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.
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