THE SCOOP ON SAN FRANCISCO

Construction cranes abound in San Francisco. Is growth good? I asked Lynn Sedway, head of Sedway Consulting. Her San Francisco firm provides real-estate research to developers, nonprofits and government agencies. You may think Lynn has an agenda to push. Not so. She just offers expertise, including assembling facts and providing analysis. For some San Franciscans—both conservatives and progressives—facts can be unpleasant.

For example, Lynn says you can’t add businesses and jobs without building workplaces. And you can’t house more people without building more housing. We need better schools, too. And better care for the poor and the aged. Lynn and I spoke for an hour. Here are some highlights.

— Technology and urban excitement have made San Francisco the country’s hottest real estate market despite City fees and policies that delay projects and increase costs. San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties also are strong. Other hot cities include New York, Chicago to some extent, Houston and Dallas. Los Angeles is coming back but not there yet. And San Francisco’s techies are not villains. Mid-Market long was known for drugs, panhandling and crime. Now it’s booming.

— The boom could bust. Extraneous events, such as a stock-market stumble, can impact business and consumer confidence, disrupting a real-estate boom. Still, San Francisco can survive thanks to great Bay Area universities, top research facilities, biotech and high-tech growth and major employers.

— A Manhattan-like lifestyle is taking root. True, young techies will get older. Many will marry, have children and seek homes in suburbs with good schools. But young families increasingly find living in an apartment workable given San Francisco’s many attractions. This puts an emphasis on building quality apartments and condos.

— Stopping the flight of young families depends most on good schools. We’re not there yet. Moms and dads will forego backyards and even cars. Weak schools put them off and keep the City’s percentage of children the lowest in the nation.

— South of Market and other urban neighborhoods have grown wildly. Three “suburban” areas offer much potential: Bayview/Hunter’s Point, Treasure Island and Parkmerced. The latter, developed in the 1930s, is slated for major expansion. What’s more, smaller housing developments can fit on unused “infill” properties scattered around town. Still, leafier neighborhoods have the political clout to keep sizable projects off their turf.

— “Affordable” and “low-cost” are misleading terms. Land prices, high City fees and a long, complicated approval process help price middle-income earners out of the market. Even middle managers and young doctors find it difficult to live in SF. So do many college graduates in necessary fields outside tech and finance.

— Big problem: Public safety and health care personnel can’t afford to live here. Many seek jobs closer to their suburban homes to stop commuting. What happens after the next great quake if they can’t get over the bridges or come in via BART?

The genie is out of the bottle. San Francisco is becoming a more urban city as well-to-do young people and retirees come in. They trade private outdoor space for transit, public parks, playgrounds, museums, music, dance, theater, the Giants and of course, great restaurants. “People who adapt,” says Lynn, “will love it.” Oh, and have you seen what’s happening in Oakland lately?

Footnote: I was in London last week—almost an annual trip. London is San Francisco on steroids. And as in San Francisco, new housing doesn’t come cheap.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

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6 Comments


  1. Ron Laupheimer
    Jun 13, 2014

    I fully understand what Lynn and you say about the “changing San Francisco.” I also recognize that change is always happening. Nevertheless, I think San Francisco has lost some of its “soul” and good feelings with the changes that are occurring. Construction is everywhere. You cannot move around the City without difficulty, and then finding a parking space is impossible. People of “average” means (today, probably that means making less than $100,000 or so) can no longer live in San Francisco, especially if they have any kids. San Francisco in my opinion is much less “livable” than in past decades. Yes, this is an old, long-time San Franciscan talking, but I believe my description is basically accurate. You aptly summarized the problem as I see it in one phrase–“A Manhattan-like lifestyle is taking root” here. What a shame.


    • David
      Jun 13, 2014

      No question, Ron, that the Embarcadero and South of Market areas can drive anyone crazy. Traffic is a monster. Even in the leafy neighborhoods, street repair—necessary—creates a series of obstacle courses. Today’s post only indicates reality. A great many people want a more urban lifestyle in San Francisco. I don’t, so I stay in my home by the Presidio National Park. At any rate, I’m reminded of a guy I met in 1974 when I moved here. He’d arrived ten years earlier and said that San Francisco had changed in the past decade; the City should have locked the gates and stayed the way it was. It didn’t. It won’t.


  2. Ellen Newman
    Jun 13, 2014

    A great post David (and Lynn). I’ve been thinking about the same thing a lot this year as I’ve been showing off all the cranes to visitors from Los Angeles, Boston and Paris. As a person who likes my spaces tidy — my desk and my city — I’ve finally realized that my desk will never be clean and my city will never be finished. Change is the urban constant. I’d rather have techies than drug dealers and pimps any day. After a week in New York, I found the density exhilarating, but I’m not how I’d feel living there. David, thanks for starting the conversation.


    • David
      Jun 13, 2014

      Anyone who remembers Mid-Market at its worst—and there’s still work to be done—probably doesn’t mind the changes that have taken place there. Interestingly, Oakland seems to be experiencing a boom. People priced out of San Francisco but with reasonable incomes are leading the way in the transformation of many neighborhood. West Oakland is one of those neighborhoods, known in the past for a high crime rate. Change can be good, and change can be bad. Nonetheless, change remains a constant. Was San Francisco a better city when its population dropped from 775,000 in 1950 to 680,000 in 1980? What did that tell us?


  3. Tracy
    Jun 13, 2014

    Great points made and a nice summary of your interview with Lynn, thanks David. Unfortunately, San Francisco is quickly becoming a “donut” in terms of new residential units. We do a great job of luxury condos and a decent job of subsidized housing, but we do an awful job of building family housing. Thus, the number of dogs in the City now officially outnumber the children. Look at any new development — there are almost no 3+ BR units. 2 BR is generally as large as it gets. The developers are simply adjusting to the market; they are building what will sell, and it’s more profitable to build three 2 BR units than two 3 BR units. Thus, we have no new single family homes and no new 3 BR condos and families don’t live in SF. They just don’t. Sure, there is a occasional brave family that decides to live in SoMa, but that’s the exception.

    As for Mid-Market, it indeed is a bit better — especially toward Van Ness. Much of that is attributable to Twitter’s campus. However, even there we have a gated community — that is, the expected expansion of neighborhood serving uses to support the Twitterites hasn’t happened because Twitter’s campus is self contained and doesn’t really interact with the neighborhood. Thus, it’s still seedy and economically depressed. The Twitterites come into the City (or bike from Potrero Hill), work, eat and socialize inside the Twitter building, and then hop on BART or bike home. No boon for local lunch places, or bars, or dry cleaners, etc.

    There are no easy solutions; as you point out change can be good and change can be bad. In Twitters case, there has been some good change (a vacant large building is now generating jobs and taxes) but there has been some bad too (exacerbated tension between the “techies” and neighborhood residents).

    What we do know is this: the City will have 1,000,000 residents by 2025 and they will have to live somewhere. Not all of them can live in SoMa, which is where the “west of Twin Peaks” crowd (Richmond Neighborhood Association I’m looking at YOU) would allow it. The Richmond, the Sunset, Pac Heights, Marina, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, and Knob Hill will all need to take their fair share of new housing too.

    We do indeed live in interesting times.


  4. Carolyn Perlstein
    Jun 13, 2014

    Change and growth can be good. We may not always like these changes, but it’s inevitable in any case. It makes me sad to see favorite stores and restaurants going out of business due to high rents and sometimes just because the owners need to retire and won’t compromise what they’ve built up by selling out to someone who will cheapen their good name. Yesteryear is never as wonderful as we believe it was–the edges of reality softened with memory’s golden glow. The future is now, hard edged and bright. We hope this future will encompass the needs of our diverse city: children and families, low income, middle income, ethnic groups, religious groups and anyone and everyone who wants to live in this most wonderful of cities. But sometimes I lose heart and wonder what we are leaving behind for the next generation.

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