Aug 3, 2023 - COVID

Downtown San Diego's pandemic-era recovery is among the best in U.S.

The Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego during 2023 Comic-Con International: San Diego on July 20. Photo: Araya Doheny/Getty Images

Downtown San Diego foot traffic is 88% of pre-pandemic 2019 levels, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report, placing its recovery among the top cities in the country.

Why it matters: Downtowns are typically the beating economic heart of a city, funneling revenue into its coffers via taxes and more.

  • But San Diego is benefitting from its downtown being less reliant on office jobs than traditional cities that depend on commuters for daytime activity.

The big picture: Several U.S. cities with diverse downtowns — meaning, a mixture of office space, housing and attractions — have nearly returned to, or even exceeded, pre-pandemic foot traffic.

Zoom in: San Diego's return to 88% of its pre-pandemic activity is partially because the city's downtown has long been diversified, and partially because tourism has rebounded, says William Fulton, UC San Diego Design Lab visiting policy designer.

  • Cities with downtowns that almost exclusively catered to office workers are struggling to recover in the remote and hybrid work era. New York is at 67% of pre-pandemic foot traffic, and San Francisco is at 31.9%.
  • "Many downtowns were reborn in the 1980s as gigantic office centers, and that's just not going to work anymore," says Fulton. "Downtown has to have a tremendous diversity of activities in order to succeed from now on."
Downtown foot traffic recovery, spring 2023
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Rank among select metro areas; Visitors determined by counting unique mobile phones in ZIP codes with high employee density; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Yes, but: The study defined downtown in each city by the area with the highest employment.

  • In San Diego, that includes the San Diego International Airport — not every city in the study gets that boost.
  • Last June, more than two million passengers flew through the San Diego airport for the first time since December 2019. The airport anticipated this summer being its busiest since the summer before the pandemic.
  • "It's hard to think of another downtown where we could have even included the airport, since it's rare to have next to the office district," said Karen Chapple, a researcher at the University of Toronto who authored the study. "So the airport indeed may account for a disproportionate share of activity."
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