SAN FRANCISCO — Rory Cox shudders each time he steps outside the doors of his YuBalance fitness studio.
“It’s a damn ghost town,” said Cox, 37, whose three studios have seen an 80% decline in business since the novel coronavirus hit in March. “My number one marketing tool is people walking by. If they’re not out there, you lose.”
Cox, like many of those he represents as founder of the San Francisco Small Business Alliance, loves this iconic and iconoclastic city, a place where tech start-ups have brought both great riches and staggering inequality.
But if San Francisco, which this week joined much of California in a mandatory three-week lockdown, isn’t able to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, he, along with his wife, Shala, and their 5-year-old son, may pack up and head to a small Virginia town where his mother lives and start over.
“If this city doesn’t work hard to rebuild after the winter, you’ll have more boarded-up shops, more homeless people in doorways, more break-ins,” he said. “Detroit was the richest city in America in the 1950s. We could be candidates for that kind of fall.”
With the COVID-19 vaccine beginning to roll out, how the biggest cities in the United States — economic engines and cultural cauldrons such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami — return from the deadliest global health crisis in a century may in some ways foreshadow how the United States bounces back.
An altered future seems inevitable. Just over half of those polled in September by the Pew Research Center said they expect their lives will remain changed in major ways after the pandemic. For some, that has meant moving; a June Pew survey revealed one in five said the outbreak made them or someone they know change residence.
But despite the budget shortfalls plaguing nearly every major city due to the pandemic, urban planners, economists and architects share a resoundingly positive consensus. They say that buoyed by a younger demographic drawn to jobs, social opportunities and public services, cities will survive this crisis much as they did the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the terrorist attacks on 9/11, an echo of European capitals’ resilience after the bubonic plague of the 1300s and cholera outbreak of the early 1800s.
Some even posit that a year from now the United States might be in the midst of a new Roaring ‘20s, a reference to giddy good times that followed the Spanish Flu.
Economists at the University of California, Los Angeles, released a study last week predicting a “gloomy winter” would be supplanted by a leap in gross domestic product from a weak 1.2% in the current quarter to 6% by next spring, with more growth in sight.
Post-pandemic city life could be more green, less expensive
Part of that growth will depend on how quickly and effectively cities pivot in the wake of a landscape-altering pandemic. A lot of that will depend on how fast municipal financial coffers, depleted by lost real estate and sales tax revenue, fill back up or whether federal aid comes to the rescue.
Consider these possible best-case-scenario changes — most driven by employees continuing to work at least part-time from home — that experts say could come to our urban centers as COVID-19 hits the nation’s rearview mirror:
— The need for commercial real estate shrinks, with some office spaces converted into living quarters. A boom in available housing drives down ownership and rental costs, revitalizing downtowns.
— Ridership grows for improved public transportation systems, as flexible work schedules mean a move away from traditional commuting hours and increased demand for all-day access.
— Parks mushroom across cities as residents crave more open spaces as a reaction to both pandemic-era social distancing habits and more time spent outdoors over the past year.
— Restaurants roar back as the need to socialize returns, leaning heavily on new habits that include using sidewalks and parking spots as outdoor eating options.
A bit less clear, experts add, is the prospect for social activities that formerly implied shoulder to shoulder contact with other patrons. Bars, concert halls and even museums likely will have to take a wait and see approach to operating their businesses.
But if managed correctly, the fundamental and enduring lure of city life could be at the heart of the nation’s recovery, said Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of New York’s Department of Transportation and principal with Bloomberg Associates, a philanthropic consulting group funded by former New York mayor and one-time presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg.
“There are so many opportunities following the pandemic not just to restore what wasn’t working before, but to move in a new direction,” she said, adding that the “energy, excitement and sense of place” offered by major cities means there will be a natural desire to return to them.
“Our streets can be used for so much more than moving and parking cars, such as front yards for residents or dining areas for restaurants,” she said.
Putting a new premium on open windows, natural light
As cities morph in response to changing work habits and the memory of the pandemic, architecture will be pivotal to redesigning existing spaces so that they reflect new concerns surfaced by the pandemic, experts predict.
The most obvious change will involve improving both air flow and natural light in buildings, said Michael Murphy, CEO of Boston-based architecture firm, MASS Design Group. He added that restaurants and museums will need to be particularly watchful given their tendency to attract the masses.
“Architects and designers will need to play a large role in rebuilding systems of trust through the design of safe and healthy spaces that remind us of our shared humanity,” he said.
If politicians at the highest level don’t turn their attention and funding efforts toward big cities — where the poor and people of color were physically and fiscally impacted disproportionately by the pandemic — life in our leading metropolises is only likely to get worse, said Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and author of “The New Urban Crisis.”
“This is now in the hands of states and the Biden-Harris administration,” Florida said of President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris. “We’re going to need a pretty massive federal effort in the form of a bailout and fast. It’s not just an opportunity, it’s an obligation. If we miss it, there will be hell to pay.”
Cities may well be on their own. Congress continues to debate the next coronavirus relief package as stimulus funds are set to expire. But only $160 billion of the roughly $1 trillion new package would be earmarked for state, local and tribal governments, far short of the $500 billion requested by the National Governors Association.
Biden recently laid out a $1.3 trillion infrastructure spending plan, to be helmed by Pete Buttigieg, that would include helping to get public transportation rolling again around the country. The spending proposal could face a tough battle in the Senate if Republican Mitch McConnell keeps majority control of the chamber.
Some metro areas will have to rely even more heavily on natural selling points to build back stronger after the pandemic, said urbanist Florida.
New York’s global appeal will bring back residents as soon as the worst of the pandemic is over, with perhaps younger families replacing retirees.In Florida, Miami’s weather and no-tax-state status will prove a boon in the coming years, as will Los Angeles’ sunny climate, cultural offerings and nearby natural escapes.
Florida points to how some cities have been adding bike lines and closing streets to car traffic as evidence that the pandemic will only accelerate urban trends that already are underway. He’s bullish on the growth of so-called 15-Minute Neighborhoods, a concept wherein residents of a revitalized city will be able to shop, work and socialize within a few minutes’ walk of where they live.
“Much more serious and deadly pandemics have not really even dented the arc of urbanization,” said Florida. “I think we’re in the infancy of this.”
Cities will change based on just how much we work from home
Urban experts all agree on one thing: all of these changes will be influenced directly by the degree to whether working from home becomes ingrained as a new normal.
While some businesses, notably technology companies, have signaled a permanent retreat from an office setting, most experts predict a hybrid model.
“The answer to just how many days we return to an office will drive a lot of change,” said Christopher Mayer, professor of real estate at the Columbia University Business School in New York.
Overall, a diminished demand for office space — one of the most prominent by-products of COVID-19 — as well as the sense that new offices will require more room for each employee — will bring a series of changes to the workplace environment.
These will include a boom in so-called hot-desking, where employees coming to an office space on different days use the same work stations, said Carlo Ratti, professor of Urban Technologies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the SENSEable City Lab.
Zoom, that pandemic work darling, isn’t going away. But city businesses may start providing areas to conduct virtual meetings as a way of generating added revenue, Ratti said.
“The way Starbucks became a place for email, these could be new places to patronize while Zooming,” said Ratti.
The fact that the nation, admittedly some states more than others, has had to endure a collective quarantine for nearly a year means that as the vaccine takes hold there will be almost a frenetic desire to gather in public.
But those public spaces now will need to meet a new, higher standard, one that is safer and inspiring, said Rogier Van Den Berg, director of urban development at the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities in Washington, D.C.
“People will want urban spaces to be more appealing, more green, more walkable, more biking,” he said, adding that the default attitude will be to give our city leaders the benefit of the doubt. “After disasters of any kind, people do tend to forget very fast what they’ve been through. They recover and move forward.”
First, they have to stop losing residents, not to mention employers.
A September LinkedIn survey based on user profile zip code changes shows Hartford, Connecticut, leading the pack in citizen losses, largely due to jobs evaporating, while Austin, Texas, tops the list of cities gaining the most residents during COVID-19. San Francisco is third in resident departures, just behind New York.
While many experts predict a Big Apple return once a vaccine lets life resume, they are less bullish on the prospects of San Francisco, whose boom and bust cycles date back to the 1850s Gold Rush. The main reason: fleeing technology companies, which for the better part of 20 years have fueled the region’s soaring standard and cost of living.
In the past week alone, Tesla and Oracle both announced they would be leaving the Bay Area for Texas, eager to avoid paying Bay Area wages and pricey office rents.
“I’m worried about San Francisco,” said urban expert Florida. “Cities like Austin have been eating its lunch.”
Beyond being expensive — San Francisco’s median home price is now $1.3 million — some residents have started to leave due to a pressing homelessness issue exacerbated by the pandemic, said Tom Radulovich, executive director of transportation advocacy group Livable City and a former director of Bay Area Rapid Transit.
“The city has in many ways rested on its laurels while the tech economy boomed,” he said. “Now we might find ourselves in a position smaller cities are familiar with, needing to up our game in order to attract business.”
Hoping for San Francisco’s eventual renewal
San Francisco’s downtown financial and tech district, home to its new but sparsely populated Salesforce Tower, has been hollowed out by the pandemic. Conventions and tourists have vanished. Many storefronts are boarded up. Residential rents have dropped 25%.
In the second quarter of this year, sales tax revenue slid 43%. More recently, credit card receipt data suggested that 85% of restaurants in this foodie mecca had shuttered.
“Will there physically be people in town to even come to our places to eat?” asked Laurie Thomas, owner of Rose’s Café and Terzo restaurant and executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “If not, that will just kill us.”
Thomas said she has survived by cutting back to a skeleton staff, providing outdoor dining and doing take-out. She said being able to keep offering patrons outdoor dining in what used to be parking spaces will be crucial to her future survival.
“We need locals, but we also need tourists and conventions and there’s no telling when those come back. We need help,” she said.
For San Francisco, as with other major American cities, the question “seems to be, ‘What is the value of a city after a pandemic?’” said Ted Egan, San Francisco’s chief economist. “A major worry for us is if people who have mastered Zoom and have gotten used to being at home just don’t feel they really need that in-person interaction anymore.”
For the past two decades, this bay city’s boom at the hands of tech giants such as Twitter, Google and Facebook has flooded the city with young workers with better than average salaries craving those very in-person interactions. They spent money on great restaurants, hip cocktail lounges, stylish boutiques and personal training.
If they and their discretionary dollars aren’t a part of a post-COVID-19 plan, fitness studio owner Cox may be among those leaving the big city life behind. But for the moment he remains hopeful city officials will listen to merchants like him and empower an urban renaissance that attracts businesses, tourists and new residents to a greener, culturally energized and work-life friendly San Francisco.
“I met my wife here, I started my business here, we started our family here, it’s where we want to be,” said Cox. “Many of us want to keep this city alive and vibrant after this pandemic is over. People don’t move here for Target and Chipotle, they move for the cool small businesses. We need to come back strong, and we’ll need help.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava