Over two decades, urban planner Geeti Silwal has helped design some of San Francisco’s trendiest neighborhoods and helped convert a 2-mile stretch of downtown into a car-free zone.
That’s in the past. Amid talks of the city’s downward spiral, or “doom loop,” and with the city preparing to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, one of the world’s major economic conferences, Silwal is disturbed by the recurring negative narrative plaguing the city’s national and global post-pandemic image.
Perhaps the summit, which started over the weekend and ramps up Monday, can spark the city’s bounce back amid a longstanding homelessness crisis, rising crime and the exodus of major retail outlets. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit will bring dozens of heads of state and world leaders from 21 countries. It’ll also feature a highly-anticipated meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Thousands of protesters are also expected to descend on the Golden City.
“There are very many compounding things that got us to a place where we are now, but there’s also a deep commitment to bounce back,” said Silwal, a western region urban design leader at Perkins & Will, who’s part of an initiative with other noted national urban planning and real estate experts to help revitalize downtown. “This event could give the city some much-needed vibrancy.”
Protests are planned for myriad topics, from the United States’ dealings with certain Asian businesses to calls for more climate change efforts to the latest war between Israel and Hamas. Meanwhile, the city looks to put its best foot forward.
“Look, if you want to find what’s great about San Francisco, it will all be on display. If you want to find abject human misery, that won’t be hard to find either,” San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin told USA TODAY. “I think this will be a moment for San Francisco to feel good about itself as the reality is the glass is more than half full and the echo chamber of gloom and doom is overstated.”
What is APEC?
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, discussions are usually centered on trade and economic growth. There will also be discussions on sustainability, women’s economic empowerment, food security and health, as well as a focus on how the private sector can work with governments.
More than 20,000 people are expected to attend the summit and city officials estimate the conference could generate $53 million for the local economy.
The forum was founded in 1989 with 12 member countries, including the U.S, and has since expanded to 21 countries. Besides Pacific Rim countries with sizable Asian populations, other notable APEC members include Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
In addition to the foreign dignitaries and demonstrators, about 1,200 CEOs are expected to attend the event, according to APEC. This will be the first summit held in the U.S. since 2011 in Honolulu.
San Francisco was selected because of its international prominence, as its customs district accounts for about $100 billion in two-way shipping each year, according to the San Francisco host committee’s website.
The economies of APEC’s members account for nearly 40% of the global population, almost 50% of all global trading, and more than 60% of goods that the U.S. exports, according to the host committee’s website. These economies have made “impressive direct investments” in the U.S. estimated at $1.7 trillion while employing 2.3 million Americans as of 2020, the host site added.
The potential image boost and economic windfall from APEC puts San Francisco in an enviable position compared to other major American cities, said James Taylor, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco. He added, that both sides of the political spectrum “have used San Francisco as a poster child for social decay.”
“I bet you that New York City would love to have APEC. Los Angeles would love to have APEC. Chicago, you name them, all of the big cities would love to be in San Francisco’s position,” Taylor said.
Law enforcement preparing for anticipated protests
As is typical with an event of APEC’s scale, there will be a significant law enforcement presence in San Francisco. Four square blocks of downtown will be locked down around the convention center where APEC will be held.
“There will be an extraordinary amount of law enforcement, military, and public safety personnel in San Francisco for this event, well above what anyone has seen before,” Jeremy Brown, an assistant special agent in charge with the U.S. Secret Service told reporters on Nov. 8.
The “No to APEC” coalition held its “People’s Counter Summit” on Sunday. The coalition of several groups scheduled another demonstration for Wednesday, according to its website.
“APEC promotes so-called ‘free trade,’ which in reality means driving down wages, stealing land from peasants and Indigenous people, driving forced migration, destroying the environment, plundering natural resources, and pumping up corporate profits,” the coalition said on another coalition website.
San Francisco Police Chief William Scott told reporters the city is “ready to meet this moment,” as its entire force will be mobilized throughout the event.
“Which means every able-bodied officer will be working. We will have coverage daytime and nighttime,” Scott said. “Our goal is to be prepared for everything and anything that may come our way.”
He added: “Our message is simply this: People are welcome to exercise their constitutional rights in San Francisco, but we will not tolerate people committing acts of violence, property destruction, or any other crimes.”
Taylor, the University of San Francisco professor, said demonstrations will range from broad topics like climate change to even protesters accusing China of committing genocide against the Uyghur minority group in the Xinjiang region. Depending on the turnout, the protests could paint a different picture of the summit, he said.
“Short of any violence, the protests will be acknowledged and hopefully, contained with the thinking that any collateral damage will be marginal,” Taylor said. “But, it is San Francisco.”
APEC’s main event: A high-stakes meeting between Biden and Xi
The highlight of the summit arguably will be the meeting between Biden and Xi scheduled on Wednesday, the pair’s second face-to-face meeting since Biden took office following the 2020 presidential election.
It is assumed that Biden will try to work on easing tensions with Xi and press him on several issues including restoring military communications, the conflicts in Israel and Ukraine and ongoing tensions in Taiwan, a self-ruling island that’s expected to hold elections next year, but China claims as a province, Taylor said.
“China needs America just as much as America for economic and political reasons,” Taylor said. “These superpowers don’t want to cut off their economic ties to one another.”
Taylor said trying to establish ongoing lines of communication is why the Biden administration sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to China earlier this year and why California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose state is poised to have the world’s fourth-largest economy, met with Xi last month ahead of APEC.
“Newsom smartly went to China and paved the path for California’s and San Francisco’s relations, apart from the U.S.,” said Taylor, who added that Biden met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month in Washington to discuss possibly mending the countries’ tense relationship.
According to the White House, the president “underscored that the United States and China must work together to address global challenges.”
Cleaning up San Francisco
As San Francisco races to clean up its streets, including repaving roadways and clearing out encampments of people without homes on major streets and around the site of APEC, Mayor London Breed told reporters Thursday what some in an APEC advance delegation told her.
“In many of the cases of the people that I talked to, whether they were from Australia, Peru, or China, they said, ‘We have very similar problems in our country and we are excited to come to San Francisco,'” Breed said. “That’s what I heard over and over again.”
During a ribbon-cutting for a new city tree nursery Thursday, Newsom told reporters it’s no coincidence that San Francisco is putting its best face forward.
“I know folks say ‘Oh, we’re just cleaning up this place because all of those fancy leaders are coming into town.’ Um, that’s true, because it’s true,” Newsom said.
Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, said during his China visit with Xi, the first thing Xi talked about was his last visit to San Francisco in 1985 and seeing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
“You should’ve seen the smile on his face,” Newsom said. “I mean this city, this place, is beloved, and its best days are in front of it, not behind it.”
Larry Baer, CEO and president of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, echoed that sentiment. He’s co-chair of Advance SF, a group of local leaders who have funded a splashy $4 million public relations campaign called “It All Starts Here,” that’s looking to uplift the city’s battered image.
“Sometimes, it feels like a barrage around the issues that we face, and these are issues that other cities face as well,” Baer said to a crowd at a kickoff at the Giants ballpark last month. “We don’t believe our city should be defined by those issues.”
Silwal said part of improving downtown includes expanding it not just as a place where bankers and tech workers exist. She has a future vision that includes converting 35 million square free of vacated office and storefront space into mixed-use developments, affordable housing, entertainment zones and affordable housing.
It all starts with APEC.
“To the point for the common person to feel like they belong downtown and that’s the remake approach we need to have, to be more welcoming and belonging for all walks of life,” Silwal said. “A successful APEC can help create all these new types of opportunities.”
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