Jack Mogannam, manager of Sam’s Cable Car Lounge in downtown San Francisco, relishes the days when his bar stayed open past midnight every night, welcoming crowds that jostled on the streets, bar hopped, window browsed or just took in the night air.
He’s had to drastically curtail those hours because of diminished foot traffic, and business is down 30%. A sign outside the lounge pleads: “We need your support!”
“I’d stand outside my bar at 10 p.m. and look, it would be like a party on the street,” Mogannam said. “Now you see, like, six people on the street up and down the block. It’s a ghost town.”
After a three-year exile, the pandemic now fading from view, the expected crowds and electric ambience of downtown have not returned.
Empty storefronts dot the streets. Large “going out of business” signs hang in windows. Uniqlo, Nordstrom Rack and Anthropologie are gone. Last month, the owner of Westfield San Francisco Centre, a fixture for more than 20 years, said it was handing the mall back to its lender, citing declining sales and foot traffic. The owner of two towering hotels, including a Hilton, did the same.
Shampoo, toothpaste and other toiletries are locked up at downtown pharmacies. And armed robbers recently hit a Gucci store in broad daylight.
San Francisco has become the prime example of what downtowns shouldn’t look like: vacant, crime-ridden and in various stages of decay. But in truth, it’s just one of many cities across the U.S. whose downtowns are reckoning with a post-pandemic wake-up call: diversify or die.
As the pandemic bore down in early 2020, it drove people out of city centers and boosted shopping and dining in residential neighborhoods and nearby suburbs as workers stayed closer to home. Those habits seem poised to stay.
No longer the purview of office workers, downtowns must become around-the-clock destinations for people to congregate, said Richard Florida, a specialist in city planning at the University of Toronto.