Make Room for Dot-Coms

Forget about live-work lofts. The newest fight for San Francisco's soul is over multimedia office space.

"It's just the most elemental division of labor in the world," says economist Kent Sims. "One-third of the petroleum in California is refined in Contra Costa County, not one drop is refined in San Francisco and we're just fine. Containerized ships don't come here either. We don't suffer."

As for the idea that limiting the amount of available high-tech office space will somehow preserve low- to middle-income jobs in the city, the progressive rhetoric opposing 1970 bank towers doesn't apply very well to digital media industrial lofts. In the 1970s progressives were correct to notice growing economic stratification that accompanied expanding financial service and tourism industries. "We went through a period when the middle class moved out of San Francisco," says Sims. "The ones that stayed were either at the bottom of the income scale, or were highly paid professionals and managers."

But times have changed. Multimedia isn't banking, and it's not hotels. Notwithstanding all the buzz about dot-com millionaires, multimedia yuppie brainiacs, and latte-sipping live-work scum, there are far more 9-to-5 Joes and Janes working in the Internet industry than stock-option millionaires.

Paul Trapani
Developer Brian Bock inside the former George W. Caswell Coffee & Tea Co., once slated for live-work conversion, which will now become home to Critical Path Inc.
Chris Anderson
Developer Brian Bock inside the former George W. Caswell Coffee & Tea Co., once slated for live-work conversion, which will now become home to Critical Path Inc.

"One thing that digital media has done is it has drawn a great number of middle-income people back into San Francisco," Sims says. "The majority of them are people who earn good middle-class salaries."

According to one survey, half the Web designers in the city have no college degree. Their average salary is between $50,000 and $70,000, barely enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment. Surfing the help-wanted pages of San Francisco-based Web enterprises produces dozens of medium-skill-level jobs paying in the $30,000 range. And anyone who lives in San Francisco has friends who finally managed to get out of their crummy old jobs for Web careers -- or for non-Web jobs someone else vacated for Web-related work.

Just ask former waitress Sarah Gersbach, now working at Gap Online. Or former Tibetan refugee Pema Chogkhan, who now teaches HTML programming to other Tibetans for Tibet Online. Or Gene Bishop, a former window washer who designs Web pages for Luis Vuitton's site.

In this light, driving multimedia companies from San Francisco could well have exactly the opposite effect from the one the progressives seek. By curbing the development of digital media office space, low- to medium-skilled workers would have less opportunity to obtain well-paying jobs.

If the S.F. progressive coalition reunites to prevent large amounts of new office space from being built, bidding for limited space will cause commercial rents to continue upward without limit. Nonprofit organizations, which are just now beginning to pack their bags in the face of dearer lease renewals, will be pushed from their buildings en masse, like deer from a forest fire. San Francisco will cease being western America's nonprofit Jerusalem. And the city will lose some of its uniquely altruistic character. Arts organizations, already facing similar difficulties, will likewise stare into an abyss.

If anti-growth advocates seek to accommodate San Francisco's growing South of Market traffic congestion by curbing the amount of space available for workers -- rather than curbing parking spaces, and thereby eliminating workers' cars -- this city will become, like the concrete urban expanse surrounding it, incrementally more similar to drive-by L.A.

Were activists to succeed in halting Web-oriented office development in the name of blue-collar industrial preservation, they could cause a net loss of thousands of low- and middle-income jobs. They could potentially deny opportunity to young people just entering the job market, or others who've spent lifetimes working lousy jobs.

If, in their zeal to preserve the "character of the city," progressive activists force dot-com businesses to spread around the Bay Area into loosely spaced office-park-style environs, rather than the tightly packed, converted-warehouse-and-high-rise development befitting an urban core, the result will be anything but progressive. The unimpeded march of urban sprawl will make collective transit increasingly unfeasible, the creation of diverse urban communities ever less practical, and Californians' massive -- and decidedly illiberal -- levels of energy consumption all but irreversible.

Just as the 1980s and '90s California recession nullified the anti-growth provisions of Proposition M, and just as the digital media boom has made the anti-live-work struggle all but moot, market forces will help define San Francisco's future. It is only by truly understanding those forces that San Franciscans will be able to fend off their most pernicious effects, and accommodate their benefits.

It's a real-world process in which some old businesses leave, new ones appear, and San Francisco remains a changing, vibrant, unpredictable city, as it has for 150 years. It's a fact of urban life advocates on both sides of the digital media office debate would do well to understand -- that cities are organic, they change all around you, whether you're pro-growth, slow-growth, or a battle-hardened San Francisco progressive.

Take the case of Riviera Beauty Supply, opened by a longtime resident named Guy Cherney during the late 1970s. At first, he merely wanted to get rid of some stock left over when an Ellis Street beauty college closed.

"The old business had some inventory, so they started selling it. Then it was like, 'Hey, why don't we keep selling stuff?'" recalls Gary Champagne, who worked at Riviera during the 1980s. "It was linoleum floors, cases stacked on the floor, that sort of thing."

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