The injection of new residents could help revitalize deserted commercial districts and boost foot traffic as restaurants and shops reopen, particularly during evening hours. More downtown housing would build on previous city efforts, particularly in the Transbay neighborhood, to create vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods with both workers and residents.
But no San Francisco office-to-housing proposals have been submitted during the pandemic, according to the city’s Planning Department.
While the idea is being actively discussed by developers, there are major obstacles, said Manan Shah, an co-managing director at architecture firm Gensler’s Oakland office.
Office buildings can’t be too large or dwellings won’t have enough access to light and air. If they’re too small, there won’t be room for new bathrooms and bedrooms, or elevators and exits. Aging office buildings can also require major seismic upgrades to comply with modern residential codes, and historic exteriors may have to be preserved. Residences also must provide open space — a potential hurdle in cramped downtown — unless they receive a city variance.
“There are some just inherent challenges with doing it. Not impossible — it’s certainly been done,” Shah said. “I think you just have to look at each and every building and opportunity individually.”
In some cases, converting old buildings can be more expensive than building a new project from the ground up, and they’re almost always more complex, developers say. And San Francisco’s construction costs, ranked as the world’s highest in 2019, haven’t budged much during the pandemic.
Earlier: Joel Kotkin: The American City’s Long Road to Recovery. As Glenn noted, “First, you have to want to recover. So far we’re not there.”