Walk through downtown Oakland on a weekend night, and the neighborhood’s vibrancy is undeniable . Bars and restaurants are packed, and throngs of people crowd into clubs and concert venues along Broadway and Telegraph. It’s a far cry from downtown San Francisco, which tends to fizzle out and go quiet once the sun goes down.
Oakland city officials say this vibrancy, and a truly Oakland-specific commitment to culture and community, is carrying the city’s downtown area through its post-pandemic recovery.
“What’s interesting about Oakland is that our downtown has always had a real diversity of uses. It’s not completely a job center,” Kelley Kahn, assistant director of Oakland’s Economic & Workforce Development department, told SFGATE. “So walking through downtown Oakland is different than walking through a downtown in another city, where it’s primarily a financial district. It’s always a bit surprising how many people are out in the streets.”
Kahn said the data speaks for itself: Citywide, Oakland’s unemployment rate was at 3.4% at the end of 2022, down from 15% at the start of the pandemic. While this is higher than San Francisco’s unemployment rate of 2.8%, Oakland has far less vacant office space than its neighbor across the bay: In the last quarter of 2022, Oakland’s office buildings had a vacancy rate of 18.6%, while San Francisco’s were at 27.6%, according to data from commercial real estate firm CBRE.
Oakland also recently saw a higher percentage of workers return to their offices: According to Kahn, about 17,000 office workers work in downtown Oakland, compared with 31,000 before the pandemic. That’s a 45% decrease in office workers, compared with San Francisco’s 60% decrease — the city lost about 150,000 office workers over the course of the pandemic, according to a report from its Budget and Legislative Analyst.
According to Kahn, these differences lie partly in the fact that employers in downtown Oakland tend to be more diverse in terms of job sectors than in San Francisco. “The employers we do have tend to be longtime employers in stable industries like health care and engineering,” Kahn said. “These are not unpredictable economic sectors — they’re tried and true.”
Some of the area’s top employers are in the health care and nonprofit industries, unlike in downtown San Francisco, where 31% of all jobs lie in “Professional, Scientific and Management services” — sectors that are heavily impacted by the effects of remote work and recent mass tech layoffs .
Downtown Oakland has also had some major leases signed over the past several years: namely PG&E’s relocation of its headquarters from San Francisco to Oakland, which is nearly complete.
Despite these trends, Kahn said that downtown Oakland’s recovery won’t lie solely in its office workers.
“I think our recovery is very dependent on maintaining our diversity of uses of the downtown,” Kahn said.
In an effort to maintain this diversity, Kahn said the city is in the process of finalizing a downtown-specific plan that includes adopting new zoning regulations for the ground-floor units of buildings in the area. These new regulations will allow for more creative production in those spaces, including art and photography studios, performance venues, and gyms. The city is also investing in events and performances downtown, especially during the summer months.
One of those events is First Fridays, a monthly arts festival that draws thousands downtown for a collection of vendors and live performances that stretch for several blocks down Telegraph Avenue.
Shari Godinez, executive director of the nonprofit KONO Community Benefit District, which runs First Fridays, told SFGATE that the event has brought crowds of roughly 15,000 to downtown since reopening in 2021. While this doesn’t compare with the 50,000 who attended the festival before the pandemic, Godinez said it’s still hugely beneficial to businesses in the area. She even knows of some restaurants that have been forced to only offer catering services but still open their doors during First Fridays.
“It really says a lot about how beneficial this event is to business in the district,” Godinez said.
Others in the restaurant industry agree that the buzz surrounding downtown Oakland partly comes from new business ventures in the area.
“There are things happening in downtown Oakland that are maybe a little bit hotter and fresher and more exciting than downtown San Francisco,” said Danny Stoller, former co-owner and now silent partner of popular Detroit-style pizza restaurant Square Pie Guys. Stoller lives in Oakland and helped open the restaurant’s Old Oakland location in 2021.
Stoller said that recent additions to Oakland’s bar and restaurant scene, including wine bars Slug and The Punchdown, have instilled a certain optimism into the neighborhood — something that’s needed in a still-recovering city.
“If you walk down Broadway, there’s still shuttered buildings. There’s still huge restaurant spaces for lease,” Stoller said. “I think there was a moment when everyone thought, ‘Downtown Oakland is about to explode and kill it.’ And I think we’ve seen some of that excitement fade and slow down a bit, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an awesome neighborhood.”
The hope of officials like Kahn is that the city’s economic recovery plan might reawaken some of that excitement. “We’re trying to feed what’s unique about our downtown where we can,” Kahn said.