Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The New San Francisco Suburbs, a Plane Ride Away

In the quest for vibrant, affordable neighborhoods, some Bay Area professionals are moving north—way north, to Portland and Seattle.

Scott McNeely is a transplant to the Pacific Northwest who kept his job in the Bay Area. Mr. McNeely, online director for San Francisco-based Internet travel company Viator Inc., used to live in the Mission District. But several years ago, he and his wife began pining for more kid-friendly environs after becoming parents.

Sol Neelman for The Wall Street Journal
Sol Neelman for The Wall Street Journal

Scott McNeely telecommutes to his job in San Francisco from an office space in downtown Portland, top; he and his wife, Aimee Panyard, above, with Emmett, age 4, and Hollis, 10 months, moved to Oregon in search of more space for their family.

High real-estate prices across the Bay Area made moving even to the East Bay a stretch. So about 18 months ago, Mr. McNeely and his family moved 650 miles north, to Portland. There, they bought a four-bedroom house for about $350,000 that was large enough to accommodate his two children and a Great Dane. Viator agreed to let Mr. McNeely telecommute, with occasional trips to its San Francisco headquarters.

"If we were going to move to the equivalent of the suburbs of the Bay Area, why not move to a place like Portland?" says Mr. McNeely, 40 years old.

There has been a northward migration for years by Bay Area residents looking for everything from affordable real estate to better public schools. But moving usually meant giving up their jobs, which are generally more lucrative and plentiful here than in the Pacific Northwest, especially for technology workers.

Now it is getting more practical for people to live in the Pacific Northwest and continue working for Bay Area-based companies, as more employers loosen their telecommuting policies. Technology also is making it easier to stay connected all the time, and travel between San Francisco and cities to the north has become more convenient, though hard data on Bay Area transplants to the Northwest who retain their local jobs are hard to come by.

Alex Payne plans to move to Portland with his wife next month, while keeping his job at San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. Last October, Mr. Payne caused a stir when he blogged about his frustrations with San Francisco's quality of life, including criticisms of its public transit and high cost of living.

In contrast, the 26-year-old believes Portland is a "model of urban design." Mr. Payne is especially impressed with the revitalization of Portland's Pearl District, a once-grimy industrial neighborhood that now teems with art galleries and restaurants. Portland's lower property costs also are appealing, though he initially plans to rent.

"It's actually affordable by mere mortals," Mr. Payne says. "I looked at buying a place in San Francisco, but you're talking a half million dollars for a hovel."

San Francisco's median home value in late February was $691,600, compared with $362,800 for Seattle and $236,100 for Portland, according to real-estate site Zillow Inc. San Francisco's median home price increased 1.1% over the past year, while the average price fell 7.1% in Seattle and 9.9% in Portland, according to Zillow.

It is easier to take advantage of the lower cost of living up north when Bay Area immigrants are able to bring their salaries with them. The average base salary for Bay Area tech workers is $101,701, compared with $86,816 in Seattle and $75,241 in Portland, estimates online career site Glassdoor Inc.

Still, there are downsides to the long-distance arrangement. Mr. McNeely, for one, says traveling to San Francisco every few weeks can be a challenge because he has young children. He also finds it hard accepting that he is a visitor in the city that was once his home, and says he has to stifle the urge to give cab drivers directions.

Sol Neelman for The Wall Street Journal

Scott McNeely with his wife and sons at their house in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland, Ore.

Mr. Payne says his biggest worry about his move is that he will miss out on chance conversations with co-workers. From Portland, he plans to rely heavily on video conferencing and screen-sharing technology that will allow him to collaborate with other Twitter engineers.

Mr. Payne says the short plane ride between Portland and San Francisco—about one hour and 45 minutes—was a big factor in making the arrangement work, since he plans to spend four or five days a month at Twitter's headquarters. Twitter will reimburse him for the flights, he says. In Seattle, commuters can now bypass the city's thick traffic by hopping on a light-rail line to the airport, while San Francisco and Portland began offering similar transit options in the past decade.

It also is easier for commuters along the West Coast to stay connected while in the air. Virgin America, with Seattle-to-San Francisco fares of $79 each way, has become especially popular with the tech set, because it offers in-flight Wi-Fi Internet access and power outlets.

Alaska Airlines recently began running advertisements promoting flights between Portland, San Jose and Austin as "nerd birds," because of the preponderance of tech-industry commuters shuttling between those locations.

For the past seven years, Joe Steele has commuted weekly from the Seattle area to his job south of San Francisco as a vice president at Gilead Sciences Inc., a biotech company in Foster City, Calif. Mr. Steele, a 15-year employee at Gilead, moved to the Pacific Northwest after a short stint for the company in Boulder, Colo., so he could be closer to family in the region and to enjoy amenities that would be far more costly in Northern California.

His home in Vaughn, Wash., about an hour southwest of Seattle, is on 12 acres on the waterfront and includes space for a barn and three horses. "We would not be able to find a place like this in the Bay Area," says Mr. Steele, who pays for his own flights to Gilead headquarters.

Write to Nick Wingfield at nick.wingfield@wsj.com

1 comment:

  1. I found this article intriguing with regards to families that have work in one location, but do not desire the urban environment. Instead of striving to change their location, they are choosing to move, and commute.