San Diego has surged back from COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, but a few hundred miles north, San Francisco’s downtown is near death, according to recent findings from the Institute of Governmental Studies public policy research center.
In a study updated earlier this year titled “The Death of Downtown?” researchers looked at a number of economic health factors for 62 major cities to see which appeared least damaged by nearly three years of economic uncertainty.
“With the initial shock of the pandemic, downtowns emptied out. Even as life has gradually returned to malls and neighborhood commercial corridors, the urban core is no longer a bustling center of activity. This trend has led many to wonder: is this finally the death of downtown?” study authors wrote.
Researchers say a debate is forming about whether urban centers have emptied out permanently, similar to what was seen in the 1970s, or whether the recent urban resurgence will regain momentum as we fully emerge from the pandemic. Thus far, recovery has been very uneven.
“In general, places with a higher share of employment in knowledge-based industries and occupations, and/or more highly paid workers, are more likely to shift towards remote work. Surveys suggest this shift will be permanent for up to half of the workforce in cities that are large and congested (e.g., New York), or powered by the tech sector (e.g., San Francisco),” researchers wrote.
Researchers measure downtown vitality using three key indicators:
- Office vacancy rates
- Public transportation ridership
- Retail spending
Mobile phone data containing user locations provided researchers with a way to directly measure downtown activity patterns.
The analysis incorporated data for 47 months from January 2019 to November 2022 for 62 cities of at least 350,000 people across the U.S. and Canada. From this data, a Recovery Quotient (RQ) was calculated for both downtowns and entire cities.
The study found a wide variation in the extent of recovery between cities, with activity ranging from a low of 31% of pre-pandemic levels in San Francisco to a high of 135% in Salt Lake City, which was rated as a mid-sized city by the research group.
Los Angeles was in the middle of the pack with 65%.
Downtowns that will continue struggling to recover have disproportionate shares of business closures, lowering the demand for downtown real estate due to professional tech workers staying remote, the study concluded.
Researchers wrote, “A distinct set of downtowns – typically older, denser downtowns reliant on professional or tech workers and located within large metros – continue to struggle to return to pre-pandemic levels.”
To survive in the new era of hybrid and remote work, downtowns will need to diversify their economic activity and land uses, researchers said. One bright spot noted in the study was the resurgence in leisure and hospitality.
Researchers wrote, “Downtowns also need to be proactive about recreating downtowns for people. This could mean creating outdoor spaces with cultural events; rethinking streets for transit, bikes and pedestrians; moving parking to the outskirts of downtown; and attracting diverse segments of the population to visit.”
Just last week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced her plan to reinvigorate that downtown and reposition San Francisco as the Bay Area’s economic hub. The Roadmap to Downtown San Francisco’s Future focused on key priorities including offering a clean and safe environment, fostering a resilient workforce, and attracting new industries.