Aug 8, 2023 - News

Downtown San Francisco's foot traffic still lags

Downtown foot traffic recovery, spring 2023
Data: University of Toronto; Visitors determined by counting unique mobile phones in ZIP codes with high employee density; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Downtown San Francisco's pandemic recovery remains dead last among 52 select cities throughout the U.S., new data shows.

What's happening: Downtown San Francisco foot traffic was at about 32% of pre-pandemic 2019 levels from March through May.

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

  • San Francisco's sluggish recovery is due at least in part to its heavy concentration of tech workers — many of whom decamped elsewhere amid the pandemic — as well as a shortage of affordable housing.
  • Downtown is also facing a retail exodus, with the departures or planned departures of stores like Nordstrom, Uniqlo, Gap, Saks Off 5th and H&M.
Downtown San Francisco foot traffic recovery
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Seasons are March-May (spring), June-August (summer), September-November (fall) and December-February (winter); Rank among select metro areas; Visitors determined by counting unique mobile phones in ZIP codes with high employee density; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

What they're saying: Downtown is beginning to see a slight uptick in activity, Rodney Fong, president of the city's chamber of commerce, recently told SFGATE.

  • Despite the area's struggling office market, "nightlife, food and entertainment are thriving," Fong said.

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

  • San Diego, for example, is at 88% of its pre-pandemic foot traffic. That's 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.

What we're watching: How San Francisco Mayor London Breed's downtown recovery plan goes.

  • The city is experimenting with various efforts to rethink its downtown neighborhoods, including converting offices to residential buildings and bringing a four-day carnival to Civic Center later this month.
  • Last month, Breed formally asked the University of California to consider opening a campus downtown, but the body that oversees the UC system said it had yet to analyze the proposal.
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