Nov 7, 2023 - News

Revising San Diego's downtown recovery

Downtown San Diego

Downtown San Diego on July 20. Photo: Araya Doheny/Getty Images

Downtown San Diego may not be the post-pandemic success story many had hoped for.

Driving the news: The number of unique visitors to downtown San Diego this spring reached 80% of its pre-pandemic level, according to an updated analysis from the University of Toronto's School of Cities.

Downtown foot traffic recovery, spring 2023
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Downtown defined as the central location with the highest concentration of employment in each metro area; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Why it matters: The methodological change shifts our understanding of how well an economic engine is recovering from the pandemic, relative to peer cities — and whether regional leaders should feel any urgency to pursue policies to help it along.

Flashback: National media responded to the previous rankings by holding up San Diego as a model for other cities.

  • "We're more balanced," Mayor Todd Gloria told CBS News in March, voicing a popular explanation for San Diego's resiliency: By relying less on downtown workers and more on a mix of tourism, workers and full-time residents, we outperformed other cities with more traditional, 9-to-5 downtowns.

Zoom in: Under the old methodology, San Diego's downtown footprint included the San Diego International Airport. That's no longer true.

  • Since the research is based on anonymized cell phone data, San Diego got a boost from all of the people who passed through the airport, even if they never stepped foot downtown.
  • "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," Karen Chapple, the project lead at the School of Cities, told us this summer. "So the airport indeed may account for a disproportionate share of the activity."

The big picture: The new methodology puts downtown San Diego's recovery in the middle of the pack, but still ahead of cities like San Francisco and Portland.

Zoom out: A different report, from the Center City District in Philadelphia, still pegs San Diego as one of the best-recovering downtowns.

  • Its analysis does not include the airport in its downtown definition.

What we're watching: Bill Fulton, UC San Diego Design Lab's visiting policy designer, said downtown's traits could still be recovery strengths given current urban trends.

  • "The office market isn't good here, but the office market isn't good anywhere, and San Diego hadn't been attracting office jobs anyway," he said. "The non-office part of our downtown is doing well, and we're sort of the anti-San Francisco, where they rely so much on office jobs."

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