Downtown San Francisco- One of America’s Best Downtowns

Under Spanish and Mexican rule, what is now the Financial District and Yerba Buena Gardens, was the site of a harbor named Yerba Buena Cove with a small civilian outpost to support the military population of the Presidio and the Mission Dolores. Due to its sandy and marshy soil  the Spanish/Mexican government decided to focus their pueblo settlement at San José and the current Mission District in San Francisco. It was not until 1835 that the first settlers established themselves at Yerba Buena Cove. The Cove’s potential as a seaport made it the eventual center for European and American settlement which really accelerated after the California Gold Rush. The Downtown district became the financial capital of the west coast and only location of West Coast Skyscrapers along Market Street. After the great fire of 1906 Downtown was largely rebuilt with low-rise, masonry-clad buildings ranging from six to twelve stories. During the late 1920s, several Neo-Gothic high rises, were constructed. The Financial district then boomed with many Highrise towers in the 60s-80s. Yet many in San Fran saw this as a threat to the character of San Francisco descripting it as the Manhattanization of the City. This caused widespread opposition citywide and height restrictions were placed on new high-rise construction leading downtown to shift more to neighborhoods South of Market where high rise construction was still allowed. While I lament the anti-density sentiment this “skyscraper revolt” lead too, I’m happy that it led to an expansion of the City’s high-rise districts, creating a more dynamic and interesting skyline in San Fran.

Somewhat of a surprise to me, Downtown San Fran is my highest scoring Downtown district, beating out the likes of Midtown, Lower Manhattan, Chicago’s Loop District, Center City Philly, and Dwtn Boston. I attribute this mainly to Dwtn San Fran density (around 25K per square mile), which fosters great neighborhood amenities, high affordability levels (with 65% of all units as dedicated affordable housing), great cultural and park amenities, and an excellent bike and transit system connecting well to its neighborhoods and the entire Bay Area. Even so there are certainly aspects to improve. #1 on my list is improving the homeless situation. This causes some legitimate safety concerns but it is why many are distasteful of Dwtn. There are also very few universities Dwtn and schools could be improved. I also think Dwtn should be allowed to densify more. This could easily be a Dwtn with over 75K per square mile, something that makes a lot of sense with decreased office demand.

Click here to view my San Francisco Downtown Album on Flickr


* Great downtown density at around 25K per square mile.
* Public transit is excellent within the City and good in the overall region. Because development is hemmed in by the mountains and at least a medium density, most suburbs even have decent transit access. But the BART seems is very expensive to travel across the region and timely. To travel from Dwtn San Fran to Dwtn San Jose takes almost 2 hrs. Good connections to San Fran Airport and Dwtn Oakland.
* Excellent dedicated bike system across the Bay Area feeding in well to Dwtn San Fran. Probably the best system of any US region.
* Street Connectivity is generally at a high level in San Fran due to the grid network, good dedicated bike lane system, and lots of narrow cut through streets. Some wider one way streets but not too bad.
* Excellent bike infrastructure with a very high concentration of rentable pedal & electric bikes Dwtn. Great dedicated lane coverage connecting well with most San Fran neighborhoods. Some of the hilly districts don’t have a ton of bike lanes.
* High levels of racial and economic diversity residing in the Dwtn area.
* Around 28% of households are family households, quite high for an American Dwtn. Good age distribution as well with a large number of elderly living in the Financial district and more young and middle aged people residing in other districts. Some Children friendly activities Dwtn like the Children Activity Center and Yerba Buena Gardens.
* 60-65% of all housing units are permanent afford housing units. This probably cuts the number of rental control units down (only around 33%). Median rent is ~$1,300, quite low for San Fran.
* The elevated Sales Force Park is a high quality park space. The rest are community sized small & medium parks spread throughout. Also good water front parks too. Dwtn hosts FOUR active civic centers (Civic Plaza, Yerba, Union & Sales) each acting as civic centers for their section of Dwtn.
* Def a top-tier American Dwtn with retail and cultural amenities. A very livable Dwtn.
* Great ADA infrastructure overall.
* One of the most iconic skylines in America.


* Only about 35% of all units downtown are rental controlled.
* Plenty of schools dwtn but many of them are smaller private schools. Good # of public grade schools.
* Market rents are pricey but lots of options. Some efficiency units rent in the $1,000s but most studios & 1 beds lease in the 2Ks and low 3Ks. Some 2-beds lease in the 2Ks but most go for 3K-5K. Lot a ton of 3-bed product. This can range anywhere from 3K-8K.
* For sale is also very expensive. But some moderately priced housing with studios selling for anywhere btwn 300K-800K. Plenty of 1-bedrooms in this range too but many of them all sell around 1 M. A handful of “moderately priced” 2-bedrooms but most sell btwn 1-2M. Plenty of 3-bedroom product but only a handful of it sells around 1 M. Most is 2M+
* Dwtn only hosts one major sports arena. Also no major dwtn post office remains.
* Dwtn San Francisco was certainly a strong job center pre-pandemic with around 300K employees. But even before the pandemic there were signs of changes with increasing vacancies and rents sky high. Given its great neighborhood amenities, Dwtn San Fran should emerge as an even better mixed-use district, even if office wanes.
* Safety is a mixed bag in Downtown. The Financial District and South Beach are safety by most measures. SoMa and areas around Union Square & Civic Square can be a bit rough. Lots of homeless in these pockets.
* Only several small satellite colleges in Dwtn. Nearest large university is 3.5 miles away.
* Some image problems dwtn with its large homeless presence.

South of Market- San Fran’s most mixed-use community

I included only part of what is traditionally considered SoMa in this evaluation excluding South Beach, Rincon Hill, Mission Bay, and the Design District. I feel those neighborhoods are unique enough to stand and their own and should be evaluated separately. I thus used these boundaries for the District: Highway 101, Market Street, Townsend, and 3rd St.

During the mid-19th century, SOMA became a burgeoning pioneer community and was centered around a business district along 2nd & 3rd Streets (now Yerba Buena Gardens). The 1906 earthquake and fire completely destroyed the area but was replaced with wide streets helping to foster light to heavy industry. Still much residential mixed in creating a very mixed use area.  With the construction of the Bay Bridge and U.S. Route 101 during the 30s large swaths of the neighborhood were demolished.  The 40s & 50s saw many transients, seaman, other working class men settle in the district in its many smaller side streets and alleyways. The area quicky got a reputation for being a seedy place. This helped set the ground work for the gay leather community to take hold in the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Sadly the Aims epidemic made life challenging for the community and most of the bath houses and hang out spots were shut down by the City.

The 80s and 90s brought the city’s budding underground rave, punk, and independent music scene to the district taking over many of the neighborhoods underutilized warehouse buildings. More permanent reuses of these bldgs occurred in the mid 90s with SoMa’s resurgence as a dot-com high rent district. This trend has certainly continued into the present day and SoMa is now one of San Fran’s most mixed-use areas combining significant amounts of light manufacturing, alleyway historic housing, retail, tec offices, and new in-fill apartment buildings. SoMa also has many different urban flavors. Its northern border along Market is mostly historic office buildings and department stores. The east border is the Yerba Buena Gardens cultural and entertainment complex. The western border is filled with lots of light industrial and big box stores. The southern border blends into the newer South Park, Design District, and Mission Bay neighborhoods. Fortunately over half of SoMa housing units are restricted for affordability helping it retain a very diverse racial and economic community. There are very large Mexican and Filipino communities here. Market rents are very expensive here but there are lots of small condos selling between 300K-700K, relatively affordable for San Francisco.

Areas for SoMa to improve include better park spaces, more tree canopy, in-filling its remaining surface parking lots, redeveloping auto centric uses, and solving its lingering safety issue and large homeless population. I also believe SoMa could be a lot denser and help relieve the City’s housing shortage. Currently there are about 25K per living there per square mile. This number could easily get pushed up to 70K, a similar density of adjacent districts like Chinatown and the Tenderloin District.

Click here to view my SoMa album on Flickr


* Overall great connectivity with a very gridded street network with lots of smaller cut through streets, excellent public transit and access to Dwtn, and probably the best dedicated bike lane infrastructure in the City. Tons of tec offices located right in SoMa.
* While only around 20-25% of all units are rent controlled but around 75% of them are reserved as affordable housing units. This helps explain why the median rent is roughly $1,600.
* Excellent ADA infrastructure in this very flat district.
* SoMa hosts some of San Fran’s best and most extensive modern in-fill. Historic architecture is also pretty good… a mix of historic warehouses and traditional homes.
* Good array of restaurants, bars, and cafes but pretty spreadout throughout the district. Great array of night clubs, and live music venues. The Theaters, Cinemas, Museums, and performing arts spaces are concentrated along Market Street and Yerba Buena along the edges of SoMa.
* SoMa hosts lots of big box stores including 2 targets, a Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, a couple food halls, Costco, & Bed Bath & Beyond. Also several more big boxes stores just over the boarder in the Mission District (e.g.  Best Buy, office max, Food Co). Great array of department stores and Shopping Malls in the Northeast corner of SoMa near Union Square; several home goods and Hardware stores in the western half, and a sprinkling of other retail through out. A couple post offices located here and the Main Library is nearby in Civic Square.
* Decent array of schools but not walkable high schools.
* One of the most mixed used district in San Fran combining live-work space,  residential, retail, office, and light manufacturing throughout most of the district.


* For sale product is certainly expensive but lots of options. Some of the most affordable studios in the Cit are here ranging from 300K-700K. 1-bedrooms btwn 500K-1M. 2-bedrooms btwn 750K-1.35M and some 3 & 4 bedroom product selling btwn 850K-3M
* Market rentals are more expensive. Some studios rent in the $1,000s similar to the Tenderloin district but most list in the $2,000s. 1-bedrooms 2K-4K, 2 bedrooms 3K-5K. Very limited 3-bedroom product for rent.
* There are still so safety concerns in SoMa especially with its large homeless population concentrated just south of Market Street. Some crime but doesn’t appear to be a major issue like Tenderloin.
* Several very attractive parks and plazas in SoMa including Yerba Buena Gardens, Jessie Square, a Rec Center, Victoria Manalo Park and Civic Square is nearby. But little to no parks in the western half of SoMa.
* Local boutiques and unique stores are a bit limited in SoMa.
* Tree canopy is really hit or miss. Pretty good on residential streets but more limited where manufacturing is concentrated.
* Urban massing is generally good but still some surface parking lots and autocentric uses remain.