How will San Francisco's downtown Financial District bring employees back to work in high-rise offices?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As San Francisco prepares to enter a less restrictive COVID-19 tier and vaccines hold out the promise for a future without more closures, downtown businesses are preparing for what's next.

The heart of the Bay Area and the pulse beating downtown is usually a reflection of what is going on across the region. But that heartbeat is on life support - and some people are asking if it can even survive.

For example, before the pandemic, the city had 5 million square-feet of office space available. Today, nearly 14 million square-feet of office space is vacant across the city. That's equivalent to 10 empty Salesforce Towers.

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How will offices reopen and will people even come back?

Pick any street on any day of the week and downtown San Francisco pretty much feels like a Sunday morning.

For more than a year now, downtown San Francisco has been a ghost town. High-rises are mostly empty. Inside many of these offices, time stands still; nothing has been touched or moved in more than a year -- it's as if all those people just vanished into thin air.

So what will the return look like?

"It's going to depend on your office, but right now what we are seeing is, around the city, it's about 10-15% occupied," says. John Bryant, CEO of the San Francisco Building and Office Managers Association.

"It's just a general statement of what's happening in the office, it is going to vary per office and per industry, but that's kind of what we are looking at," Bryant said.

But Bryant definitely believes the workers - and the workers' wallets - will return.

Bryant bases his prediction on conversations he has had with the employers who fill the downtown towers.

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Bryant says tenants are telling building owners they actually miss their offices. But, those offices won't likely look the same when workers return.

But even as the pandemic passes, the city still faces the challenge of making the streets attractive to workers who now have the option of working from home and may not want to contend with crammed buses and trains or the homeless.

"There's always going to be, you know, that issue of homelessness and safety and the mass transit. And that all plays a part in the mentality and the psyche of people coming downtown. I think what we're focused on right now is making sure that our buildings are healthy, that our buildings are safe when people are ready to come back in and they are," Bryant says.

Sara Razavi is CEO of Working Solutions, a micro lender with 18 workers who helps small businesses get started. The company's office on Montgomery Street has been empty since last March. Things are just where workers left them.

"We certainly can't get 18 in here comfortably again. Folks are not going to feel as comfortable as they used to... we want to be respectful," Razavi says.

Razavi is taking a month-by-month approach.

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"Things are changing, but we think we want to give our staff the opportunity to have the comfort, that if they come and they are not feeling 100%, they don't have to be in as enclosed as space, and you'll notice, and I didn't notice we don't have any windows that open," Razavi said.

That's true of many of the offices downtown. Take a look at the Salesforce Tower - the city's largest office building.

"These buildings, especially the modern buildings, they have such high-tech air systems, they bring in 100% fresh air from the outside, and they condition it, and filter it, condition it with cooling and heating, and deliver it out to the tenants' offices," said Danny Murtagh with Boston Properties, one of the city's biggest office landlords.

And it's not just keeping the air clean - there is also the fundamental challenge of even getting people up to their offices.

The Salesforce Tower holds 7,000 to 10,000 workers, depending on how they are spaced.

Given the guideline of four people to an elevator, how are they going to get 7,000 people in and out of this building or even 5,000 or 3,000? Without the line going out the door and down the block?

"We have a lot of elevators," Murtagh says.

Murtagh said there is an expectation that businesses are going to stagger start times and finish times.

"So they will actually stagger the elevator traffic, so not everyone shows up at 8 o'clock or 9 o'clock; they will put them in half-hour buckets and bring them in over a period of a couple of hours, same thing on the way out, stagger them on the way out so that they are not all in the lobby at the same time, " Murtagh said.

So, as things ease up, the hope is the high-rises will fill up,

But with new space restrictions, it may mean fewer workers taking up more space.

The impact that fewer workers will have on the hundreds of big and small retailers, restaurants and service businesses that serve the downtown will be the subject of our next report.

See more stories and videos about Building a Better Bay Area here.


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