Cars drive by the Westfield San Francisco Centre on April 13, 2022. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf |CNN
Another big American retailer announced it was pulling out of downtown San Francisco.
Nordstrom blamed flagging foot traffic and the “dynamics of the downtown San Francisco market” when it announced it would not renew the lease on its massive retail location as well as its discount outlet in the heart of the city.
Numerous other brands have also said they will pull out of the area. In April, Whole Foods temporarily shut a flagship store that opened just last year, citing worker safety.
What’s happening in San Francisco has become a key storyline in a larger national narrative about crime and perceptions of crime.
It’s a storyline that CNN reporter Kyung Lah experienced back in March when she and a crew went to San Francisco to report on how crime has scrambled the city’s politics. Last November, voters in the majority-Asian American Sunset District replaced a progressive Chinese American incumbent for supervisor with a moderate White man, Joel Engardio.
“San Francisco, the most liberal place in America, is saying enough. We want safe streets. We want good schools,” Engardio told Lah during an interview at City Hall. “That should tell anyone — pay attention.”
Proving the point, the window of the car rented by Lah and her crew was being smashed and their bags grabbed as she conducted that interview. It happened in about four seconds, Lah said, and despite the fact that the CNN crew had hired professional security to watch their car. Watch her report.
Lah told me officers from the San Francisco Police Department ultimately recovered her emptied bags and passport.
For a better sense of what exactly is going on in one of the world’s great cities, I talked to Joe Eskenazi, managing editor and columnist for Mission Local, an independent, nonprofit news site. Full disclosure: Joe and I went to college together in the Bay Area and were colleagues at The Daily Californian. Excerpts of our conversation are below.
What’s happening in San Francisco?
WOLF: I’m out here on the East Coast. I see that businesses like Nordstrom and Whole Foods are leaving downtown San Francisco, and there is this theme that crime is driving them away. What’s your view?
ESKENAZI: There is crime in downtown San Francisco, but there always has been.
I think the notion that these businesses were driven out by crime is frankly dishonest. That’s always been a factor. But it wasn’t like Mid-Market (where the Nordstrom is located) was a serene place before the pandemic.
I think the Nordstrom people were very responsible in what they said. The letter that was sent to everybody was very upfront that there was decreased foot traffic. They weren’t making money.
It wasn’t good business for them anymore. And Nordstrom, in fact, closed their Stonestown Mall outlet in 2019, which is a mall more in the periphery of San Francisco.
So the problem here is that your big, high-end, mall-type retail is dying. It was already having lots of trouble before the pandemic and that kind of greased the skids. That’s a big problem for downtown San Francisco. It’s hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space that’s suddenly going to go vacant.
To say it was chased out by crime is a preferred narrative of people for their own worldview.
I just looked back and found an article that I wrote in 2014 about complaints that one out of every four police calls in that district was in or near the Westfield Mall. That was there before.
Is the inside of the city being hollowed out?
WOLF: There’s a tendency, if you’re looking from outside of San Francisco in, to try to connect dots between different stories. There’s the murder of a tech executive, the election of a more moderate city council, the recall of the district attorney there. There are reports about skyscrapers that are essentially vacant right now. There’s this perception that the inside of the city is being hollowed out.
ESKENAZI: That’s true, but that doesn’t have anything to do with crime. That has to do with the fact that the entire inside of the city was devoted to office space for businesses that are now going remote and cutting down.
People have different opinions on this, but I feel like it’s kind of asking a lot for the city to have 2020 hindsight. You can see where the city made itself vulnerable, devoting so much space to office space exclusively.
And in this case, tech companies were so flush that they alone could afford to buy up that office space, and in fact bought it up when it was still even conceptual office space. So like 100% of the vacancies were going to tech.
When tech workers dictated that they would rather be working from home or working a combination, that’s what happened. If you go to the Financial District now — it’s not nearly as bad as everyone would think. There are still people around. It’s just not crowded. And it hollows out very quickly once working hours are done.
But that’s always how it was. I think office vacancies speak for themselves.
We’re going to see how bad it really is when rents come down. A lot of the people who own those buildings are extremely leveraged and can’t afford to lower rents. So rents are still higher than in other cities nearby and in competing cities.
You’re not going to get new people with those rates. Sooner or later people are going to have to bite the bullet and decide they want the building to be largely full at a lower rate or largely empty at a higher rate.
And then we’re going to see if other types of businesses move in — the types of businesses San Francisco economically banished a long time ago.
People feel uneasy, but it is far from ‘Mad Max’
WOLF: A separate issue than crime, but potentially related, is homelessness. We’ve written more about that, certainly, with regard to Los Angeles, but I wonder what it’s like from a perspective of running into a large number of people who are unhoused on the streets. Is that changing the perceptions in the city?
ESKENAZI: There have always been large numbers of unhoused people in San Francisco. The difference now is that with fewer people downtown, a higher percentage of people you see are visibly homeless.
What’s more, there are more overtly miserable people out than there used to be, for lack of a better word. You’re seeing more chaotic, horrific conditions.
You earlier mentioned crime, and in people’s minds, being uneasy about drug use in the streets or antisocial behavior is equated in their minds with crime. People feel uneasy, and that’s understandable.
But this feeling of uneasiness does not square with crime. If you take a step back, statistically, that’s the case. San Francisco has lots of overt misery, lots of overt drug use, lots of things that you wish you didn’t see and that the city should be dealing with in ways other than tossing people in jail or pushing them into neighboring counties.
San Francisco also has lots of property crime because there’s a great divergence of wealth and people steal things. But San Francisco’s violent crime rate is at a near historic low right now.
This dynamic was on full display when it was just assumed that tech mogul Bob Lee was stabbed to death by a homeless crazy, and it turns out that the man in custody is a fellow tech executive.
We have a big problem with the future of downtown and how it’s going to be productive and provide the tax revenue that this city depends upon. The departures of our big anchor businesses because it’s no longer profitable — that’s a big problem. It is separate and apart from the perception that it’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” here on the city streets, which just really isn’t true.
A perception of uneasiness can have consequences
WOLF: Perception can lead to change, though, even if it isn’t specifically reality. How is the perception of the city as Thunderdome going to affect the politics there? People’s willingness to live there? If you describe a sense of uneasiness, even though that might not mean more crime, it sounds like a not-pleasant place to be.
ESKENAZI: I think it’s definitely going to have its effect on how things are done in San Francisco, but we’re going to have to see what that looks like.
I’d say that half-formed “solutions” meant to address something that isn’t statistically a problem are not going to have happy outcomes. You know, calling in the Highway Patrol and the National Guard to deal with our horrible drug addiction problem isn’t going to do much if it’s all for show, even if they get out on the streets and start collaring drug users and tossing them in jail.
We’re currently arresting narcotics criminals at about one-ninth of volume that district attorney (now Vice President) Kamala Harris presided over during prior police administrations. The tough parts of downtown were still tough back then. There was still a lot of overt drug use and misery.
The drugs are different now. The drugs are more dangerous now. But it would be very hard to just patrol and arrest your way out of this problem. It’s going to take more thorough, complete solutions.
I’m not really even seeing the willingness to have honest discussions about this, because the whole premise is being taken and grabbed and run with in a dishonest way.
WOLF: What am I missing?
ESKENAZI: I think that people are scared and people are uneasy and people are fed up.
But that’s different than saying OK, we’re just gonna hire more cops or OK, we’re going to just do something simple. These are complicated problems. And San Francisco can’t solve some of America’s problems.
One of the reasons in San Francisco you see people shooting drugs on the street is because in other parts of the country, those people can afford to be inside.
San Francisco has land-use issues and housing issues. Land use is a bit like sand; it gets into everything here. Every discussion ends up coming back to that, which is very unsatisfactory and makes it very hard to solve problems.
A (former New York City Mayor Rudy) Giuliani type situation of just like booting misery and overt antisocial behavior into the next county isn’t going to end up working here, because it would seem that other people have that idea elsewhere and they encourage people to come here.
What’s your view of San Francisco politicians’ prospects in DC?
WOLF: Let me flip the conversation around a little bit. You mentioned Vice President Harris. The current governor of California, Gavin Newsom, used to be the mayor of San Francisco. The city has an outsize influence in state and national politics. What is your view of how those two people’s careers will progress?
ESKENAZI: I think Kamala Harris will rise or fall based upon factors other than her performance as district attorney in San Francisco quite some time ago.
I think that it’s very hard to see some of Gavin Newsom’s moves here in California as other than politically based. Gavin Newsom does not seem to want to give fodder to (Florida Gov.) Ron DeSantis and, as a result, something that we know would work here in California, which is having supervised drug use centers — which have worked elsewhere in the country and worked elsewhere in the world — he vetoed that bill.
So we’re left with doing the same thing we’ve always done with regard to drug users and drug addicted people, which is not much — and the death toll is staggering.
I have a hard time seeing that as anything other than a politically based move. And he didn’t give Ron DeSantis something to tease him about, and people are dead on the streets. It’s very frustrating for those of us who live here.
What’s the direction of your city?
WOLF: You’ve lived there pretty much your entire life. Has the city gotten better or worse in the last 40 some odd years?
ESKENAZI: It’s different. Some things are better, and some things are worse. People who tell you differently are seeing things through blinders, frankly. Full disclosure: You and I went to college together, and I grew up in the area. After Berkeley, I ended up moving full time to San Francisco 20 some odd years ago.
When I moved to San Francisco, Zach, there were well over 100 murders a year.
We’ve had as few as 41 murders, I think, two years ago (note: it was 2019). We’re on pace to have about 56, 55. So it’s very different. Violent crime is much lower now than it was 20 years ago, 10 years ago.
But property crime is off the hook. And overt misery is off the hook. And the budget of San Francisco has ballooned. So people are frustrated.
But simply saying things are worse or things are better strikes me as being reductive. Things are certainly more expensive.
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