Here’s how a group in downtown SF is using data to reimagine the area as more than just “banks and people walking around in suits.”

Parts of downtown San Francisco may never be the same.

The area, roughly bounded by Kearney, Market and Pacific Streets and the Embarcadero, is no longer the boarded up ghost town of the pandemic’s darkest days, when stay-at-home and remote work orders emptied the city’s economic heart. But the streams of people that used to pour through the narrow, winding streets of the financial district have not yet returned in full force.

While some employees are beginning to return to offices a few days a week, there are still far fewer people taking trains and buses downtown to work. That means less spending on lunch and after-work drinks and less tax revenue for the city. But while some yearn for a return to the busy lanes and packed offices of the past, others recognize that the area may need to evolve into a neighborhood to survive and thrive.

For that reason, inner-city support groups want the district to attract crowds as an event and dining destination, rather than relying on crowded commuter trains pumping money into the area like in years past. That’s partly why San Francisco’s business districts are using technology — like collecting cellphone location data to analyze trends in movement, or street-level sensors that register human outlines and count each person strolling by — to keep a close eye on how many people are walking by return to the downtown area and when.

Commuters exit a BART train at San Francisco’s Embarcadero Station. Downtown and Union Square Community Benefit Districts use sensor technology to track commuter and shopper recovery in the area.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

“We can’t be known just as the Financial District anymore,” said Robbie Silver, the executive director of Downtown SF, the nonprofit community benefit district funded by voluntary assessments by property owners and covering about 43 blocks of the Financial District and Jackson Square .

Silver said as more people return, it’s critical to the area’s long-term recovery to move away from the image of a downtown area where “all we have are banks and people walking around in suits,” and around one To avoid returning to the pandemic days that saw the area empty and seemingly deserted.

At an event last year called Let’s Glow SF, local artists projected plays of light onto the area’s historic buildings. Silver said it has drawn around 40,000 people, many of them families, to the downtown core despite the pandemic, and it has done so at a time when the area would otherwise be mostly empty.

Part of how Silver’s group knew how many people were at the event and are going downtown these days is based on data collected from sensors placed throughout the precinct, manufactured by a company called Springboard, which counts, how many people are walking by, and by Placer Labs, which uses anonymized cell phone location data it gets from third-party apps to estimate the movements of large numbers of people over time.

The four Springboard sensors on and around Montgomery Street between California Street and Market Street found pedestrians in the areas where they are deployed nearly doubling from about 46,000 in the first week of the year to more than 88,000 in the penultimate week of March .

That’s a shift from the just over 36,000 people who counted the sensors in the first full week of September 2021, shortly after they were first installed.

Placer Labs location data showed that between January 1 and March 15, more than 39,000 people visited downtown San Francisco. That’s up from about 23,000 in the same period last year, but still far short of the more than 100,000 people who showed up in early 2020, just before the pandemic lockdowns hit.

The placer data also looks at how long, on average, a given cell phone spent in the area, known as the “dwell time.” This metric increased to almost seven hours for people who walked downtown in the first six weeks of 2022 compared to the previous year, indicating that people are not just driving downtown, but spending most of the workday there remain.

The numbers are estimates and not exact counts, said Ethan Chernofsky, the company’s vice president of marketing. The company obtains anonymized cell phone location data from other apps that people have consented to sharing their location data with and uses an algorithm to gain insights into people’s locations in a given area.

All of these data points help Silver see when and where people are nearby to help find ways to get them to come to a meal or event and stay there.

Silver said a survey conducted by Downtown SF, which reached more than 830 people, showed that cultural events and more food and drink options topped respondents’ wish lists downtown.

Downtown SF also engaged Sitelab Urban Studio, a strategic design firm, to develop a plan to make the area more of a neighborhood than just a business district. “Our North Star is set to become a 24-hour quarter,” Silver said. Slated for release at the end of June, Siteab’s plan will focus in part on revitalizing public spaces.

But the obstacles to realizing that vision were partially outlined in a report released on Thursday, which showed that economists in the city expect about a third of workers will telecommute long-term, more than double the 15% suggested in an earlier one five-year plan were forecast.

This is likely to hurt the city’s business tax revenue by about $64.6 million, or 7%, in fiscal 2022-2023, because where people physically work can determine how much tax their businesses pay to the city. Fewer people moving to business parks could also mean less sales tax revenue, the report says.

Silver said the Community Benefit District is also looking at other statistics, such as transit data and office swipe-ins, reported to the city to get a sense of how close the area is to a pre-pandemic “normal.”

Commuters exit a BART train at Montgomery Street Station in San Francisco.  Downtown and Union Square Community Benefit Districts use sensor technology to track commuter and shopper recovery in the area.

Commuters exit a BART train at Montgomery Street Station in San Francisco. Downtown and Union Square Community Benefit Districts use sensor technology to track commuter and shopper recovery in the area.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

The City Controller’s Office’s most recent report showed that while BART exits at downtown San Francisco train stations increased from January through February, they were still only about 20% of February 2019 levels.

Kastle Systems’ office entry data also showed that metro San Francisco’s attendance was recovering as the Omicron surge eased earlier this year, but the city still lagged behind other areas like Los Angeles, New York and San Jose. In the San Francisco area, only about a third of the people come into the office each week compared to before the pandemic, although that number is trending upwards. The San Jose subway is seeing a similar trend, while Los Angeles is closer to 40%.

Those numbers reflect, in part, that the city is working hard to onboard many of the area’s largest employers with a return to in-person work. Companies like Google, Uber and others who are joining Mayor of London Breed’s plan to bring workers back are going a long way in convincing others to do the same, said Alex Kaplan, a Downtown SF board member who works at the property investment firm Tidewater Capital works.

“Messaging is really critical,” said Kaplan. “It sets the right tone for San Francisco to come back.”

The Financial District isn’t the only area of ​​the city whose boosters watch and monitor the crowds pouring back.

The Union Square Alliance, formerly the Union Square Business Improvement District, uses Springboard software installed in seven of the more than 450 cameras that monitor the roughly 27-block neighborhood, said Stacy Jed, the group’s director of marketing and events. That’s an increase from about 350 cameras in 2018.

These sensors use technology to determine a human outline and count people as they enter and exit the area, but don’t use facial recognition technology, Jed said.

In an email, she said the sensors were installed along Powell, Market, Stockton and Grant streets, but declined to say exactly where they are, saying only: “It’s not in the best interest of the public to do this to disclose.”

Those sensors counted nearly 164,000 pedestrians moving through the area for the week of March 21, about double the year-ago figure and more than four times in the same week in March 2020, when pandemic shelter orders had just gone into effect.

Back downtown, Silver said he hopes to take all the data his group collects and combine it with other sources, like ridership, into an online dashboard to help businesses understand where and when people are going downtown drive.

“When I’m a restaurant and I hear good news about people getting back to work, I want to have a one-stop shop for all of that data,” Silver said, alluding to an example of how the data could help businesses and event planners adapt to one changed downtown.

Even without having that information yet, Placer Labs’ data is already showing other trends, including which days of the week — Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday — people are more likely to visit downtown.

“We find [people] coming back for full workdays,” Silver said midweek, although the data still shows far fewer visits compared to the same period in the first six weeks of 2020.

But compared to the darkest days of the pandemic, when people wondered if offices might be gone forever and the fate of places like downtown with them, data shows more people are getting to work during the week go, Silver a glimmer of hope. “Monday and Friday are not far behind,” he said.

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice

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