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Bay Area big city mayors enter their defensive eras

from left to right, mayors matt mahan, london breed and sheng thao
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, left, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, center, and Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao all make their case to business leaders during recent appearances. | Source: AP Photos; The Standard

Voters could decide the fate of the Bay Area’s three most powerful leaders in this upcoming election.

Two mayors are up for reelection, while another is staving off a potential recall. With residents increasingly frustrated with the status quo, the Bay Area’s big city mayors are on the defensive. 

Speaking to business executives and real estate developers at the annual economic forecast put on by the San Francisco Business Times and Silicon Valley Business Journal, the chief executives of the Bay Area’s three biggest cities—San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose—pledged to cut red tape and open the doors for more housing. 

But as the political tide seems to turn ever more strongly against incumbents, the messages also reflected an aggressive turn toward tough-on-crime rhetoric along with some spaghetti-at-the-wall solutions for the region’s three faltering Downtowns.  

The 5-Year Incumbent 

If San Francisco Mayor London Breed is starting to get nervous about her reelection prospects, she didn’t let it show during her panel at the San Francisco Union Square Hilton hotel.

Dressed in a bright red power suit, Breed took aim at those she blamed for stymieing her efforts to clean up the city and said she’s listening intently to the business community.  

In response to a question about Downtown’s prospects, Breed used Hayes Valley’s transformation into the AI-focused “Cerebral Valley” and the development of Mission Bay into a sports and medical hub, as analogies for what the neighborhood could become. Downtown, she said, will never be the commercial core it once was, but it could see a new era as a fun after-work-hours entertainment destination. 

Coincidentally, the venue itself was an example of the area’s challenges. Last June, Park Hotels and Resorts, the owner of the Union Square Hilton, announced it would stop loan payments on the property and give the building back to its lender. 

“Instead of being the city of no, no, no, no, no, we need to become the city of yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” Breed said to applause. “And when I say yes, it’s getting rid of all the things that have made it so impossible for people to do more than just be an office space.”

Among the targets of her ire were the San Francisco Police Commission (for “micromanaging” the department it oversees) and the Board of Supervisors (for being “very reluctant” to make change).

“I’m making some aggressive moves around public safety to help combat a lot of those things,” she said. “It’s helped to improve conditions in most parts of the city. But we definitely still struggle with the Tenderloin, especially at night.”

1 Year In, Already Fending Off a Recall

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao started her remarks with a bit of a freewheeling take on initially assuming her position as the city’s leader, describing her first year in office as a proverbial look under the city’s hood.

“We had a lot of ‘oh shit’ moments,” Thao said.

Echoing Breed’s remarks, a major focus of Thao’s messaging to the room was about taking a harder stance on public safety issues. She noted a change in the dynamics of crime, which she said has increasingly targeted vulnerable populations like women, children and seniors.

Oakland has faced a string of negative headlines in recent weeks related to public safety, including the first-ever closure of an In-N-Out Burger location near Oakland International Airport.

One positive recent move, according to Thao, was the full reinstatement of Oakland’s Ceasefire program, which aims to reduce gun violence and incarceration via interventions with at-risk populations.

She expressed significant frustration with her city’s own police commission, which she blamed for impeding her ability to make inroads on public safety challenges. The city has gone nearly a full year without a permanent police chief after Thao fired LeRonne Armstrong for his handling of police misconduct cases.

“I know my team is about to kill me, but I’m going to say it anyway. I don’t believe the police commission should have hiring or firing power over any city staffers, because they’re not accountable to anybody,” Thao said. 

“Yes,” Breed echoed, nodding in agreement. 

Different Places, Same Problems

“We’re not San Francisco,” first-year San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan has said at multiple public appearances, referring to his city’s comparatively minor challenges with public safety and homelessness.

But at a Silicon Valley mayors’ panel on Thursday, Mahan—who is running for reelection just one year after assuming the office—pointed out some ways the two cities are actually more alike. Primarily, the office vacancy rate in Downtown San Jose has also just pushed over 30%, leading to a hollowed-out urban core and a hit on the city’s budget.

He ostensibly called this moment a market reset. “We’re not yet through the worst of the pain,” Mahan told local business leaders. “But it also creates opportunities. [Businesses] that were previously priced out can afford to come in.” 

Without the return of office workers, Mahan said retail, restaurants and the arts are driving Downtown San Jose’s recovery this time around. Last year, a University of Toronto study, using cellphone data, found that San Jose has recovered 96% of its Downtown traffic from pre-pandemic levels.

Adding to that, some obsolete real estate is finding new life. In November, San Jose State University agreed to lease an unused wing of a once-popular downtown hotel with the intent of turning it into student housing—an idea that gained positive traction in San Francisco last year. 

Top of mind for both cities remains homelessness. San Jose, being the most populous city in the Bay Area, was once home to what was believed to be the largest encampment in the country. Mahan said his office will prioritize “immediate alternatives” to encampments first, mainly building more tiny homes, which are cheaper to fund and faster to build than traditional housing. 

In other news, Mayor Lisa Gillmor of Santa Clara, where Levi’s Stadium is located, said the massive development around the venue—which would also be the city’s first downtown—will not be completed by 2026.

The Related Companies, which is heading the 9.2 million-square-foot project, just announced this week that it had to pivot away from the massive office component because there was no more demand. Instead, Related will fill in the space with some light industrial, advanced manufacturing and incorporate the rest into a mixed-use city center yet to break ground. 

That means the year the city hosts millions of visitors for both the Super Bowl and World Cup, the aerial TV shot of the stadium is likely to feature cranes, beams and gigantic pits of dirt. 

Kevin Truong can be reached at
Kevin V. Nguyen can be reached at