It's the third summer in a row that a new initiative or program is seeking to breathe some life into SF's struggling, sparsely populated downtown. But this time it sounds like money is actually being thrown at filling vacant storefronts.
A program being managed by the pandemic-born nonprofit SF New Deal called Vacant to Vibrant, which just launched a website and application portal today, is using some City Hall funds to bring small-business entrepreneurs, artists, gallerists, and event promoters downtown to do events and three- to four-month pop-ups, starting in late summer.
Applications are being accepted in three categories starting this week: art, live events, and small businesses, and funds from the SF Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) will provide grants of $3,000 to $8,000 to get the pop-ups up and running. SF New Deal also promises to handle all the "hassles" and logistics of getting city permits.
The first group of winning proposals will launch together, with 10 to 15 so-called "activations" all within close vicinity.
As Jacob Bindman, chief programs officer for SF New Deal, tells the Chronicle today, "We want there to be a lot of wild ideas, like a dance party on Market Street."
While downtown and the Financial District has largely been occupied by office workers for decades, with businesses that tend to cater to those office workers — think expense-account lunches and dinners, soup-and-sandwich places, after-work bars — the city knows they need to re-energize this part of the city as an entertainment district, or something, right quick.
There has been a failure to launch in both the summers of 2021 and 2022, as some office workers (lawyers and bankers at least) have gone back to the office, but tech workers have largely continued to be remote. And many firms continue to allow flexible schedules that have made Wednesdays the busiest days downtown, when the majority of those going into the office at all tend to show up.
Mayor London Breed's $9.5M Downtown Recovery Plan first launched in May 2021, funding a series of outdoor events at Salesforce Transit Center and in Union Square and expanding the city's Ambassador Program — which puts "ambassadors" from the nonprofit Urban Alchemy on the street to deter crime and promote safety.
The Delta variant and subsequent Omicron wave put a damper on that recovery plan pretty quickly, and in March of last year, Breed was asking businesses to sign a "Welcome Back to SF pledge" encouraging people to go back to their offices.
Fast-forward to this spring, and all the talk is about "doom loops" and the fact that Whole Foods couldn't even stay open a year at 8th and Market. Also, in February, Breed announced a new program of tax discounts for any new business looking to relocated downtown.
With Vacant to Vibrant, city officials are again hoping to spur more activity — and more reason to be in an office downtown — by way of pop-up art galleries, bars, restaurants, and shops, along with events. This effort has $710,000 behind it from the OEWD, and the hope is to get 33 vacant storefronts filled. The program also includes funding up to $5,000 per storefront for tenant improvements — which isn't much, but is meant to be some incentive for landlords.
Without a new wave of the pandemic cresting, and with people seemingly craving being out and about after a rainy winter — did you see Dolores Park on Easter? — this just might work, if the offerings are enough of a draw. San Franciscans love a limited-time pop-up! Especially if shoes or bagels are involved!
Interested applicants can start sending in their stuff now, and there will be an informational session about the Vacant to Vibrant program over Zoom on May 1. The first wave of applications, for the late summer launch, will end on June 1, but applications will be accepted on a rolling basis after that.
And, in a potential boon for restaurateurs who lost their businesses to the pandemic, the pop-ups have the potential to become permanent, if they're successful. The San Francisco Office of Small Business says it will step in and try to help business owners negotiate long-term leases once they're in a space, but there are no guarantees.
Look for more announcements about events and the pop-up roster sometime this summer.
Photo: Robert Forcadilla