Making Progress on Downtown

London Breed
8 min readApr 3, 2023

A little less than two months ago, I gave my State of the City and rolled out our Roadmap to Downtown San Francisco’s Future, a strategic effort to face the complexities of our post-pandemic economy. But just as importantly, it is our commitment to the future of San Francisco.

As I said at the time in my State of the City, it’s easy to throw out dire predictions about the death of Downtown. But that’s not our reality and it’s not going to happen. San Francisco has so many advantages and opportunities. We have the talent, the innovative spirit, and the focus. We have a history of overcoming earthquakes, economic recessions, and catastrophic epidemics.

We are a resilient city that sees our challenges not as a reason to run away, but as an opportunity to build a stronger San Francisco. We are partnering with leaders on the Board of Supervisors and in the private sector to move forward meaningful solutions. Our city staff is working hard every day to put policies into place and to do the important work of keeping our city clean, safe, and welcoming for all.

Mayor Breed welcomes employees back to San Francisco’s Google office.

We know what our challenges are — an office vacancy rate that is far too high. A Downtown lacking flexibility to adapt. Challenges around public safety. A fentanyl epidemic. A severe housing shortage that makes it hard to recruit businesses and workers.

These challenges, spurred in part by a once-in-a-century pandemic, won’t turn around overnight. But we are also making progress. Tourism is bouncing back. Our unemployment rate remains below 3% and is one of the lowest in the state. We are working every day to lay the groundwork for transformative and lasting change. In these first two months, we’ve taken significant steps forward to meet the ambitious goals set out in my Roadmap.

Here are just some examples.

Make sure Downtown is clean, safe, and inviting

The number one issue we hear from workers and employers regarding Downtown is the need for public safety. Some of this is real, and some of it is perception. But both severely impact our City, whether that’s in our workers feeling safe coming to work or in our ability to attract and retain business. The need is clear. We need police officers on our streets and we need to also have ambassadors providing a welcoming presence for residents, workers, and visitors.

We took important steps in March in both of these areas.

First, the approval of our $25 million dollar budget supplemental to fund police overtime will keep officers in Downtown and our neighborhoods, dealing with the challenges around drug dealing, retail theft, and burglaries. This sends a strong message to residents, businesses, and our workforce that we are taking public safety seriously.

We also passed a contract extension for our city ambassador programs. This ensures that our Urban Alchemy ambassadors are in Mid-Market, and our Welcome Ambassadors in their orange jackets are Downtown. I’ve heard from many workers Downtown how important these Welcome Ambassadors are to them when they step out of the BART Station and walk the few blocks to work. Having that positive presence is critical to making people feel safe. Our police officers can’t be everywhere, but we can provide a general feeling that there are people on the street who care about this City and want people to feel welcome.

Mayor Breed talks with SFPD officers and Sheriff Miyamoto about the City’s efforts to increase public safety.

While this work is important in the immediate, we are maintaining our focus on our long-term police staffing issues. The work we are doing there, starting with approving a new contract for our police officers, will start us on the long road back to full staffing.

Attract and retain a diverse range of industries and employers

Having a diverse range of companies will help make us more resilient and attractive economically. That requires us being creative in our policies to recruit new companies. One of the first steps we’ve taken is to introduce tax reform legislation to waive certain taxes for up to three years for companies that move here. These incentives are an investment in long-term revenue growth that will come in the years ahead. Bolstering our tax revenues Downtown are critical for providing the funding for basic city services and the support for those who are struggling in our City.

We also know that recruiting new businesses is also about sending a message about San Francisco. We partnered with Advance SF, the Bay Area Council and the Chamber of Commerce to launch a new video Make Your Future San Francisco.

And, the Heart of SF social media campaign shows the opportunities that exist in San Francisco, especially in Downtown. Telling our story helps us to communicate directly with businesses and entrepreneurs that are interested in coming to San Francisco to be a part of our future.

Facilitate new uses and flexibility in buildings

Offices are absolutely critical to the future of our City, but the reality is we need a more diverse and resilient Downtown. As a first step in that work, Board President Aaron Peskin and I have introduced legislation that would allow a greater variety of businesses and activities Downtown and remove barriers to converting office buildings to housing. While housing is already allowed Downtown, many current restrictions and requirements get in the way of office to housing conversion.

Our legislation removes these barriers, which will make it easier for a conversion to happen. There are other barriers that remain, namely the costs to convert, and this won’t apply to all buildings. This is not a silver bullet — but this is an important step not only in creating a more diverse Downtown, but in showing that San Francisco is open to removing barriers to new thinking.

We are in the process of drafting more legislation that will make other office conversions, like to lab space, feasible. This is critical — while office vacancy is at 30% overall, in the life sciences area it’s at less than 5%. So there’s clearly a need there, and we must adapt to take advantage of those opportunities.

Make it easier to start and grow a business

For too long it has been far too hard to open a business in San Francisco. People spent more time navigating the complexities of going to multiple Departments, dealing with complex codes and noticing requirements, and having to wait months for permit approvals, all while paying rent on their space. We are changing that.

We opened our new Permit Center, which brings all of the permitting agencies for small businesses into one space to make it easier for our small business owners. We passed Prop H at the ballot, which set the foundation for cutting permitting time for many of our small businesses to under 30 days. We followed that with the Small Business Recovery Act, which extended many of those principles and provisions. And now we are extending those streamlining provisions across the City.

In Union Square, my legislation with President Peskin will also further open up space for different uses, removing restrictions on what can happen on the ground floor as well as upper floors. It also will increase the type of pop-ups allowed in Downtown and Union Square, as well as the length they can be there to help fill vacant storefronts. Additionally, we are about to launch our Vacant to Vibrant program, that will support pop-ups launching. Property owners or interested operators can sign up here for updates.

We want to create opportunities for entrepreneurs to fill empty space. When someone has a creative idea that they want to put their passion and resources into, we should be saying yes, let’s make that work, instead of no, the code says you can’t.

Grow and prepare our workforce

The number one issue facing recruiting workers is our lack of housing. Aggressively changing our policies around housing starts with Housing for All which will open up the path for 82,000 new homes to be built in the next eight years. This is a long-term effort, but we’ve already initiated a number of steps, including

In addition to housing, supporting our workforce includes connecting people to opportunities. The Office of Economic and Workforce Development is focused on working with major employers and high-potential industries to make sure our job training programs are preparing workers for the needs of the moment and expanding our outreach to those residents who have struggled the most to return to or enter the workforce following the disruptions of the pandemic.

As part of this work, the City will be jointly hosting the 2nd Annual Hospitality and Hiring Fair at the Ferry Plaza on Wednesday, April 12 from 10am to 1 pm and also a City and County of San Francisco Career Resource Fair on Civic Center Plaza on Saturday, April 15

Investing in transportation connections

San Francisco’s transportation infrastructure is essential to Downtown’s role as our economic engine by bringing the Bay Area’s highly skilled workforce together in one place like nowhere else in the region. My vision for Downtown includes continued investment and improvement in our transportation and transit network.

In February, the SFMTA launched a new 1X California pilot program that offers express service between the Richmond and Downtown. The route has already proved popular, and helped to reduce crowding on the 1 California line, and SFMTA is working to build on this program and launch others in the coming months to ensure our workers, residents, and visitors are connected to Downtown no matter where their journey begins.

2023 Graduation Ceremony for new MTA Operators.

Work Ahead

This is just the first steps we are taking with some of our Downtown strategies. Our success is going to require all of us working together. Meaningful partnerships and a shared vision are how we will make a real difference in the long run for Downtown. It won’t be easy, but I have hope that if we continue to do the workday after day, we will turn the tide on Downtown.