Google Didn’t Transform San Francisco. A Baseball Player Did.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Over the weekend, the San Francisco Giants retired the jersey number of Barry Bonds for his performance with the team over 15 years. While his baseball achievements were significant, his more lasting impact may have been on real estate development in San Francisco.

The tech industry has transformed San Francisco over the past several years, but in many respects those forces merely leveraged the foundation put in place during Barry Bonds’s heyday. Neighborhoods like South Park and South Beach would look a lot different if Bonds hadn’t signed with the Giants 25 years ago.

You can’t talk about the transformation of San Francisco’s southeastern side without talking about the Giants’ stadium, AT&T Park. And the roots of AT&T Park go back to the Giants’ struggle to find a new home for the team starting in the 1980s. The Giants’ former home, Candlestick Park, was not a pleasant place for sports. It epitomized the line attributed to Mark Twain of “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.”

In the 1990s, the Giants ranked in the bottom half of attendance in the National League every single year. The team’s owners put the question to Bay Area voters four times between 1987 and 1992 about building a new stadium in one of three communities — San Francisco, Santa Clara or San Jose. All four times voters rejected the proposals. For a time it looked like the Giants would relocate from San Francisco to Florida. Eventually, out of frustration, the owners sold the team to a new group.

Fortunately for those new owners, this happened just as Barry Bonds, a Bay Area native, became a free agent and signed with the team, in December 1992. The following year the team won 103 games, the most in franchise history, and Bonds won the National League Most Valuable Player award. A couple years later in early 1996, a stadium vote was once again put before San Francisco voters, and perhaps heartened by that 1993 season and new ownership, voters passed it.

Opening in 2000 as Pacific Bell Park, the stadium quickly went through a couple names before eventually becoming AT&T Park, but from the beginning it felt like the House That Barry Built. The park’s iconic feature is its right field wall perched right in front of a body of water called China Basin. Left-handed batters who hit home runs far enough to right field could reach said body of water. Bonds’s record-breaking home run season occurred in the park’s second year of existence, with Bonds thrilling spectators by hitting home runs into the bay — with an armada of kayaks racing to retrieve the ball. Thirty-five of the first 45 “splash hits” by Giants players were hit by Bonds.

Giants games during the Bonds years were the hottest ticket in town. Even after the dot-com bust, the Giants ranked first or second in National League attendance each of the first five years of the stadium’s existence. As fans swarmed to the games, real estate development in the surrounding neighborhood boomed. Bars like Momo’s became popular watering holes for office workers congregating before games. The 21st Amendment brewery opened a couple blocks away from the stadium in 2000. Luxury apartments and condos were built nearby. An extension of the Muni transit system was built from the Embarcadero past the stadium, connecting to the Caltrain station at Fourth and King.

In the early and mid-2000s, San Francisco’s role in the tech industry was mostly as a place for Steve Jobs to give his keynote speeches. As recently as 2006, an eBay coworker of mine who was desperate to live and work in San Francisco ended up taking a corporate finance role at Gap Inc. Ridership on Caltrain in 2005 was slightly below 1998 levels.

Once the tech industry began to take off again in the late 2000s, AT&T Park-adjacent neighborhoods, as well as the South of Market neighborhood and the controversially renamed East Cut, provided two things for the tech industry: a significant amount of underdeveloped land, and a burgeoning community that had already become a hot spot for young professionals.

Coming out of the financial crisis, urban planners and economic development professionals pointed to the San Francisco model as a successful one worth emulating. The combination of tech jobs, luxury apartments and hip amenities in walkable, transit-oriented communities were what young, college-educated employees in the millennial generation wanted. San Francisco essentially had a 10-year head start on most other cities in the U.S., thanks to Barry Bonds.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

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