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Politics & Policy

San Francisco, UC Berkeley officials discuss housing and climate, AI classes in downtown

Students walk through Sather Gate at UC Berkeley on Feb. 15, 2023. | Samantha Laurey for The Standard
Students walk through Sather Gate at UC Berkeley on Feb. 15, 2023. | Samantha Laurey for The Standard | Source: Samantha Laurey for The Standard

Officials for San Francisco, UC Berkeley and the University of California state school system have been quietly meeting this summer to explore options for creating satellite housing and classrooms for graduate students in Downtown, The Standard has learned.

Multiple sources confirmed that the meetings—taking place on a roughly bi-weekly schedule—commenced shortly after Mayor London Breed sent a letter in July to Richard Leib, chair of the University of California Board of Regents, expressing an interest in collaborating on the conversion of vacant properties in the struggling Downtown core.

Sources said the more exciting conversations have focused on creating housing for UC Berkeley graduate students, as well as potential classrooms for grad students pursuing higher degrees in climate science and artificial intelligence, or AI. 

However, sources noted that UC Berkeley also has shown interest in partnering with other universities to create a higher-ed “village” for graduate students.

The pandemic has hollowed out commercial towers in San Francisco—the city had a vacancy rate of 34% in the third quarter, according to CBRE—and many are never expected to again reach full occupancy due to the shift to remote work. However, a reset in real estate values is underway, and university officials have warmed to the idea of scooping up properties that are selling for a fraction of what they once cost, according to sources involved in the meetings.

An advertisement for creative office buildouts for commercial real estate at 130 Sutter Street in Downtown San Francisco on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. | Source: RJ Mickelson/The Standard

Public universities are exempt from much of the red tape that otherwise stymies development, and UC Berkeley and other public universities could receive substantial tax breaks, making the project financially viable. City officials are keen on finding a way to bring students and new residents into Downtown to not only fill its vacant towers, but also reinvigorate surrounding restaurants, bars and other small businesses.

“We continue to believe an increased UC presence would anchor a strong future for Downtown by linking UC’s pipeline of talent directly to San Francisco's community of entrepreneurs and investors,” Gloria Chan, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), told The Standard in an email.

Sarah Dennis-Phillips—hired in May to take over as OEWD’s executive director—has been the point person in frequent meetings with university and local nonprofit officials, according to sources familiar with the conversations.

“As part of our Downtown economic development efforts, OEWD has provided information about space availability, local industry growth, capital investment and Mayor Breed's revitalization efforts to the University of California as well as to numerous other potential investors and activators,” Chan said. “We will continue to proactively recruit new investment to Downtown, including new businesses, educational uses, housing and the arts.”

Dan Mogulof, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley, confirmed that meetings have been taking place but described them as exploratory conversations still in the very early stages.

Ryan King, a spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President, which along with the UC Regents oversees a system of 10 campuses, five medical centers and three affiliated national laboratories, said that “work is underway” in an email to The Standard.

Mayor London Breed speaks at a press conference to announce Salesforce’s $20 million grant at George Washington High School in San Francisco on Monday, Sept. 11. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

“I can confirm that the Office of the President has been tasked with exploring the suggestions in Mayor Breed’s letter encouraging the University of California to explore a presence in downtown San Francisco,” King wrote. 

The San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, better known as SPUR, also has been involved in meetings with city officials and different parts of the UC system to figure out what might work for the conversion of vacant Downtown towers into housing and classrooms.

“We’re not throwing all of our eggs in one basket or one approach,” a source familiar with the conversations said, “but there is a world in which [a Downtown university campus and housing] is a really strong possibility.”

One option that appears to be off the table for now, however, is bringing UC Berkeley undergraduates to Downtown San Francisco. Despite having close access to BART and other public transit, school officials believe it would take away from the college experience.

Mogulof said that Chancellor Carol Christ has made it clear that “living in close proximity to a university campus is an essential element to the educational experience.”

Josh Koehn can be reached at josh@sfstandard.com