2021 Year in Preview

While we're praying this year will be better than the last, the only sure thing about 2021 is uncertainty.

Last year was probably the roughest collective trip around the sun in recent memory. And while we’re praying this year will be better, the only sure thing about 2021 is uncertainty. 

Even as vaccines are distributed to more and more of the population, it seems clear that the era of COVID-19 will have a long-lasting impact — both on our physical, spiritual, and mental health, and on the health of the economy.

Besides vaccine distribution itself, one of the largest questions facing San Francisco is whether people will return to working in offices at similar rates as they did in the before times. The answer will have a huge impact on the downtown economy, Muni, BART, and the city government. It also remains to be seen how comfortable people will be with returning to restaurants, bars, gyms, and performing arts venues after a significant number of us are vaccinated. Uncertainty also lingers around the city’s plans to address homelessness. The coming year will serve to demonstrate whether the strategies adopted in 2020 can lead to lasting improvements for unhoused people. 

And while the pandemic recovery sucks up all the oxygen, other political debates continue in the background. San Francisco’s school district will weigh questions existential and cosmetic. The state and city governments will debate housing and development. The incoming Biden-Harris administration could unlock new opportunities for investment in transportation infrastructure and climate adaptation. And they just might cancel (some) student loan debt while they’re at it.

Below, we run through some of the biggest stories on the horizon in San Francisco. But please remember, reading tea leaves is far from an exact science, especially in 2021. 

COVID Recovery Limbo

Coronavirus vaccines are already being distributed to frontline healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities. How quickly they can be given to the rest of the population remains unclear, especially with as many as a dozen more vaccine candidates still undergoing clinical trials. 

As more and more of the population gets vaccinated, there will be difficult decisions for state and city leaders about reopening. Governor Newsom has said that California will continue to follow its tiered recovery plan, which allows different activities to restart based on each county’s infection rate. It’s possible that by March immunity will be widespread enough to allow small, in-person gatherings without guilt or fear. It’s anyone’s guess when transmission rates will be low enough to allow mass gatherings like concerts and Giants games. 

Culture Comeback

As the dust settles, the city will have to come to terms with all that we’ve lost. We already know that thousands of restaurants, bars, stores, and other businesses have closed for good. Only with mass immunity will we get a sense of the final toll.

The passage of Prop H, the flexible retail measure, in November should make it easier and faster for new businesses to spring up in place of those that have shuttered. Continuing the Shared Spaces program — allowing restaurants to set up outdoor seating areas in parking spaces — would probably help, too. A potentially more contentious issue will be whether to continue the full-block street closures that turned 18th, Valencia, Hayes, Grant, and several other commercial corridors into street fairs on select days of the week. 

Whatever happens with the city’s culture industry — its restaurants, bars, clubs, galleries, performing arts venues — patronizing these establishments again will probably take some getting used to. Plenty of us will have lingering agoraphobia or hypochondria. Others will have forgotten how to be a person in public. As we venture out again, we’ll have to be kind to one another. 

Boarded up businesses were a common site in 2020 (Photo: Chris Victorio, special to the SF Examiner).

School Reform

School reopening was one of the most contentious topic in San Francisco in 2020, and it seems poised to continue to be a hot button issue. While some private elementary, middle, and high schools have been back in-person for months, no public schools have reopened. The current plan is to reopen elementary schools for kindergarten through 2nd graders and students with disabilities by March. There is still no timeline for resuming in-person learning for public middle and high schools. 

The school board, parents, and students will also have more difficult conversations about equity. In response to the unprecedented circumstances students faced in 2020, Lowell High School, the city’s most prestigious public school, temporarily transitioned from its traditional merit-based process to a lottery admissions system for the 2021-22 academic year. Some school board members and advocates have indicated they’d like to make that change, or something like it, permanent, as a means of increasing enrollment of underrepresented communities at the elite school. Another subject of debate will likely be an SFUSD task force recommendation to rename 44 schools, including Dianne Feinstein Elementary, and Lincoln, Washington, and Lowell High Schools. Finally, this year, the School District will begin mapping out the zones for its new elementary school assignment system, which is designed to increase school diversity. All this comes during a lost year, or more, of childhood development and socialization. In the wake of this pandemic, schools and teachers will be challenged to make up for lost time.

Homelessness

Under current plans, the unhoused people living in shelter-in-place hotels are all supposed to be moved into permanent supportive housing by October 2021. Exactly how that will happen remains unclear. The city needs to secure a lot more housing for the more than 2,000 people it hopes to house. The mayor has ambitious plans to expand the city’s permanent affordable housing stock — with a mix of new construction and leasing and buying existing buildings — with funding sources ranging from Prop C to private philanthropy. Besides the many hurdles that come with executing this plan, there’s also the question of whether the mayor and the Board of Supervisors can actually work together on this issue, unlike last year. 

Another potential debate could be conservatorship, the government’s authority to compel severely mentally ill or drug-addicted people into treatment. The city has the power to use conservatorship in a small number of cases, but it has yet to do so. Supervisors like Rafael Mandelman want the city to be more proactive on conservatorship, while advocacy groups like the Coalition on Homelessness tend to be wary of such proposals. 

In 2020, the city created “safe sleeping sites,” including on Fulton Street next to the Main Library and across from Golden Gate Park in the Haight, to thin out the population at congregate homeless shelters. These sites were always meant to be temporary — Fulton Street is slated to be redesigned as part of a refurbished Civic Center Plaza, and the vacant lot in the Haight is slated to be affordable housing — but the concept could persist. Supervisor Madelman and outgoing Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer last year introduced legislation to create enough safe sleeping sites for every individual currently sleeping on the streets. There also appears to be growing pressure on the city to address sidewalk camping, as evidenced by last year’s lawsuit from UC Hastings. Is there a way to do this that would please unhoused people and their advocates, as well as frustrated neighbors? 

The safe sleeping site on Fulton Street (Photo: Corey Browning, Special to the SF Examiner)

City Hall

San Francisco faces a budget deficit of more than $650 million over the next two fiscal years. In response, Mayor Breed has asked city departments to develop plans to cut their budgets by 7.5 percent, with a plan for an additional 2.5 percent in case the city’s financial picture gets even worse. The city’s fiscal situation is going to require very difficult tradeoffs, as Mayor Breed is fond of saying. In all likelihood, that translates to layoffs or reductions in city services. Still, the city will experiment with new programs this year. The effectiveness of the street crisis response team, dispatching mental health professionals instead of police for certain 911 calls, will become clearer as the year goes on. We’ll also find out whether the newly created Department of Streets and Sanitation will make a difference in the cleanliness of the city. 

The two incoming rookie supervisors, Myrna Melgar and Connie Chan, add some uncertainty to the city’s political dynamics. While Chan is expected to largely vote with the board’s progressive wing, Melgar, who was supported by Breed as well as progressive leaders and organizations, could be a wild card on key issues, including development on the West Side.

Development

This year, some of the major, long-planned developments on the East Side of the city will start poking out of the ground. Prominent new buildings will begin rising at Mission Rock near the Giants stadium, and down the waterfront at Pier 70. More apartment buildings are expected to break ground in the massive Treasure Island project, despite it being ensnared in a $2 billion lawsuit due to concerns about the cleanup of toxic waste. The second phase of the similarly massive and also toxic Hunters Point development is on hold thanks to its lawsuit, with a hearing scheduled for the spring, according to the San Francisco Business Times. The nearby India Basin megadevelopment is all squared away to break ground this year, if the developers can put the capital together. In the Mission and SoMa, affordable housing developments will keep sprouting, and keep opening, in 2021. 

A rendering of the Mission Rock development, which will begin poking out of the ground this year. (Photo: Tishman Speyer/ San Francisco Giants)

But what about the rest of the city? Well, that’s something state and city officials could dig into this year. The state legislature has introduced a housing package, called BOFA, that would make it easier to build housing in single family neighborhoods and more suburban areas. At the local level, city planners are considering upzoning corner lots around the city, as SF Weekly previously reported. And rumors are swirling about other city-level legislation that would ease zoning restrictions in single family neighborhoods. 

A couple of development battles loom particularly large. One is UCSF’s planned expansion in Parnassus Heights. The hospital wants to add 2 million square feet of hospital space and more than one thousand new housing units over the next decade. Many neighbors are not happy about it. Then there’s the infamous Twin Peaks gas station, which caused a mini controversy when the Board of Supervisors deliberated, and then postponed, whether to extend its lease for 25 years. The supes will have to revisit that issue before the lease is up on October 31. If Supervisor Melgar, a former planning commissioner who represents that area, really wants to flex her urban planning muscles, she could come in hot with a master plan for the gas station, Laguna Honda, and soon-to-be vacant Juvenile Hall. The three adjacent, city-owned properties, right next to Forest Hill Muni station, have long been eyed for affordable housing. 

Downtown Economy

How quickly downtown comes back to life will be a major throughline of 2021. A survey from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 83 percent of office workers want to work from home at least one day per week. If employers allow a more flexible mix of in-person and remote work, it could add up to a lot fewer people coming downtown on any given day. That’s a big, scary variable for office landlords and the developers of new office buildings currently planned, including several projects in Central SoMa, and the on-hold Oceanwide Center, which will be the city’s second-tallest building upon completion. 

Even if there are fewer office workers, downtown could be buoyed by other factors. 2021 will see several large projects in the Mid-Market corridor completed, including hundreds of apartments and a new Whole Foods. On Market and 6th, the long-empty 6×6 mall will be reinvigorated by an Ikea store slated to be open by the fall. New hotels are opening up nearby, too. Whether tourists and conference-goers will be around to fill them is another matter. 

Downtown’s recovery is not just a concern for corporate landlords. It also matters to the owners and employees of the cafes, restaurants, corner stores and other businesses that rely on the daily crush of office workers and tourists. The taxes generated by all of that economic activity fund a big chunk of the city government. And downtown’s economy matters a great deal to BART, Muni, Caltrain, and other transit agencies, whose ridership — and funding — is heavily dependent on these commuters. Conversely, if commuters revert to their cars en mass, it could create epic gridlock

Transit Transformation 

Despite SFMTA’s looming $168 million deficit over the next two fiscal years, the city will probably complete its two transformative transit projects in 2021 — but they won’t be carrying riders until 2022. The Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project, the red, center-running lanes that are just now taking shape, should be in testing by the end of 2021, and hosting riders by early 2022. The Central Subway, extending the T Third streetcar from 4th and King to Union Square and Chinatown, will also be in testing by the end of the year, and ready for passengers by next spring, SFMTA hopes. Both projects were expected to be complete by now. 

More modest transit improvements are on their way as part of the Geary Rapid project, including temporary transit only lanes and priority traffic signals. Meanwhile, the more transformative Geary BRT project, similar to what’s happening on Van Ness, is on hold. 19th Avenue, Taraval, Haight, and other corridors will see improvements like consolidated stops, better Muni boarding areas, and priority traffic lights. The Muni Metro system will gradually come back to life over the course of the year, with the J Church already running, the T Third restarting in January, the N Judah returning in February, and the S Shuttle coming back in March. The return of the K, L, and M lines is TBD. 

The Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project is beginning to take shape. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

Last year, Muni created a network of car-free slow streets, and fast-tracked bike and bus lanes to help people get around in a socially distanced manner, sans car. Those changes will expire after the health emergency ends, unless they’re made permanent through a more formal review process. At that point, things are going to get interesting, with strong feelings on both sides of the debate. But it’s hard to imagine the streets will all revert to the way they were pre-pandemic. 

San Francisco could also see some movement on its long-term transportation plans. President-elect Biden and his transportation secretary, Mayor Pete, are big fans of high speed rail. San Francisco needs the money, and the motivation, to finish off its piece of California’s under-construction high speed rail system, the Downtown Extension, bringing Caltrain and high speed rail from 4th and King to the Salesforce Transit Center in an underground tunnel. Will Joe and Pete be able to get this project started, along with the many other extremely expensive and daunting hurdles remaining to complete CAHSR? 

And in Sacramento…

In addition to its housing production package, the state legislature has plenty more big plans. San Francisco’s Assemblymember, David Chiu, has introduced a bill that would extend the state’s eviction moratorium through the end of the year. Since it requires a ⅔ majority to pass, that bill will surely inspire heated debate in Sacramento. Whatever emerges after negotiations will have a huge impact on millions of tenants and landlords across the state. The state legislature will need to work fast, as the current eviction moratorium expires January 31. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s state Senator, Scott Wiener, is planning to introduce a bill that would legalize safe injection sites. These specially designated places where people can consume drugs under medical supervision are widely believed to be at least part of the solution to San Francisco’s drug overdose crisis. That is yet another local issue that city leaders will likely try to address this year. 

This article has been updated to clarify the nature of the lawsuit against the Treasure Island development, and the current status of the Hunters Point development.

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