Union Square. Hayes Valley. The Castro. In these and other neighborhoods around the city, no amount of parklet dining and drinking can make up for the fact that, on some blocks, there are more empty storefronts than there are active ones. As locals and tourists alike start getting vaccines and emerging from their precautionary lockdowns, will there be enough of the city they remembered still there to patronize?
Setting aside for a moment the deep pain that restaurants, bars, and nightclubs have experienced in the last year, which in many cases will likely take years to recover from, debt-wise, SF's retail scene is in pitiful shape. Before COVID even looked like it would impact all of our lives, neighborhoods around the city were struggling with dozens of papered-over windows and once vibrant streets that felt half dead.
Voters in San Francisco passed the Board of Supervisors' Vacancy Tax proposition, Prop D, in the March 3, 2020 election, but had they known the vast economic toll that the pandemic would take on landlords and businesses alike, they may not have voted so overwhelmingly in its favor. And at this point, it doesn't feel very politically or practically expedient to enforce vacancy taxes on anyone, when so much of the city's businesses have either gone under or are just hanging on with a thread.
The premise, however, remains a good one. The law now allows for penalizing landlords based on the street frontage an empty store occupies and the length of time is stays empty. In recent years, it had become apparent that landlords, in some cases, neglected to fill retail spaces either because they were making up for it in residential rent up above, or because they were seeking rents that only major chains could afford to pay. And, as we know, formula retail isn't even allowed without extraordinary hoop-jumping in several SF neighborhoods — namely North Beach, the Castro, and Hayes Valley where the retail apocalypse was already hitting hard in 2019.
There's plenty more at work, here, including consumers' shifting to online purchasing — something they're even more used to doing in the pandemic — and the incursion of big-box retailers and online giants like Amazon, which steal sales away from small, local businesses by offering lower prices and convenience.
All that said, no one who lives in a city wants to see their city's street life wither and die, as storefront after storefront sit empty. It may mean loosening 14-year-old rules banning formula retail, in the interest of filling spaces more quickly and not letting neighborhoods languish — something that the Board of Supervisors may have started sounding open to last year.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman also passed an ordinance nearly two years ago that was meant to encourage more arts, non-profit, and restaurant uses to fill empty spaces on Upper Market, but that has yet to bear fruit.
In the Castro this week, we have a report from Hoodline on the closure of a small Subway sandwich location on Market Street that had been there at least two decades — adding yet another closure to a strip of Market that has been plagued by empty stores. The Subway shop near Fisherman's Wharf appeared to be closed as well, according to the SF Business Times, and the entire Wharf is likely in trouble as it waits indefinitely for tourists to come streaming back. (That report also noted that the city's only Krispy Kreme had permanently closed as well.)
Union Square is in incredibly sad shape, with the recently announced closure of Uniqlo just the latest bad news. H&M closed last fall, The Gap closed its flagship at the foot of Powell, and the owner of the B8ta store nearby decided to temporarily close up shop — in addition to the brand's Hayes Valley location — due to repeated run-ins with armed thieves.
People are craving meals out and drinks with friends, and hopefully we won't see too many more restaurants and bars have to close before the Bay Area reaches something close to herd immunity. But will people also start doing more local shopping, and will we get to a point anytime soon when we see new retail businesses actually opening where there had been an empty space before?
Time will tell. But if we want these once lively swaths of the city not to feel like a ghost town well into 2022 or 2023, there's a lot that will have to shift and change.
Photo by Thomas Hawk