers to "activate" downtown plazas with two-hour music, dance and arts events.

Another $1 million will fund beautification efforts at Hallidie Plaza, which serves as the gateway to Union Square as visitors emerge from the Powell Street BART station. The Port of San Francisco is expected to coordinate pop-up events and activities along the City's waterfront areas adjoining downtown.

The arts, safety and beautification efforts are intended to complement another $4.6 proposal to encourage more convention business. Moscone Center alone accounts for 21% of San Francisco's tourism industry, which overall generates hundreds of millions in revenue for the City in hotel, business and sales taxes.

The $4.6 million would be used to reduce the cost of renting space, and the Mayor's Office estimates that the subsidy would return between 140,000 and 150,000 hotel room nights for San Francisco, generating more than $170 million in direct convention spending. San Francisco hosted more than 1,600 conventions and meetings in 2019, but that number has dropped to a total of just 29 since April 2020.

Breed, who has made small business support a cornerstone of her COVID recovery plan, also took the Board of Supervisors to task for stalling two pieces of legislation intended to assist beleaguered restauranteurs, bar owners and retailers.

Earlier this week, the Board of Supervisors Land Use & Transportation Committee punted on a proposal to make Shared Spaces, a program allowing proprietors to set up outdoor operations on sidewalks, parking spaces and empty lots, permanent. Small business owners, some of whom accrued heavy debt during COVID shutdowns, urged Supervisors to pass the measure.

A second proposal, dubbed the Small Business Recovery Act, seeks to simplify and make more affordable the process for obtaining business permits. The Board of Supervisors committee also delayed a vote on that measure.

"If the [Supervisors] make it too difficult to go down that path, my plan is to bring it to the voters," said Breed.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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