San Francisco Observations


I made quite a few trips to San Francisco during the late 90s into the early 2000s, but hadn’t been back in a very long time – probably close to 15 years.

Recently I was there for a conference and a long weekend and got to spend some time exploring the city. I won’t claim a comprehensive review, but I did have a few takeaways to share.

1. Fewer homeless than expected. Based on the rhetoric you read in the papers, I expected SF to be overrun with aggressive homeless people. This wasn’t the case. There were visible homeless to be sure, but no more than I remember from 15 years ago and no more than I see in New York. And they were not particularly aggressive in any way.

2. A curiously low energy city. It’s tough to judge any American city’s street energy after living in New York, but San Francisco felt basically dead. Tourist areas around Union Square and the Embarcadero were crowded, and the Mission on a Friday night was hopping, but otherwise the city was very quiet. Haight-Ashbury was nearly deserted and many neighborhoods had the feel of a ghost town. It’s very strange to be walking around a city with such a dense built fabric but so few people.

3. San Francisco is too small to support a centralized economy. The Financial District has a number of skyscrapers, and SOMA is awash in construction – the biggest changes I observed were in this district – but central San Francisco is too small to serve as a global city business center. And the city as a whole is not big enough to support that kind of a resident base. The bottom line is that San Francisco’s constrained geography renders the construction of a CBD in the style of a Chicago or New York very difficult. Also, at only around 856,000 people – an all time record high – the absorption capacity of the city is limited. Contrast with NYC at 8.5 million, LA with 4 million and Chicago with around 2.7 million in much bigger geographies. Also, the transport geography of San Francisco does not include the type of massive commuter rail system that NYC, London, Chicago, etc. have. In short, I don’t see SF having the capacity for a much greater degree of employment centralization.

4. Major construction is undesirable in San Francisco. As I’ve written before, San Francisco is one of America’s most achingly beautiful cities with a very unique building stock. It’s also, like Manhattan, mostly fully developed. So new construction in most places would involve demolition of the existing building stock. No surprise SOMA is where the construction is, because there’s room to do it and/or lower quality buildings to replace. To make a serious increase in the quantity of residential or office space would involve significant damage to the character of the city and would not in my view be desirable. Nor, given the point above about its small size, is it likely to make much of a difference anyway. It’s hard to see how the city of San Francisco itself changes its trends without an economic pullback.

5. San Francisco doesn’t feel like it has the services of a high tax city. Taxes are high in San Francisco, but it many ways it doesn’t feel like it. In New York, our taxes are high, but the level of services is highly visible, at least in Manhattan. Just as one small example, SF’s storm drains were often partially blocked with leaves, and there were pools of standing water even on Market St. In NYC, BID employees or building supers regularly clear storm drains and sweep water into sewers. Our parks are in better shape. I was surprised to see that SF still has curbs with no ADA ramps. In short, while the city is beautiful and such, it doesn’t radiate the feel of high services.

6. Barrier and POP transit system. I ran into a curious situation while riding transit. Muni, the city’s transit agency, has a light rail system called Muni Metro. It runs as a subway under Market St. Because it runs on street elsewhere, the trainsets are pretty short. I rode the subway portion, which has a barrier system. But then on the train my ticket was checked again by a conductor. Why have barriers if you are running a POP system on top of it? I’m glad I saved my ticket.

7. San Francisco Opera. I attended my first opera in San Francisco. The San Francisco Opera is a very globally respected company. The opera, Janacek’s The Makropulous Case, was very good. It was well-patronized but there were plenty of empty seats too. It has the feel of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where the majority of attendees are subscribers. The average age was very high – much higher than the Met Opera, which although suffering a serious attendance problem draws quite a few young people. The SF Opera’s patron base is getting up there. I also took a look through the program. I did not see a single tech company on their list of corporate sponsor, nor did I see any tech names I recognized on their major donor list. Opera in San Francisco appears to be an old money affair, with the emphasis on old. This doesn’t bode well for the future of this flagship cultural organization if it can’t find a way to tap into younger attendees and donors. I’d have to caveat this somewhat given that my investigation is very limited. But this is a trend affecting many similar organizations.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.