Chronicle Editorial Board
April 1, 2023
Downtown San Francisco is at risk of collapsing — and taking much of the Bay Area with it.
Experts say post-pandemic woes stemming from office workers staying home instead of commuting into the city could send San Francisco into a “doom loop” that would gut its tax base, decimate fare-reliant regional transit systems like BART and trap it in an economic death spiral.
Who could have predicted such a fate?
Anyone who paid attention to what happened in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Like San Francisco, lower Manhattan’s Financial District was once a nearly exclusive daytime hub for suburban office commuters and the businesses who fed them lunch — and a ghost town after dark.
That all changed after 9/11.
The attacks not only devastated lower Manhattan physically, they also threw into question the very logic of the neighborhood’s urban fabric; commuters, it was assumed, would never again want to work in office towers over fears of terrorism.
So, to stave off a doom loop of its own, New York came up with a vision for reinvention.
The Financial District would become a place where people actually lived as well as worked. Local, state and federal officials rallied behind the plan. It took an estimated $20 billion in public and private investments to fund this vision, which included two new train stations, public parks, malls and once-in-a-generation tax breaks for developers to convert office buildings into apartments. The federal Housing and Urban Development Department also distributed $281 million to incentivize people to live in the neighborhood.
The area more than bounced back. It added over 60,000 residents who, perhaps unsurprisingly, needed little convincing to move to a climate-friendly, 24-hour neighborhood filled with pedestrians, restaurants, culture, nightlife and easy access to public transit.
The tragedy of 9/11 inadvertently revealed the glaring vulnerabilities and inadequacies of office-dependent, 9-to-5 business districts — and created a new model for making American downtowns more stable economic engines for local governments and fostering better, more compelling urban life.
Unfortunately, San Francisco didn’t get the memo.
Is San Francisco in a doom loop? How would you solve the challenges downtown is facing? Tell us your thoughts on the state of downtown, the city, and the Bay Area.