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San Francisco mayor asks University of California to explore downtown campus

A woman with dark wavy hair speaks into a microphone at a podium, wearing an orange top and blue jacket, in front of a modern building with tall, vertical windows.
Mayor London Breed speaks at a press conference on Jan. 26, 2023. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco Mayor London Breed is formally asking the University of California to consider opening a Downtown San Francisco campus. 

Doing so would place students at the center of innovation in artificial intelligence and biotechnology, Breed wrote in a letter to Richard Leib, chair of the University of California Board of Regents. It would also breathe life into the city’s struggling Downtown, which is suffering from high vacancies and declining property values.

The letter to Leib, which was co-signed by City Attorney David Chiu, was one of several that Breed highlighted at a Board of Supervisors appearance Tuesday. Separately, Breed asked the city administrator, the San Francisco Unified School District and City College of San Francisco to “be strategic” by considering occupying Downtown office space and using existing real estate for other purposes. 

“Over the last several months, we’ve been moving forward to talk about the future of Downtown and changing our laws to make it easier to convert and fill empty space,” Breed said Tuesday. “But we also have to think bigger.” 

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Other initiatives to revitalize Downtown include legislation to change zoning, encourage conversion of offices to housing, tax breaks and public safety improvements. 

The idea of converting parts of Downtown into a new university campus began gaining steam earlier this year, with boosters arguing that students could inject new life into the languishing area. Office vacancies in San Francisco are hovering around 30%, with Downtown buildings projected to lose value over the next few years. 

In the letter to Leib, Breed suggested that a new Downtown San Francisco campus would benefit the University of California system, which is experiencing a housing shortage.

Breed pointed to “a number of properties” that may be suited to a mixed-use campus that includes student housing, classrooms, lab space and services.

“We believe that bringing students to a City that is both brimming with culture and serves as the region’s economic powerhouse provides them with the opportunity to learn and live in a vibrant and world class metropolitan center, and could also serve to alleviate some of your critical student housing shortfalls at both UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco,” Breed wrote.

In letters to the city administrator, the San Francisco Unified School District and City College of San Francisco, Breed asked city agencies to analyze their current portfolios of office space toward a plan “that supports the city’s economic recovery.” 

That could include relocating city workers to new, more efficient office spaces in and around Downtown while using spaces owned by the city for different purposes, such as conversion to housing. 

Breed noted in the letters that remote work had led to lower rents in “high-quality buildings,” suggesting that city agencies could take advantage of the current rental climate. The city is one of the largest employers in San Francisco, with roughly 39,000 employees as of last year

“The City alone cannot fix all of the problems impacting downtown San Francisco; however, we can lead the path toward recovery as the largest employer in the city,” Breed wrote in the letters to city agencies. “By so doing, I hope the private sector will follow.” 

She asked the agencies to compile documentation of their office occupancy and current needs, among other information. In her speech, Breed noted that “the Office of Economic Workforce Development will be the resource available to help us think through what is possible.”

City College has one of the most extensive real estate portfolios of any city agency. The Balboa Reservoir housing project, situated on City College land adjacent to its main campus near the Sunnyside and Ingleside neighborhoods, is currently being developed for 1100 homes and slated to open next year. 

“We aren’t saying that all of this is absolutely going to happen, but all of it can happen and that’s what we need to start thinking about,” Breed said Tuesday, also noting her earlier moonshot proposal to build a soccer stadium at the current Westfield Mall site. “I want us to start thinking about what’s possible, think bigger and bolder and better for the future of our city.”