Tales of a Tower: For the Titan of SF's Skyline, the New World of Work Presents Daunting Challenges

Salesforce Tower tenants are moving to hybrid work. That spells trouble for the city's shiniest new neighborhood — and the rest of downtown.

If the swaggering ethos of pre-pandemic San Francisco could be encapsulated in a building, it would be the Salesforce Tower. Its illuminated crown rising high above all other skyscrapers, the trophy tower holds multiple SF records: the tallest building by over 200 feet, the building with the most office square footage and at $1 billion, the most expensive private building ever built in SF. In addition to the tower, various government entities spent $2.26 billion to build an associated transit center — which dubbed itself the “Grand Central Station of the west” — topped by a lush public park to rival New York City’s High Line. Tech juggernaut Salesforce paid around $1 billion for a package including the biggest lease in SF history, tenant improvements to the building, and naming rights for the park and transit center. Seeking to adopt an identity for a neighborhood that they felt had been misrepresented and overlooked, the local Community Benefit District decided to rebrand the area to the historic name "East Cut."

That was then.

Covid struck the Salesforce Tower neighborhood hard. Once bustling, the area became a sullen shadow of itself as highly paid tech workers decamped for work-from-home spaces. A confused young mountain lion was spotted roaming around what had become a new sort of urban wilderness.

Two years later, the city is desperately trying to lure workers back downtown. It’s one of the key priorities of Mayor London Breed and many business groups — and something of a life-or-death issue for many local merchants in the neighborhood. 

To better understand the present state and future prospects of the Salesforce Tower area (and Downtown San Francisco more generally), The Standard dug into the details of the tenants, their office back-to-work plans, the state of retail on an adjoining block and the park’s visitor stats. The conclusion? It may never be the same. To revitalize the once-bustling downtown, drastic measures beyond begging offices to come back to work will be needed.

The Present

The Public Park and Transit Center

Salesforce Park, a public park spanning the top of the Salesforce Transit Center, has a pristine otherworldliness — not a stray piece of trash to be found — uncommon in San Francisco. Stretching 4.5 football fields, the park boasts 16,000 beautifully landscaped plants, arranged in 13 different sub-gardens, each with its own theme. Along the curvy walkway, a “Bus Fountain” spurts water from 247 spouts, triggered in a sequence by bus movements in the transit center.

The park had barely opened when Covid hit and sent visitorship plummeting. The park’s management team performs a daily count of park visitors, which used to range upwards of 1,000 people during lunchtime. During Covid, counts have been as low as 14 people at 8:30 a.m. in the morning and can hit several hundred during lunchtime. 

Park managers expect visitorship to climb as they roll out more free programming, such as bird watching and “Toddler Tuesdays.” A beer garden from local brewer Barebottle will open soon, along with a large restaurant in the next year or two, according to Lily Madjus Wu, spokesperson for the entity that runs the transit center and park.

On a recent week, Monday at the park was dead, but it did come alive a bit on Tuesday — tech workers’ new Monday. At lunchtime, one section of the park was cordoned off with catered lunch for employees of a Salesforce marketing team. They stood in circles, some meeting each other in person for the first time.

 “I’m just here for the free food,” one said. 

Most park visitors wore office attire, but there were also a number of tourists and non-office workers. Shawn Woods, a Muni operator, said he’s been coming to the park on his lunch break for the past three months and finds it a quiet place to relax.

“I’ve never really seen it super crowded,” he said. “When you take away all the office people, it’s empty. I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t work on Mondays so if you come here Mondays or after lunchtime, there’s really not many people here.”

As for the transit center, ridership on AC transit, the main public transit system at the transit center, has plunged by nearly 90% compared to before Covid. In Feb 2020, AC transit operated 30 lines with an average daily ridership of 17,400 passengers. But in March 2022, they operated 15 lines with an average daily ridership of 2,078 , or 12% of the riders from before Covid. AC transit spokesman Robert Lyles said that he's noticed ridership tick up at the end of March, which he thinks is due to offices re-opening for hybrid work as well as gas prices.

The Offices

It’s no big secret that one of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic is commercial office space as Covid ushered in a large-scale transition to remote work. 

The hybrid work model looks here to stay. According to projections from the San Francisco Controller’s office, 33% of office workers will be permanently telecommuting. That number is more than double the 15% figure the city previously projected in January, reflecting a more realistic assessment of who will be coming back and when. 

Return to office metrics like data from key card access company Kastle Systems show San Francisco workers returning at a far slower pace than in peer cities like Los Angeles, New York and Austin. 

Demand for new office space in the city also lags, according to data provider VTS. 

“New demand for office space in San Francisco is currently just 30% of normal, which is substantially lower than all other core markets. That includes San Francisco’s sister tech hub, Seattle, which in February was at 70% of normal,” according to VTS’ Office Demand Index.

According to The Standard’s own research, none of the five largest tenants in Salesforce Tower — who represent more than 85% of the building’s 1.42 million square feet of rentable space — currently have plans to bring workers in the office five days a week. Most are at three or less days in the office.


Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was previously one of the most strident proponents of in-office work among tech moguls, but he changed his tune as the pandemic lingered. The cloud software company is the largest tenant in the tower, leasing some 850,000 square feet, or around 60% of the building’s total square footage.

Currently, the vast majority of the company’s 10,000 San Francisco employees work remotely or flexibly, which the company defines as one to three days in the office. Salesforce allows individual teams to determine how, when and where they work, according to their published return to work strategy

While a Salesforce representative cited data that said 77% of Salesforce workers said they wanted to connect with their teams in person, as of mid-March, only around 2,500 — 25% — of the company’s San Francisco employees were coming into the office.


Consulting company Accenture operates what it calls its “Innovation Hub” in Salesforce tower. It spans 125,000 square feet across five connected floors and is meant to bring multidisciplinary teams together to work on emerging technology fields like robotics, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

The company has not publicized a full return to work policy and John Gingrich, Accenture’s office managing director for Northern California, said in a statement that employees’ health and well-being is "our top priority.”

In a nod to the company’s transition to a hybrid structure, Gingrich said the company has introduced new collaboration technologies and tools to its Salesforce Tower location “to give our teams what we call an ‘omni-connected’ work experience — ensuring they can participate completely in work no matter where they are, onsite or off.”

Accenture’s own research into the work-from-home transition found that 83% of workers across industries said a hybrid model would be optimal.


During the pandemic, WeWork unveiled its All Access monthly membership, which allowed customers to use any of the coworking company’s hundreds of locations, including its 76,000 square-foot space at Salesforce Tower. 

Yasmeen Butt, the co-founder of early-stage startup Laughter Movement, found herself drawn to the cachet and presence of Salesforce Tower and was finally able to afford working at the WeWork there under the new pandemic-era deal. 

Butt, who worked in the location daily for a period of around nine months in 2021, said the space often had limited capacity because of city and social distancing requirements. For months, she would be one of only five masked workers who used the space regularly. 

“In nine months I couldn’t make a single friend and I couldn’t get that startup vibe that I was looking for and expected,” Butt said.

So in September, she used her WeWork membership to move a half-mile away to the co-working company’s location at 44 Montgomery. 

Alongside her roommates and with the support of her “co-workers” at WeWork, Butt co-founded Founder’s Village and grew it from an informal backyard meetup for startup founders into a professional networking organization with hundreds of regular attendees and acquisition offers in less than five months.  

“I don’t think I would have started this company (in Salesforce Tower). Here in the Montgomery location, I was able to get direct feedback every day from the 60 or 70 founders that are here,” she said. 

WeWork said that it saw continuous monthly growth at its Salesforce Tower location over 2021 with Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday being the most popular days. Occupancy across all of its San Francisco locations at the end of 2021 was 69%.

“WeWork represents less than 1% of the overall office space available in San Francisco. We represented 13% of leasing activity in the market in 2021 — demonstrating how flexible space leases are quickly outpacing traditional leases as companies establish return to office strategies,” the company said in a statement. 

Covington & Burling LLP

Major multinational law firm Covington & Burling LLP was one of Salesforce Tower’s original tenants, taking around 78,000 square feet of office space when the building opened in 2018.

According to a companywide memo published by legal blog Above the Law, the firm has adopted a  hybrid work policy that requires staff to spend at least three days a week in the office. Workers can choose which days depending on client demands or team meetings. 

Bain & Company

The consulting firm doesn’t have a publicly available return to work policy but has published research highlighting the benefits of a remote working structure. The company currently leases more than 69,000 square feet across three floors in the tower.

A Bain employee who works in San Francisco said that workers are currently required to work three days in the office or on-site with clients, with the two remaining days functioning as flexible workdays. 

McDermott Will & Emery

Law firm McDermott Will & Emery, which opened their flagship San Francisco office in Salesforce Tower in 2019, has laid out an optional in-person work policy.

According to a survey conducted by Bloomberg Law, the firm is one of a contingent that does not require in-person work. Instead, lawyers are encouraged to work in-person on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We’re not looking to say, ‘OK, everybody march into the office and you gotta be there five days a week,’” McDermott Will & Emery chair Ira Coleman told Bloomberg Law. “We’re trying to do this because we miss being together a lot.”

The Retail

Pre-Covid, a robust ecosystem of restaurants, shops and services mushroomed around Salesforce Tower offices. During the lunch rush, hordes of vested office workers would form lines stretching down the street outside cafes. But during Covid, as office worker foot traffic dropped off sharply, many retailers temporarily — then permanently — shuttered.

According to data from commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, when comparing Q4 2021 to 2017, retail rent in the Union Square area was down nearly 30%, while vacancies approximately tripled. Another report from market research firm Kidder Mathews showed retail vacancies up 13% in Q4 2021 compared to 2020.

The Standard conducted a deep dive on a key block-long retail corridor off Salesforce tower on Mission Street, which formerly comprised four sit-down restaurants, four cafe or grab-and-go eateries, two healthcare offices, a food truck park, a bakery and a Walgreens. 

Of the 13 total retailers, three of the four sit-down restaurants had closed permanently: upscale Salt House, where office workers would attend happy hours or wine and dine clients, and the casual lunchtime restaurants Perilla and Portico. In addition, to-go spot Sausalito Cafe closed permanently. Temporarily closed are the restaurant Oasis Grill and Truck Stop, an alley that featured a rotating roster of food trucks. Local food businesses Proper Food, La Fromagerie and Whole Cakes were closed during Covid for varying amounts of time but have re-opened. 

The retail that fared better were healthcare offices and large companies: One Medical, an optometrist office, Starbucks and Walgreens all managed to stay open through most of the pandemic.

Whole Cakes

Before Covid, baker Sonya Kim, who owns two Whole Cakes bakeries, was busy churning out her all-organic, low-sugar cakes for office parties.

“There was always a birthday happening,” she said, estimating that 60 to 70% of her revenue came from office events.

Then the pandemic came, and the office birthdays went away. Whole Cakes closed for 20 straight months.

Kim re-opened Whole Cakes late last year, but it’s struggling and losing money. Profits from Kim’s other Whole Cakes in Potrero Hill go to patching the rent in the Salesforce Tower location. She wishes that the offices would coordinate what days workers will be at work because that will help with inventory planning and knowing when to hire staff.

“I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “This location is losing money every month and I can’t schedule bakers when we’re selling 10 cookies a day.”

La Fromagerie

La Fromagerie, a local imported European cheese shop, caters to an upmarket lunch crowd with items like smoked duck breast salad and chunks of cave-aged gruyere cheese. Co-owner Thomas Choffel said that of the three La Fromagerie locations, the Salesforce Tower location suffered the most during Covid, with sales down 50%. In comparison, his Dogpatch location “was going great” during Covid, and his financial district location recovered much more quickly.

Choffel is optimistic about San Francisco in general. This year, he’s opening a fourth La Fromagerie location on Chestnut Street in the Marina and a European grocery store in Potrero Hill. 

And as for the underperforming Salesforce location, he’s optimistic enough that he’s opening the store earlier and putting breakfast back on the menu, hoping to capture office workers on their way into work.

The Future

Is all this really bad news? If you’re the city of San Francisco or a commercial landlord, the answer is decidedly yes. When the “high rollers” aren’t forced to come into the office, a cascade of events happen that result in the city losing major tax revenue, said Stanford professor Nick Bloom, who researches working from home and its effects.

But Ted Egan, SF’s chief economist, isn’t ready to declare the death of in-office work, pointing to open questions around how viable a permanently remote workforce is in the long term. 

“Was that actually not true? Was it a mistake to have all these millennials pile into San Francisco to do their thing when they should have just been logged in from wherever?” Egan said, adding that aspects of career development like mentoring, networking and establishing a corporate culture are harder in a remote world. “That gets to my feeling that we should not assume that this hybrid office or work from home thing is going to be permanent.”

Both experts agreed that Downtown San Francisco will change dramatically in the coming few years.

Migration patterns during the pandemic could also portend a larger shift in the city’s demographics, although it’s anyone’s guess what the San Francisco of tomorrow will look like.

“Loads of techies and bankers will move out to the suburbs or Tahoe, which will free up space in the center of the city and will dramatically push back on the affordability crisis,” Bloom said. “In many ways that will take SF back 10 to 15 years, and I’m not sure that’s terrible. There’s a lot of people that will say in 2019, San Francisco was too crowded and too expensive.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to provide a more complete explanation of how the neighborhood was rebranded as East Cut.