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Monday, September 27, 2021

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News + PoliticsCOVIDWe can reimagine the post-COVID San Francisco

We can reimagine the post-COVID San Francisco

The future should be up to us -- not the corporate overlords who have controlled city planning for decades.


The urban environmental movement, and much of the progressive politics of the past half-century, were born in San Francisco as a reaction to a few white men meeting in a hotel room and mapping out the post-War future of the city.

As the eminent urban planner and historian Chester Hartman explains in City For Sale, The Transformation of San Francisco, Ben Swig, the owner of the Fairmont Hotel, convened meetings in his penthouse suite in the 1950s with the heads of local industry and began making plans to turn San Francisco into the next Manhattan.

Image by Mona Caron, from the 2006 Bay Guardian Best of the Bay issue, imagining the city’s future.

Soma? That land, as the head of the Redevelopment Agency, Justin Herman, said, “is too valuable for poor people to park on.” So 10,000 low-cost SRO housing units were demolished to make way for the hotels and convention center that a city that would be the finance, insurance, real-estate and corporate center for the Pacific Rim needed.

The Western Addition? That space was needed for more upscale residents, so 50 square blocks were bulldozed.   

Downtown? That was going to be the center of everything, so lots of highrise office buildings had to be constructed, so that tens of thousands of new white-collar workers could move to the city.

Blue-collar jobs? They were in the way. Manufacturing, printing, warehouses, light-industry – all of it had to go to make way for the new, bright, shiny, highrise office future.

Of course, along with that came higher housing prices, displacement, traffic, financial pressure (as the Bay Guardian showed in 1971, all this development paid less in taxes than it cost in services) and plenty of other problems.

And of course, the real-estate developers became very rich.

But the biggest problem is that nobody asked the people who lived in the city whether they wanted to be the corporate headquarters for the Pacific Rim, whether they wanted to be the next Manhattan. The plans were all done in secret, then launched bit-by-bit with the acquiescence of a series of mayors and supervisors and planning commissioners.

Nobody held a series of public hearing and asked: What kind of city do we want to be in 20 years – and for who?

Image by Mona Caron.

This happened again, with less secrecy but no less political power, under the administration of Mayor Ed Lee, who decided that San Francisco should be the tech headquarters of the West Coast. He gave out tax breaks. He had “tech Tuesdays” where he met with companies and offered city help. He allowed tech startups (and big companies like Google) to violate local laws with impunity.

The impact was dramatic: Tens of thousands of evictions and forced relocations, the devastation of long-term communities, and the wholesale transformation of much of the city.

And again: I never saw a public hearing on the question of whether San Francisco should be the tech headquarters of the future, and whether that move would benefit the people who already lived here.

Image by Mona Caron.

Nobody knows what the post-COIVD local economy will look like. But we do know that remote work is here to stay, and we know that a lot of the tech workers who moved to SF in last boom are now leaving (for Bozeman, Montana, among other places.)

So commercial office rents are collapsing, and residential rents are also falling. (The Yimby argument that building more market-rate housing will cause prices to fall – the supply-side approach – never worked, but the demand-side seems to have some impact.)

The Chron’s latest story laments the trend:

With numerous tech companies like Twitter, Pinterest, Dropbox, Yelp and now Salesforce embracing remote work programs beyond the pandemic, the Bay Area’s status as the premier tech hub, along with its urban economic vitality, is in doubt. Empty streets and shuttered storefronts may linger even as some workers are vaccinated and return to offices if others stay home or leave the region entirely.

But let’s not go there so fast.

The “urban vitality” of San Francisco was more damaged than enhanced by the tech boom. The city’s status as “the premier tech hub” was not a good thing for most residents.

Image by Mona Caron.

I heard the mayor and many economists rejoice that the city’s unemployment rate was so low in that era – but that was at best misleading and at worst a lie. Yes, tech jobs created “spin-off” jobs – but those were mostly in the service sector, and didn’t pay enough to afford the soaring housing prices that the tech boom created.

So new we are going to have some kind of reckoning – and instead of letting the private-sector and its allies in politics make all of the plans and decisions, maybe we ought to have a serious, inclusive, civic discussion: What kind of city do we want to be now, and for who?

What do the people who live in San Francisco need? What economic development will provide jobs for currently unemployed San Franciscans? Do we want to bring back blue-collar jobs (which may be entirely possible with the collapse of commercial real-estate prices)? Do we want to be a city driven by small business or by big corporations?

What should San Francisco look like in five years? In ten years? And how do we get there?

If the people who live here don’t have that discussion, and force our elected officials to have it with us, then the same forces of capital and power will do it for us. That’s happened over and over in the past. We now have a choice of whether it will happen again.

The Department of City Planning hasn’t done a lot of “planning” of late – it’s mostly processed permits for developers who “plan” the future. The Mayor’s Office hasn’t done a lot of work on economic and workforce development – except to support the private sector.

David Talbot makes the point nicely in a recent post:

To remake San Francisco, we shouldn’t rely on SPUR, SF.citi, the Chronicle editorial board or any of the other corporate brain trusts. As I’ve been arguing, we need to convene the broadest and most diverse array of local citizens in order to rebuild a truly livable city.

Yeah, like that.

Maybe it’s time for the Board of Supes to start convening a series of public hearings on the future of the city. There are so many brilliant people here who can help re-imaging San Francisco, so many creative thinkers who can talk about what sustainability means (and maybe it means slowing down growth).

Maybe some of those empty offices should become housing. Maybe instead of using corporate consulting firms, we should bring these folks in to help us.

COVID has changed everything – except, of course, corporate greed and wealth inequality.

But San Francisco, like all great cities, will survive – and now is the time, for once, to allow the people who live here to have a chance to do some real planning, for a better future. It’s out there.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. It would be nice to see the monstrous and ridiculously unused Salesforce tower converted to affordable housing. Sadly, the city leaders are too timid to even propose such a measure, much less implement it. Probably because the CEO Benioff supports taxing the rest of us to build more housing for the homeless. Thanks Marc….
    In any case, the city leaders are not going to solve the city’s problems. Every time they try to, they make the problems worse. For Pete’s sake, the city of San Francisco is one of the most transit friendly cities in the country; certainly on the west coast. How in the world is a city run power company in a city of 800,000 people going to help the climate change problem in a world of 7.8 billion people??!! The notion is absurd.
    While I’m at it — How about we elect a district attorney who will jail criminals? Chesa Boudin likes the idea of no bail and treatment of thieves as victims. They can go to a Walgreens and clean out the shelves with impunity. So the local drugstore is shuttered. Nice work, Chesa! As much as I would like to express sympathy for San Francisco voters, at this point they’re volunteers, not victims. Anyone could have predicted what would come out of this crazy leftist dream.
    Oh well, at least San Francisco still looks good- from a distance. Once you start walking the streets and you see the crap and the boarded up businesses you get the sense that this place is not going to come back, at least not without radical changes. Sadly, I don’t think that I will be around to see it.
    The city has always been expensive, but at least it was a nice place to live and it was easy to find a job if you had the right skills. If I were a young man, there’s no way that I would live in San Francisco. Probably not in California. I would leave the state and maybe even the country. Stay safe and healthy out there people, and remember, you can go where you’re treated best.

  2. What can they do with all those empty office buildings? How do we get a count of empty units in the city to prove we don’t need to force more density on the neighborhoods that don’t want them? RHNA numbers don’t count empty units. RHNA numbers only add requirements for more entitlements based on an out-of-date formula that is irrelevant with work-at-home options. We don’t need SB9 or SB10. We don’t need a future plan based on inaccurate assumptions.

  3. I would like to see all the unused commercial space turned into affordable housing for teachers, firefighters, service people who can’t afford to live in the city they serve.
    Corporations have taken over much of the rental stock and, as in my nine-unit building, built ADUs below ground and eviscerated graceful existing flats and turned them into warrens with bedrooms the size of SUVs. With COVID, these “improvements” have gone begging but the desecration will remain.

  4. The assertion that San Franciscans have rejected socialism because the poverty charity operators who style themselves left progressive can’t win citywide is not quite accurate.

    San Franciscans have rejected poverty charity masquerading as left politics citywide.

    Voters have rarely had a chance to vote for anyone independent of the Democrat patronage network for years now because the Democrat patronage network enforces a closed shop. When they do and the candidate is qualified, like Boudin, the left can win citywide.

    It is instructive that Boudin was the first independent to win citywide in some time and that he has chosen Campos as his chief of staff as soon as the political attacks began.

  5. The last Progressive alcalde? Camp Agnos.

    Not sure what Tim wants. DIY manufacturers? How many spin-off jobs from that? A new slew of Non-Prophets? If we could just bring back the printers and dock workers, then everyone could be Union and no one without a relative will ever work in this city again.

    Detroit? Baltimore? Boston-sans-tech?

  6. “The SFBG descended “progressives” are entertaining the same fate as befell the SFBG for the same reason: a denial of change and refusal to adapt to meet that change.”

    Yes, and don’t forget that this was the same SFBG that refused union recognition for its workers. And whose owner had no moral qualms about cashing in on millions from the very same inflated real estate market that its editorials criticized.

  7. richmondman: How many of the SFUSD leadership have been indicted, resigned or pled to corruption crimes?

    The SFBG descended “progressives” are entertaining the same fate as befell the SFBG for the same reason: a denial of change and refusal to adapt to meet that change. Well, the after the SFBG folded, there were no sinecures for failure afforded remaining SFBG staff as the peace and stability pact requires of the “progressives.”

    The notion that poverty nonprofit staffers could lead a viable citywide progressive political movement in SF is ludicrous. At a certain level, this ends up as a MAGA/Q style propaganda bubble that holds the existence of a progressive political movement exists in SF, that the poverty nonprofits are the leaders of this movement, and that the movement is viable and building political power over time.

    Against that backdrop, conservative Democrat corporate dominance, moderate Republican governance anywhere else, rules.

  8. Tim Redmond’s view of the future is as backward, reactionary and out-of-date as the regurgitated illustrations from the now- defunct Bay Guardian.

  9. Let’s see we’ve got “corporate overlords”, and “soporific ethically conflicted technocrats”, but never a progressive mayor. Ever wonder why?
    When was the last time a progressive won a mayoral election? George Moscone. 46 years ago.
    But we’ve got a progressive School Board. Just ask the dad who was denied the opportunity to VOLUNTEER.

  10. zrants writes: “Thanks for bringing up the quaint idea of citizens deciding the fate or their city. It should be up to the voters”

    But the voters do that all the time, most significantly each time they vote for mayor.

    So in my living memory the voters have elected Jordan, Brown, Newsom, Lee and Breed as mayor.

    In so doing they rejected candidates who ran on Tim’s vision, e.g. Ammiano, Gonzalez, Avalos.

    For state office the city’s voters elect Chiu and Wiener rather than Campos and Kim.

    When it comes right down to it the voters do not want a socialist city.

  11. Thanks for bringing up the quaint idea of citizens deciding the fate or their city. It should be up to the voters to decide their fate, but, will they figure out how to do that, who to trust the next time they get the chance to vote?

  12. What’s Talbot going to do, form a VisionSF group? What about the San Francisco progressive alliance modeled after the Richmond RPA? Or Occupy San Francisco? The SFPO?

    Each and every one of those independent groups that organized to try to counterbalance corporate power was sandbagged by the City funded nonprofits, the threat to power from below and to the left neutralized.

    The only way this works is by grassroots organizing. The City is crawling with professional community organizers whose job is to ensure that residents never get organized.

    Stating your desires does not make them real. Assessing the impediments to making those desires real and figuring out how to remove them as impediments gets you to the point where you can begin to make them real in fact and deed. Our problem is that people are getting paid to be impediments.

    YIMBY are taking the advantage through sheer force of energy and drive. The alternative are soporific ethically conflicted technocrats, compromised by reliance on corporate SF for their meal tickets.

  13. “I never saw a public hearing on the question of whether San Francisco should be the tech headquarters of the future, and whether that move would benefit the people who already lived here.”

    Huh? Every election for the last 50 years has presented choices about this. What you are really complaining about is that the voters never got that excited about the alternative vision that you were selling. Heck, you couldn’t even pass public power despite trying for 40 years.

    The sad truth for you is that the average SF voter does not share your desire to turn this city into Detroit. They actually have aspirations that go beyond changing nothing and hoping for the best.

Comments are closed.

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