San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 2022

Mayor London Breed is working with business leaders to push San Francisco employers to start bringing more workers back to downtown offices at some point in March.

Breed revealed the plans during a Friday morning appearance with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at the Hyatt Regency. Sitting before hundreds of business leaders and others at an economic forecast event hosted by the San Francisco Business Times, Breed said she was developing a strategy with the Chamber of Commerce and other groups to help turn around the city’s once-bustling commercial core. San Francisco’s downtown has been hit hard as most employees have stayed home during the pandemic.

The mayor acknowledged that some amount of remote work would remain, but she did not provide a precise date for when she wants major employers to start filling their offices again. But she said it would be sometime in March.

Breed said she had been in conversation with business groups “to come up with a specific strategy around dates of when people should return.”

“I keep saying, just like the Warriors, there’s strength in numbers,” Breed said.

Breed’s comments reflect the pressure she’s under to revive San Francisco’s struggling downtown where weekday foot traffic remains sparse, small businesses have shuttered and massive office towers sit largely empty nearly two years after COVID-19 sent most workers home indefinitely. Some workers are likely to stay remote because they’re concerned about being exposed to the virus or for other personal reasons.

The city faces an uphill battle in trying to bring its downtown economy back to some semblance of pre-pandemic levels, particularly when it comes to attracting conventions. Last week, Breed told the Board of Supervisors that she had “some hard conversations” with business leaders during a recent trip to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York with local hospitality industry leaders.

Executives have serious concerns about the city’s huge homeless population, public drug use and well-publicized property crimes, Breed said. While those problems aren’t new, the pandemic has cast them into sharp relief as more businesses have realized they can hold meetings remotely or host conventions elsewhere, she said.

“I don’t agree with the people who say that our best days are behind us,” Breed told supervisors on Feb. 8. “People have written off our city countless times before, and they are always proved wrong, but I also think it’s a mistake for anyone to ignore what people are saying and feeling about this city.”

As San Francisco tries to attract more conventions, Breed is also focused on getting more office workers back downtown on a semi-regular basis. San Francisco officials predict that around 15% of office workers will stay remote when the economy is expected to stabilize in 2023, a major shift that would permanently hurt business tax revenue, according to a report released last month.

At Friday’s event, she spoke of a potential domino effect that could occur, with the in-person return of some companies hopefully encouraging others to follow suit.

“What we’re looking at is a specific, targeted date,” Breed said, calling it “very instrumental in the success of trying to really get downtown going again.”

John Bryant, CEO of the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco, said he thinks Breed’s plan is a good idea.

“The determination really needs to be with the employees and their employers and our tenants, but when they do make that decision, we stand ready to assist, and our buildings are ready for them to come in,” Bryant said. “I think a lot of people are coming to that decision, with the caveat that there isn’t another variant that comes out like omicron did. And if there isn’t, then it is time for us to come back to the office.”

Downtown San Francisco’s buildings are about 20% occupied now, Bryant said, and he hopes to see that figure double this year.

“San Francisco’s downtown is the economic core of our city, and its vibrance is key to the economic recovery,” Rodney Fong, CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “We are eager to work with our member businesses and Mayor Breed to bring San Franciscans and Bay Area residents back to the office to reinvigorate a neighborhood that has suffered during the pandemic.”

Despite rampant commercial vacancies and an abundance of employees choosing to work remotely in perpetuity or leave San Francisco entirely, Breed said she was encouraged by a number of businesses that have signed new leases or are looking at new opportunities in the city.

“Working from home has been so convenient and so comfortable, let’s be honest,” Breed said. “But at the same time, people miss people. They miss being out in the streets. They miss being at places and restaurants.”