In the face of a staggering city budget deficit, San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development is hiring urban planner Sarah Dennis-Phillips as its next executive director, The Standard has learned.
Mayor London Breed is expected to announce the appointment Wednesday afternoon, according to a City Hall source. A meeting was held Wednesday announcing the agency’s current leader, Kate Sofis, has stepped down from her position to pursue another job with the city.
The Office of Economic and Workforce Development carries out a variety of roles, from issuing grants and loans to small businesses to helping people with job placement. But with the city staring down the barrel of a $780 million two-year deficit, the biggest challenge for the department will be retaining Downtown businesses and filling spaces left vacant by the pandemic and a massive shift to remote work. Many of the city’s largest tech companies have no plans to require full-time, in-office work. Some companies uprooted from San Francisco entirely, while others have laid off thousands of workers.
Dennis-Phillips most recently worked as a senior director at developer Tishman Speyer, where she oversaw projects from building approvals and permitting to construction, according to a bio on San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association’s website. Dennis-Phillips routinely worked with local and state agencies in this role, and prior to joining Tishman Speyer, she for the city’s Planning Department before moving on to serve as deputy director of development for the office she will now oversee.
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“While some of the changes San Francisco has seen post-pandemic are painful, they also present an opportunity to rebuild our local economy with intention and forethought, to repopulate our streets with arts and affordability, and to broaden the benefits of economic growth to all of our residents,” Dennis-Phillips said in a statement.
In September, Breed appointed Dennis-Phillips to serve on the Inclusionary Housing Technical Advisory Committee, a little-known but influential group that makes recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on how to set the city’s inclusionary housing rate, an affordability minimum that developers have often criticized. The rate determines how many units a developer must set aside for below-market-rate housing in any project larger than 10 units.
Dennis-Phillips holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Harvard University in architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning. She was not immediately available for comment.
Breed appointed Sofis to lead the Office of Economic and Workforce Development just two years ago. The department has 153 employees. Sofis earned $368,890 in total compensation in her role leading the department last year, according to government records.
A report by The Standard early last year found that Sofis failed to properly disclose her economic interests before taking the job with the city, which included a stake in multiple nonprofit entities. Sofis was forced to recuse herself from negotiations with Amazon on a proposed shipping facility in the South of Market neighborhood due to her prior work as co-founder and CEO of SFMade, a nonprofit focused on supporting the city’s manufacturing sector.
However, a source said this issue did not play a factor in the change in leadership.
Due to the city’s budget shortfall—and potentially more cuts coming in future years—the pressure on the office and Sofis in recent months has been immense.
In February, Breed announced a new Downtown recovery plan designed to reactivate the central business corridor, and earlier this month the office released a two-page report noting where progress has been made. This includes plans to create an entertainment zone, proposed tax breaks for new businesses setting up shop Downtown and investing in a Powell Street Promenade to beautify the area where cable cars run by Union Square.
In March, the mayor and Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced legislation to streamline the conversion of vacant Downtown office buildings into housing. The legislation has yet to work its way to the Board of Supervisors for a vote.
A group of entrepreneurs has also floated an intriguing proposal to resurrect Downtown: Converting office towers into housing for college students. Bilal Mahmood, a startup founder and former state Assembly candidate, has been studying the issue and meeting with government officials to gauge interest.
Josh Koehn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org