“It’s worse than it looks,” admits the SF Chronicle, and it looks pretty bad.
“Downtown S.F. on the brink: It’s worse than it looks,” blared the San Francisco Chronicle headline this morning.
“The engine of the city’s economy is struggling,” added Noah Arroyo, author of the Chronicle’s blistering indictment of the current state of affairs in the City by the Bay.
“Visuals by Jessica Christian,” is the next by-line on the piece and it soon becomes clear just how important those visuals are in conveying the decay setting into San Francisco’s once thriving downtown district.
It isn’t excerpts from the article that strike the reader, though some are indeed striking. The visuals are impossible to ignore or explain away: An unflinching, interactive “walk” down two San Francisco city blocks where business after business is closed, shuttered, dark, and forbidding.
“Against the backdrop of shuttered, graffitied storefronts and other detritus left in COVID-19’s wake, including on this two-block stretch of Kearny Street,” Arroyo writes, “professionals can once again be seen en route to their now sparsely populated offices or the few cafes and restaurants that survived their absence, now eager for their precious patronage.”
“Some new businesses have opened, and tourism has ticked up,” Arroyo strikes a decidedly hopeful tone before dropping the hammer: “Don’t be fooled.”
“The downtown area, the city’s primary economic driver, is teetering on the edge, facing challenges greater than previously known, new data shows,” warns Arroyo. “The wounds suffered by the economic core are deep, and city officials have yet to come up with a plan to make the fundamental changes that some economists and business leaders argue could make the area thrive again.”
The scrolling two-block visual tour of downtown San Francisco tells the tale in gut-wrenching and visceral terms.
Vision First Eyecare Inc, closed February 2019. Pachino’s Pizzeria, closed March of 2020. Topsy’s Fun House, shuttered September 2020. The Organic Coup, December 2021. Selix Formalwear, closed June 2018. Boxed Foods, closed November 2018. Banana Home held on until March 2022, when it, too, closed. Baladie Cafe closed its doors in May of 2021.
On and on it goes: Block by city block in a city that, only 10 years ago, was considered the crown jewel of the tech industry and Silicon Valley.
Major retailers, drug store chains and other companies have been abandoning the downtown San Francisco area in droves over the past few years, driven out by a number of factors, not least of which has been the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 hit the entire country; for San Francisco to fare so poorly, other factors must have been ascendent. One of those factors, which is really three factors in one, is rising crime in San Francisco, driven in part by the city’s burgeoning homelessness crisis and too many homeless San Francisco residents beset by drug addiction or mental health issues.
Since implementing a policy raising the bar for felony shoplifting to around $1,000, shoplifting incidents in the city have skyrocketed. Nor are these the middling, random thefts of individuals made desperate by poverty.
Groups of dozens of people have descended on retail shops and businesses to clear hundreds of thousands in merchandise from a single store in a matter of minutes. Teams of thieves work together to fill black garbage bags full of merchandise, in full view of shocked and horrified customers and employees, then leave in a waiting car.
Drug store chain Walgreens, after spending many times the national average to beef up security at their San Francisco stores and failing to stop the catastrophic loss of an average of $1,000 per day, every day, has all but abandoned the city.
The pharmacies, convenience stores and bodegas left are coming to resemble nothing so much as giant vending machines; every product behind lock-and-key under unbreakable plexiglass.
In wealthier shopping districts, predictably, retailers and business community members are pooling resources to hire private security companies to protect their businesses.
Other areas aren’t as fortunate.
Increasingly, as might be expected, some of these incidents are becoming dangerous altercations between would-be thieves and store-owners determined to defend themselves, their employees and their livelihoods.
Apart from stating the obvious, “The impact on local businesses cannot be overstated,” a few root causes are buried in with all the hand-wringing in the Chronicle: “The San Francisco metropolitan area has consistently lagged behind nearly all other major urban centers in worker returns.”
Few solutions have been proposed: Recurring events like concerts in local bars and public spaces to draw people downtown; “keeping streets cleaner, attracting new businesses and encouraging office workers to eat at local restaurants.”
To detractors of these modest proposals, it sounds like a series of bake-sales and car-washes.
Perhaps the most likely to help, and least likely to be implemented, is a proposal by UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti that San Francisco Mayor London Breed require municipal city employees to return to work full-time.
As it stands, municipal employees are only required to work in the office two days per week.
It might take a drastic measure like that, as unhappy as 36,782 city workers would be to be forced to return to the office.
“The data shows the rate of worker return, relative to pre-pandemic levels, has not broken 30% and was 26.4% the week of May 18, the most recent period the company provided,” grumped the San Francisco Chronicle.
After Tuesday’s blockbuster election recall, former DA Chesa Boudin is gone; ousted by a wide margin by San Francisco voters fed up with what they obviously perceived as his gross mismanagement of the city in terms of prosecuting criminals in SF.
New York Magazine cited, “visible grassroots anger at both these conditions and his policies, particularly Boudin’s unwillingness to bring heavier charges against shoplifters and other kinds of petty thieves that had come to define, in the popular imagination, 2020s San Francisco,” perhaps deliberately downplaying the mass shoplifting phenomenon as “petty thieves,” and dismissing community concerns about crime it goes on to describe in detail in the very next sentence as, “the popular imagination.”
“Victimized by a surge in hate crimes, Asian voters felt Boudin had not responded properly to their plight,” is how the the New Yorker characterized “the popular imagination,” adding that, “in 2021, Boudin drew sharp criticism for failing to describe the murder of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man, as a racially motivated crime.”
The problems Boudin leaves in his wake might not have been so intractable- if COVID-19 hadn’t come along and cleared downtown San Francisco of its white-collar workforce- perhaps forever.
As it is, it is difficult to see how San Francisco survives in the current climate. After over two-years of anxiety and pandemic living, SF office workers don’t want to come back, even if they felt safe doing so, which many don’t.
Without workers to patronize businesses downtown, none of those closed will return. Many still holding on are doing so by only the slimmest of margins.
With inflation hitting its highest rate in 41 years, gas reaching a shocking new high every day, median rents across the U.S. rising above $2,000 for the first time in history, Silicon Valley’s decade of, “Stock-Market Dominance,” coming to an end- at least for now- Biden Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has warned, “This summer is going to be rough.”
Nowhere is that going to be more apparent than in San Francisco, where averting an economic, social and cultural slide into decay seems like a dim prospect in light of current trends.
BART ridership has dropped, “catastrophically,” and it isn’t expected to recover until at least 2029. Without that money pouring into city coffers, soon budget shortfalls will mean even fewer police officers on the streets in San Francisco- and fewer city workers working from home. No tourist comes to San Francisco to see swaths of shuttered storefronts and streets littered with trash, human waste, and drug paraphernalia debris.
Without the taxes from businesses which have closed, without fewer tourist dollars to spend, city leaders will soon be facing tough decisions between budget cuts which could cause quality of life in San Francisco to deteriorate even further or punishing tax increases all but guaranteed to drive out already over-burdened residents and taxpayers.
“Over time, multiple tax revenues for City Hall could be at risk: property taxes, from emptied buildings that drop in value; sales taxes, from businesses that are struggling or gone, and others,” was the Chronicle’s bleak assessment.
According to Gov. Gavin Newsom, California is the, “Antidote for America.” If that’s true, and San Francisco is an example of this miracle “cure,” Americans may think twice about taking it.
Judging by the number of residents and businesses which have fled California over the past few years, they might be already.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)