Opinion: Downtown San Francisco had a good run. Can it recover?

Exterior of First Republic Bank office in San Francisco
Pedestrians walk past the headquarters of First Republic Bank, which was seized by regulators and sold to JPMorgan Chase Bank, becoming the latest San Francisco business to topple.
(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

Downtown San Francisco is in distress. Indicators of urban well-being point in the wrong direction: office occupancy, BART ridership and retail foot traffic are down, as is the city’s population. Every week brings news of another high-profile exit: Recent closures include a Whole Foods flagship and Nordstrom, which announced the end of its 35-year run on Market Street due to changes in the “dynamics” of downtown. First Republic Bank, another San Francisco success story, went under after it couldn’t retain its wealthy customers and was sold to JPMorgan Chase. The future of its branches, the familiar green-and-gold presence downtown, is uncertain.

Now barely a day passes without the San Francisco Chronicle or another publication referencing a “doom loop” in the city. There’s a lot of finger-pointing, but no agreement about how to solve the actual issues, including the spiraling homelessness crisis, the unsustainable cost of living or a property crime rate consistently higher than that of similar metropolitan areas. If you see people smiling downtown, they’re probably tourists inside double-decker buses — and even that might be deceptive. Hotel occupancy rates remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels.

Like most people who had a good run for too long, San Francisco didn’t see it coming. I understand why. When I moved here from Boston in 2003, I fell in love unconditionally with that shining city that looked like a mashup of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gondor and America’s proverbial city on the hill: an immigrant’s dream. Even back then, San Francisco wasn’t exactly affordable. We ended up buying a house in the East Bay, and it still cost twice the amount we would have paid back East. But such was the Bay Area, our real estate agent explained: “Things here only go up.”


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It made sense. San Francisco was the closest metro area to a gold rush — Silicon Valley — in the early 2000s, and its job market felt solid even during the recession (I landed a job within four months while caring for a newborn), with high-salary industries and the seemingly infinite upward potential provided by stock options. Google had just gone public, as did Salesforce and many others. The city was awash with employees buying million-dollar condos near the ballpark, joining the nation’s “one percent.”

Tech wealth increased exponentially, with Facebook, Twitter and Uber IPOs generating billions of dollars. With that wealth came Michelin-starred restaurants and upscale malls packed with young tech entrepreneurs in their perennial white soles. It was to cater to that millennial demographic that First Republic Bank, whose “privilege” it was to serve the city’s elite, hired me as a contract writer in 2018. Unlike older clientele, young tech millionaires preferred to bank online, managing their seven-figure balances electronically. I wrote the words that helped them do it.

In the 18 months that I worked at One Front, as we called the bank’s headquarters, downtown San Francisco seemed like the ultimate metropolis. European and homegrown coffee shops competed with juice parlors that unblinkingly charged upward of $10 a glass and still drew long lines. The Ferry Building’s wine bars and waterfront cafes overflowed at lunchtime, even though employers often served high-quality free or subsidized food. Inside, one could get lavender chocolates and Argentinian empanadas, Spanish hams, cheeses from local celebrity Cowgirl Creamery. Sometimes, after work, I’d pick a fresh loaf of sourdough before squeezing myself onto the down escalator at the Embarcadero BART station, whose entrance had to be closed periodically to manage the torrent of riders.

Other times I didn’t hurry home, waiting for the madness to subside in the light-filled atrium of the nearby Palace Hotel, another San Francisco landmark. I’d meet up there with my husband and we’d head to the San Francisco Ballet. The four blocks between Twitter headquarters on 5th Street and the War Memorial Opera House were dicey, so you had to walk fast. But once there, all you could see was the genius of the city artists, many of them transplants, like the Shanghai-born San Francisco legend Yuan Yuan Tan. At intermissions, standing on the mezzanine balcony and shivering in the breeze, we’d gaze at the magnificent neoclassical City Hall lit up for the evening and bless the good fortune that brought us here, to the ultimate stop on the Go West dream train.

My last pre-pandemic memory of downtown was as dreamy as it gets: Keanu Reeves shooting the new “Matrix” movie at One Front. I still have his picture in my iPhone crossing the bank’s lobby. Four weeks later, on March 7, 2020, First Republic sent us home to shelter in place with our laptops and a few remaining bottles of hand sanitizer. A month into remote work, I was let go, along with other contractors. Throughout the pandemic, I often thought of “Firbie” as my paradise lost. When it’s over, I hoped, I might find my way back there.

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But the bank that seemed as impervious as its city is no more. Technology, the force that propelled San Francisco to the top, also carried the germs of its doom. At the start of the pandemic, tech stocks had been boosted by remote work tools. But when the shutdowns finally ended, they tanked, dragging down everything else — much as the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank helped trigger the death spiral that shook confidence in and ultimately took down First Republic.


As the seemingly infinite IPO cash tsunami receded, it revealed the city’s less sightly realities that accumulated during the tech boom: homelessness, addiction, deficient public services. Office workers who financially fueled the city decamped to the suburbs — or they were laid off. San Francisco’s once-vibrant downtown now feels like a graveyard, where deserted skyscrapers gaze down at lifeless streets, boarded-up storefronts and “for lease” signs.

Meanwhile, buses continue to arrive and depart at the city’s grandiose Salesforce Transit Center, which cost the city $2.2 billion and regularly sits empty. San Francisco, it seems, simply danced its “fat years” away, developing no lasting attachments for its “sea of talent,” much of which left for other cities citing affordability and quality-of-life concerns.

San Francisco leaders brush off the bad news and say the city will recover. Yet nobody seems to know what that looks like, or what is the path forward. “Doom loop” concerns don’t affect all San Franciscans in the same manner. While downtown hurts conspicuously, things look just fine in the wealthy residential enclaves of Sea Cliff and Russian Hill. The rich were whisked out of their banking predicaments and don’t have to worry about fewer jobs, canceled work visas or shuttered malls. San Francisco has the third-highest income inequality gap in the nation, its progressive leanings notwithstanding.

The pandemic didn’t help. Yet it didn’t cause the city’s current plight — it merely accelerated existing problems. Now that the tech bubble has burst, the costs are being borne by the rest of us.

Anastasia Edel is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. @AEdelWriter