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Downtown San Francisco night life recovery outpacing daytime activity, data shows

San Francisco's downtown night life recovery rebounding at a higher pace than daytime activity
San Francisco's downtown night life recovery rebounding at a higher pace than daytime activity 05:09

Since the pandemic upended life as we knew it, cities across the country have had to get creative in finding ways to get people back into downtown areas.

With hybrid work becoming the norm and no longer a band-aid, that remains a struggle during the daytime for downtown San Francisco. The Q1 office vacancy rate was around 37%, according to figures from CBRE.

Mary Fitzgerald, who works downtown, goes into the office a few days a week.

"I think the town is still a little quiet, a little sleepy," Fitzgerald said. "Not everyone is in office Monday morning. I think Wednesday is the most crowded day in the office."

She told CBS News Bay Area that its busier now than it was a year ago, and that trend seems to be continuing.

"The streets are definitely a bit more crowded, the buses are a bit more crowded in that middle of the week point," Fitzgerald said. "We now have people coming in from our Marin area and South Bay area."

While the office vacancy rate and hybrid work are integral parts of the puzzle that is downtown recovery, they're not the only ones.

The University of Toronto's School of Cities has been tracking downtown recovery progress for several years by utilizing cell phone data, not just office vacancy rates, to compare recent population patterns to pre-pandemic numbers.

"We're measuring stops, that means we're able to look at people who are actually doing something – so it's actually activity downtown," said Dr. Karen Chapple, professor emerita at UC Berkeley and the Director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

Of the cities they track, the downtown San Francisco area remains one of the slower cores to recover during the Monday-Friday working hours of 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. It's recovery rate in that timeframe is at 56%, per their data.

Chapple chalks a lot of it up to hybrid work becoming the norm.

"It's a moving target, which is why we have to keep studying it. It is still in flux," she said.

However when the evening rolls around, something changes. Downtown activity, per the cell phone data, surges from 56% to 94% of pre-pandemic activity, painting a different picture of downtown's recovery.

"You have all of these indicators, like office vacancy rate and transit ridership and so forth, but they don't give a complete picture," Chapple said.

Like the picture of John Konstin's experience in Union Square on weekday evenings. He owns John's Grill, a restaurant that's been on Ellis Street for 116 years.

"John's Grill has seen a massive influx of foot traffic – locals and tourists alike," he said.

On a Monday night, his restaurant was busy with walk-ins but also plenty of reservations on the books. Konstin says he began to notice a change last year.

"We actually had one of our best years on record last year," he said. "Our sales have gone up, actually, here at John's Grill."

While he can only speak to his experience, he feels confident about San Francisco's recovery.

"I think the bar and restaurant business is seeing a major uptick here in the downtown area," he said. "I'm here six, seven days a week, and people are asking, where do we go next? Where's the next stop on the list? So, people are just excited to go out and experience San Francisco and downtown."

Some locals, some tourists.

Fitzgerald said on the days she is in the office, people do stick around.

"People stay, they definitely linger past 5, 6 o'clock at my office just because we don't get together all that often," she said.

Fitzgerald sees this moment as an opportunity for San Francisco, a place she's proud to call home.

"It's an incredible place to be," she said. "I'm happy everyone is getting back, and I just can't wait for more people."

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