Will San Francisco’s Tech Bro Nightmare Become San Diego’s Future?

by on June 3, 2019 · 4 comments

in Economy, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

Horton Plaza from an angle not often seen.

By Jim Miller

Bohemian San Francisco is deader than a doornail.  That was the theme of a recent Washington Post piece by Karen Heller, “How San Francisco Broke America’s Heart”, that observed how “the great American romantic city” had been ruined by an army of tech bros and the economic forces they represent.  As Heller writes, “everyone agrees that something has rotted in San Francisco,” and it’s not a product of the city’s liberalism, but of a new wave of libertarian capitalism:

Real estate is the nation’s costliest. Listings read like typos, a median $1.6 million for a single-family home and $3,700 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

“This is unregulated capitalism, unbridled capitalism, capitalism run amok. There are no guardrails,” says Salesforce founder and chairman Marc Benioff, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who in a TV interview branded his city “a train wreck.”

The train wreck that has driven dozens of people I know to flee the city is the result of San Francisco getting what many other cities crave, “growth, start-ups, high-paying jobs, educated young people, soaring property values, commercial and residential construction, a vibrant street life, and so much disposable revenue.”

And as this army of tech “innovators” have besieged the city, long-time residents are increasingly priced out and the bohemian spaces that had made San Francisco a haven for artists of every sort have begun to vanish.  Teachers, social workers, and others not tied to the new tech money have found the city increasingly inhospitable. Even San Francisco’s proud history as the capital of LGBTQ culture has taken a hit.

There has also been an uptick in the increasingly desperate homeless population and the stark class divide has slammed doors shut to the poor and vulnerable.  In sum, as Heller paints the picture, one of the most open and generous urban cultures in America, the heart of various countercultures, has become a rich, mean place for those without the resources to enjoy its staggering beauty.  San Francisco is now, sadly, “Too homogeneous. Too expensive. Too tech. Too millennial. Too white. Too elite. Too bro.”

As I read Heller’s fine piece, I recognized in it many of the same things I’ve heard in multiple conversations I’ve had with present and former San Francisco residents who are in the process of mourning the death of their beloved community.

I was also struck by how little the cautionary tale of San Francisco’s demise as a city for everyone had registered in San Diego.

In fact, we seem to be hellbent on bringing the very same tech bro nightmare to downtown San Diego as if it is some magical elixir.  Of course we have very little of the kind of bohemian history that our neighbors to the north have, but our city’s boosters and politicians seem to think that bringing the same forces that have put San Francisco’s creative culture on the endangered species list, radically exacerbated economic inequality, and made affordable housing nonexistent in San Francisco will somehow deliver a different result here in San Diego.

Indeed, just a couple of weeks ago, the city council voted to roll out the red carpet for the tech bros.  As KPBS reported,

“Downtown San Diego’s Horton Plaza is on its way to becoming a high-tech hub.  The San Diego City Council voted unanimously late on Monday to approve a proposal from Los Angeles based Stockdale Capital Partners . . . to turn the mall into a mixed-use center called the Campus at Horton.”

Last August, Forbes published a piece on how this “Los Angeles-based opportunistic real estate investor” bought “the beleaguered Horton Plaza” which was suffering from “a significant homeless presence in the adjacent Horton Plaza Park —locally dubbed ‘Homeless Plaza’” and was aiming to save our endangered urban core with its “bid to transform San Diego’s central business district into a tech hub by leveraging the high percentage of Millennials living in the city and the concentration of life science companies operating in the suburbs.”

The model?  You guessed it, San Francisco among other “transformed” metropolises:

“A high-density project like the Campus at Horton could bring thousands of jobs downtown and lift up surrounding neighborhoods . . . similar to development that has occurred in San Francisco’s Transbay district, Chicago’s West Loop and Scottsdale’s Old Town.”

The rhetoric of gentrification is always the same.  Boosters describe targeted areas as blighted, homeless-infested urban spaces in need of salvation brought to you by transforming the neighborhood into employment and entertainment zones for affluent, largely white consumers.  Making urban places safe and attractive for the privileged is always the end game, and the achievement of this goal is seen as de facto evidence of progress.

You can see this in the way the boosters of the Campus at Horton project describe how the mall had transformed the Gaslamp in the 1980s in a KPBS interview where one of them observed of San Diego’s past gentrification efforts that:

[A] lot of people said “you’re never going to clean that up. It’s going to have the peep shows. It’s going to have the adult theaters. It’s going to have those dive bars.” I think that changed, and we were okay with that. Then we saw single-family homes in Little Italy, and yeah, I miss them . . . The changes happened there with high rises and some of that community character. Yeah, it has changed, but no one would complain how vibrant it is now, and how it’s a great place to be as a resident as well as a visitor. So that’s why I say give us a chance. Give us a chance to show what we can do.

Thus, the purveyors of this brave new world see themselves as champions of innovation. The same can be said of the tech boosters in the East Village who also describe what came before in terms of blight, and they appeal to a similar urban progress narrative.  In a 2016 Curbed article on the I.D.E.A. District, the authors opine that the plan is to –

“transform the surrounding blocks, including the Quartyard, into a new tech hub that proponents estimate will bring 13,000 design and tech jobs to the neighborhood over the next 12 years . . . turning the hip neighborhood into a live-work district for techies and designers.”

And, as with the Campus at Horton, the echoes of the San Francisco experience are undeniable:

“The I.D.E.A. District makes the same bet that most developers and planners have been making: attract young talent, preferably in tech, and get them to set down roots, and benefit from a multiplier affect.”

The larger question about this kind of “transformation” that is never asked of boosters is who benefits and who loses.  It’s clear that in San Diego, a city without any of the bohemian pretenses of San Francisco, the beneficiaries of the last couple of decades of gentrification and the themeparking of downtown San Diego have been the city’s power elite and the affluent locals and tourists the gentrified downtown serves.

With the elimination of the vast majority of Single Room Occupancy hotels and apartments along with the “single family homes” on the edges of the urban core, the working class, poor, and vulnerable have suffered.  As gentrification pushes its way into surrounding neighborhoods and the prices of the largely high-end developments leave out even middle-class folks, the majority of San Diegans have been disinvited to the party.

Now with this new push to welcome in the tech bros, we may very well see San Diego’s already robust gentrification move toward the kind of hyper-gentrification that has ruined San Francisco for everyone but the rich.

So, beware of the glowing stories about the new “vitality” and “innovation” downtown because if it has the desired “multiplier effect,” more and more San Diego neighborhoods will become prohibitively expensive, and we’ll be a place where “Happy Happens” for a lot fewer of us.

Be careful of what you wish for, San Diego.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Chris June 4, 2019 at 5:16 am

SF is officially the city the fell from grace. Quite a few people I know who are originally from there have moved to Phoenix of all places. Unfortunately little anything can be done. The new residents who CAN afford to live there are largely indifferent to its bohemian history many of them consider the poor and less fortunate a nuisance and an inconvenient burden. Mention the city’s hippie past the they will scoff. Ironically, many of tech workers fancy themselves as “progressives”. Also ironically, many are finding they can’t really afford the city either as they are having to live with 5 or six people to a two bedroom apartment.
And yes it’s happening here in SD. I’m considering leaving myself. Let’s face it, we’ve lost.

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Avatar Christopher June 4, 2019 at 5:21 am

Gentrification is a double edged sword. And to bring up the word irony again, I remember having a conversation at the bar with the bartender about the terrible effects of gentrification and the devastation it leaves for the original residents. The bar was Monkey Paw (now closed) in East Village.

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Avatar Vern June 4, 2019 at 7:21 am

… don’t forget that crazy ole “sunshine tax”!

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Avatar Mario June 10, 2019 at 10:54 am

The cold, hard truth is that we can’t stop growth. The main issue facing San Diego is that our past leaders tried so desperately to hold onto our “sleepy beach town” identity, that planning for such growth was never front of mind. We decided to build suburbs instead of high rises, and now it’s coming back to haunt us. We’re now at a point where we NEED density. We NEED to grow up because there is no more room to grow out. But, because of the previous generation’s short-sighted planning, single-family homes in the core now have to razed to build apartments, and native residents are being displaced.

There are, however, plenty of ways we can grow smart. There are still a number of unused or underutilized lots around the city. There are plenty of empty warehouses just waiting to be torn down and built upon. But the harsh reality is, regardless how expensive it is, people will NEVER stop wanting to live here, and it’s something we should have seen coming for decades.

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