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San Francisco hopes college students can save downtown. This university is already trying

A group of schools are providing a test case in the city’s most troubled neighborhood.

A person in a red coat faces modern buildings; wires and street signs crisscross above.
UC Law SF joined forces with other schools to create student housing in the Tenderloin. Is it helping the neighborhood? | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

When San Francisco was mired in “doom loop” talk last year, Mayor London Breed and some business leaders began openly calling for college students to save downtown. Young adults, the thinking goes, would populate struggling areas, reinvigorate the economy and help transform downtown from a 9-to-5 office community to a 24/7 arts and culture destination. 

Just one block away from the worst drug corner in the city, the University of California College of the Law SF is putting that theory to the test. 

In August, the school opened Academe at 198, a 14-story, 650-unit apartment building at 198 McAllister St. in the Tenderloin neighborhood. Units in the complex are available not only to UC Law students but also to enrollees at UCSF, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of San Francisco and San Francisco State University, among other schools.

The building is a critical element of the university’s multimillion-dollar plan to reshape the neighborhood that it calls home—and that is the epicenter of the city’s homelessness and drug crises. It’s been nearly four years since the law school, alongside local residents, sued the city, accusing it of abandoning the neighborhood to growing homelessness and criminal activity.

Cameryn Chan was among the first tenants, leasing a 232-square-foot “efficiency” studio for $2,200 a month, despite what concerned family and friends told her about the area.

A tidy study desk with a lamp, books, a plant, a bottle, and a pen holder.
Every new apartment inside Academe at 198 comes fully furnished with floor plans ranging between 232 and 568 square feet. But only a third of the new units are set aside for law students and faculty. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“It was a little chaotic at first when the staff were still working out the kinks,” Chan said, sitting with two friends at the building’s seventh-floor lookout, with City Hall’s beaux-arts rotunda in the background. “But I gotta admit, it’s a nice place to lock in as a student.” 

Academe at 198 is part of a wider plan that aims to bring thousands of students from multiple universities together in what UC Law calls an “Academic Village”—an area not just for housing, but for gathering, collaborating and fun, too. 

The project kicked off in 2020 with the construction of the academic facility Cotchett Law Center on the site of a former parking lot on 333 Golden Gate Ave. Amid the pandemic, when residential development started to chill across the Bay Area due to financing and construction challenges, Academe at 198 was the rare project to rise.

Its completion opens the door for the impending renovation of an even larger building, the 100 McAllister tower, a century-old skyscraper that has 28 floors. Between the two towers, the project will bring the total number of housing units to nearly 730, with beds for more than 1,000 students. The target completion date is 2028. 

A modern office lounge with sofas, tables, people chatting, and a bright, airy design.
Inside the new Academe at 198, natural light and amenities are in abundance. The 14-story building has apartments, classrooms and gathering areas all under one roof. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

So far, Academe at 198 is only 60% full. Whether it and the other buildings will fill up—and help transform the neighborhood—remains to be seen. 

Chan said she hasn’t feared for her safety since moving in. Instead of eating out, Chan said she regularly walks to Nob Hill or up Polk Street to shop for groceries. 

“The neighborhood is not as bad as it’s made out to be,” Chan said. “But I am cautious going out at night, which, to be fair, would be the case anywhere.” 

From theory to practice

The key to getting the Academic Village over the finish line is the concept that it will be shared by multiple universities.

“Had this been only for the law school, we would have met much more skepticism trying to finance this project,” David Seward, chief financial officer of the university, told The Standard. To pay for Academe at 198, UC Law SF secured $364 million in tax-exempt bond financing. 

A city street corner with a sign "UC LAW SAN FRANCISCO" and some modern buildings in the background.
The brand new Academe at 198 sits on the site of a former UC Law SF academic building. It is now home to students from multiple schools, including UCSF, UC Davis and UC Berkeley, among others. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The new building includes an underground auditorium available for public use, a tech incubator space called the “Lexlab,” private study and meeting rooms, hangout lounges, laundry facilities and a dog run. 

In totality, the project amounts to a doubling down on the Tenderloin and a bet on the need for a critical mass to prove out the concept of students as downtown’s saviors.

“I think knowing who we were building this for inspired the different groups to work effectively together,” said Anders Carpenter, the project’s lead architect from Perkins & Will. “Not sure that same enthusiasm would’ve been there if we were just building luxury condos.”

Although the complex is still 40% vacant, UC Law SF Chief Operating Officer Rhiannon Bailard said the school is “very optimistic” about getting to 100% occupancy in the next academic year.

Getting to full occupancy means keeping security top of mind, Bailard said. All residents must swipe in via a card reader at the main security desk on the first floor when entering. Safety ambassadors are available to escort residents anywhere within the campus’ two-block radius between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. 

A man in a blazer stands in an empty, modern lecture hall with rows of seats and desks.
UC Law SF had to make difficult spending decisions throughout the development of Academe at 198 but spared no expense in recreating the two mock courtrooms on the first floor, said architect Anders Carpenter. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

After UC Law sued the city, the lawsuit was subsequently settled and resulted in the clearing of over 300 tents near the university. Two years later, Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin, briefly funneling additional resources to the area. 

Since then, the state of the neighborhood has only worsened, according to David Faigman, chancellor and dean of UC Law SF. Back-to-back shootings took place by the campus last November, prompting Faigman to publish an op-ed calling for another emergency order. 

“We continue to monitor the conditions in the neighborhood very closely,” Bailard told The Standard, adding that the recent reactivation of the U.N. Plaza with a skate park was a welcome sight.

Faigman, in his opinion piece, was more direct, decrying “the city’s incapacity to keep the Tenderloin clear of open-air drug dealing and the crime and devastation it brings, including countless deaths from fentanyl overdoses.”

An urban street scene with people gathered, some standing, one seated on the ground, amidst litter and a wheelchair with belongings.
Frustrations over deteriorating street conditions and increased crime led UC Law SF and a group of Tenderloin residents to sue San Francisco in 2020. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

“Present circumstances have raised the horror to a new level,” he added. “The vibrant community of the Tenderloin, like any other city neighborhood, deserves the respect and protection of city leadership.

“Something drastic must happen before more lives are lost.”

Night and day 

A block away from the university on Larkin Street, Peter Dorrance is the co-owner of Outta Sight Pizza, famous for its affordable yet delicious thin-crust slices. 

When the clock strikes 6 p.m., Dorrance said it can feel like the progress made in recent years to make the Tenderloin safer comes undone. 

When the sun dips over the horizon, the small army of community ambassadors from nonprofit Urban Alchemy—charged with keeping order during the daytime—clock out. In their stead, drug dealers and black-market vendors start to fill the sidewalks and closed storefronts. 

That’s when Outta Sight’s business flips from in-person to mostly delivery, Dorrance said. Those orders have buoyed the business, allowing it to expand from four employees in 2022 to more than 30 today. 

"[The students] are good for the neighborhood," Dorrance said, adding the school is also a reliable source of catering and happy hour customers. 

A group of people in vests and jackets stand by a street corner, with traffic lights indicating stop for pedestrians.
Community ambassadors from organizations such as Urban Alchemy largely keep order on the streets of one of SF's most troubled neighborhoods. However, there's a literal night and day difference when they clock out. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Kat Kaew, who opened Thai Curry Restaurant & Bar across the street from 100 McAllister last April, experiences that day-night shift in a different manner. Every day, she works from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and starts her morning by tidying up the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, because it’s usually full of trash from the night before. 

The Southern California transplant oversees a large dining room that could easily seat up to 100 guests. Inside, a massive mangrove tree mural and an array of statues and flowers transport guests to the Mekong. 

Daytime business is steady, with law school staff and City Hall workers as regulars, Kaew said. But Thai Curry doesn’t get anywhere near as many delivery orders as Outta Sight, so she needs the evening dinner crowd to grow if the business is going to survive. 

It’s a challenge, though, when workers leave the area after 5 p.m.  Unless there are shows at the nearby Orpheum Theatre, dinner business is slow. 

Three happy people are seated at a wooden table in a cozy café with a mural behind them.
From left: UC Law SF students Alexia Beatriz and Emily Montalvo make it a point to visit Kat Kaew's Thai Curry Restaurant & Bar at least once a week since it opened in 2023. | Source: Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

“We should be doing bigger numbers in a location like this so close to downtown,” Kaew said.

Even though students make up less than half of her business, Kaew said she’s grown to love their presence and welcomes the ongoing campus expansion. When third-year law students Alexia Beatriz and Emily Montalvo walked in for their weekly lunch on Thursday, Kaew proudly proclaimed, “They’re like my daughters.” 

In hopes of turning her restaurant into more of an attractive hangout, Kaew plans to invest more in the bar portion of her business next year. 

“The local neighborhood really wants us to stay open,” Kaew said. “But we need people outside [the Tenderloin] to care about supporting us too.” 

By now, San Franciscans should be skeptical of any one simple solution to downtown’s intersecting challenges. 

Kate Robinson, executive director of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, which like Urban Alchemy deploys ambassadors in the neighborhood’s streets, said she could not imagine the neighborhood without UC Law SF, calling the school “an engaged stakeholder in the truest sense.” 

A woman views a cityscape with buildings and streets from a balcony with glass barriers.
Rhiannon Bailard, chief operating officer at UC Law, said for as much talk there is about bringing another college campus to San Francisco, she likes to remind people that one already exists in the Tenderloin. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“The campus expansion is a win-win for the surrounding community,” Robinson said. “But we need a more sustained neighborhood-wide commitment from all of our community partners and not over-rely on the efforts of one single anchor institution to support us.” 

As for the plan for students to save downtown? The Mayor’s Office personally reached out to the regents of the University of California last month, asking them to consider expanding the system’s footprint in San Francisco. 

To date, no concrete proposals have hit the table. The owners of one major proposed site, the struggling San Francisco Centre mall, are still trying to resuscitate it for retail

UC Law SF leaders say while they support the city’s preliminary efforts to bring in new students and institutions, they’re focusing on bettering the Tenderloin before looking elsewhere.

“Bringing another UC campus to town is a major talking point,” Bailard said. “But we here like to remind folks that we already have one.”