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Stay awhile. Sen. Scott Wiener wants to bring fun back to downtown San Francisco

Sen. Scott Wiener in a suit stands on a graffiti-covered street, with a mattress and trash nearby. Black and white photo.
Ekevara Kitpowsong for The Standard

By Scott Wiener

When I think about downtown San Francisco, I think about a mural on the corner of 15th & Church streets. Painted 20 years ago by the San Francisco-based artist Mona Caron, it shows the evolution of San Francisco’s rich urban fabric through a series of historic panels starting in the 1920s. 

Like turning the pages in a book, walking past the panels shows our sidewalks balloon with people and then empty as activist demonstrations, celebrations and the daily rituals of city life come and go. The streets throng with streetcars and bicycles, then shift to car traffic. The buildings swell in size as small businesses mix with large corporations, office space and a lone apartment building.

This mural reminds me that massive changes have rocked this city before, and we’ve always pulled through, thanks to San Franciscans’ willingness to think big and our powerful civic engagement. 

We need to turn the page once again. Our downtown faces very real challenges, with formidable office vacancy rates and foot traffic struggling to return to pre-pandemic levels, as it has in some other California cities. 

To revitalize downtown San Francisco, we need to transform it from a place where people work to a place where people live, work, hang out and entertain themselves. That transformation will take a massive effort from businesses, policymakers and civil society, but I believe it must happen in order to secure our future as a vibrant and thriving metropolis.

I have a set of proposals to accelerate this change. 

One fundamental challenge with downtown is that it’s nearly all office and commercial space. When remote work became common during the pandemic and the shift toward online shopping accelerated, many people’s reasons for venturing downtown evaporated. Our struggles with homelessness, addiction and mental health became much more visible with the reduced foot traffic.

Downtown activity is on the rise thanks to the work of Mayor London Breed and many others, but the challenges of remote work and online retail remain. Poor market conditions and San Francisco’s famous obsession with endless process are holding up the changes we need. We must create a more balanced mix of offerings—such as housing, colleges and entertainment venues—in our downtown, including by remodeling and potentially removing empty, outdated buildings and converting them to exciting new uses.

On Friday, I announced SB 1227 to tackle this problem. The bill provides targeted regulatory and tax relief in downtown San Francisco for a period of 10 years. Most remodels and conversions would have years cut off their approval time through an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act, an infamous state law that allows anyone, anywhere, to mire new projects in years of litigation and review, even if the project reduces carbon emissions by decreasing driving. The bill also expands an existing tax exemption for affordable housing to make it available to more middle-class families.

Bringing more housing downtown is critical to revitalizing the area. SB 1227 would make it easier to bring housing to this stretch of the city, including desperately needed student housing, by building on recent state housing laws to accelerate housing creation.

Cities require more than housing to come alive. SB 1227 enables us to build the new attractions we need to transform downtown. Universities like UC Berkeley could convert empty office buildings into classrooms and student housing. Empty retail windows could become new cafes or entertainment venues. The former Westfield mall could be quickly transformed into a soccer stadium, a pickleball court or whatever other creative use San Franciscans find for it.

We can also draw people downtown by thinking creatively about how we’re using existing public spaces. One idea I’m championing is entertainment zones—designated outdoor areas where bars and restaurants can sell drinks outside, as they do in Paris or New Orleans. Residents and tourists could enjoy a drink and food outside in areas like Front Street, near the Embarcadero, drawing people downtown and breathing life into our streets in the process.

And of course, our downtown needs public transportation to succeed. People need an easy, reliable way to get around San Francisco—and to and from the city—if they’re going to venture out. San Francisco is simply too dense for everyone to ride in cars. Public transportation is struggling right now, but last year, a coalition I helped lead was able to secure state funding to prevent major service cuts, and we will soon announce a new effort to sustainably fund and modernize public transit in the San Francisco Bay Area for decades to come.

For examples of cities weathering hard times and coming out stronger, we can look to New York City. When middle-class families fled to the suburbs in the 1980s, New York invested in its public transportation network, drawing the lost residents back and more within a single generation. When the 9/11 attacks turned Lower Manhattan into a ghost town, New York responded by bringing a combination of housing, entertainment and nightlife to the office-heavy district. Because of that diversity, Lower Manhattan is today among New York’s most vibrant neighborhoods.

Thinking about San Francisco’s downtown, my mind goes back to the final panel of Mona Caron’s mural, which shows a utopian future San Francisco has not yet attained. The work we need to do will take years, and it will require that San Franciscans from all corners engage in making our city better.

I know we will get there.

Sen. Scott Wiener has represented San Francisco and northern San Mateo County in the California Senate since 2016. A former San Francisco Supervisor, his legislative work has focused on housing, climate, transportation and other core urban issues.

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