Why So Many San Francisco Storefronts Are Empty
A couple weeks ago I found myself with a little bit of extra time to kill in North Beach. My aunt and uncle were visiting from Florida, and I was meeting them at Original Joe’s. As I always arrive places way too early, I went for a stroll around the neighborhood and was utterly shocked by how many empty storefronts there were. On the one block stretch of Columbus between Stockton and Union there was something like seven vacancies, and from what I could tell, they weren’t due to the fire that had taken out the buildings around the corner.
Unfortunately this blight is a growing issue in San Francisco. On a particular block of Powell Street between the cable car turnaround and Union Square I’ve seen a comparable amount of empty spaces, and recently there have been articles about similar issues in the Marina and the Castro. And let’s not forget they built an entire mall on Market between 5th and 6th that’s been sitting empty for nearly three years.
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Why is there so much empty retail space in this gilded city of ours? How can a place with such staggering wealth not facilitate more places to spend it?
Like a lot of issues in the Bay, greedy landlords are a major part of the problem. Just look at the space that Lefty O’Doul’s occupied for 60 years. The heartless landlord Jon Handlery evicted a true San Francisco treasure so that he could try and squeeze more rent out of the space, just like he did when he evicted the Gold Dust Lounge. He turned the space into an Express, which is a clothing mega chain. It didn’t matter that Handlery already owned half the buildings around Union Square, much of which he inherited. And now the old Lefty O’Doul’s sits empty, yet Scrooge Handlery gets to use the blight his greed created as a tax write-off.
Often times the previous generation of landlord had a personal relationship with the tenant and a deep connection to the property. After the property owner dies, however, the person who inherits the building may not even live in The City, or can’t be bothered to run it themselves. Instead, they hire a property management group to do it for them. Often national or international companies, these groups care little about a city other than how much money they can squeeze out of it. So the rents get higher and local businesses shutter.
The City of San Francisco is also partially to blame for these vacancies.
Ask anyone who has tried to open a brick and mortar business in San Francisco. They have to go through an expensive and time consuming permitting process, then construction, then multiple inspections, then maybe more construction, all while paying rent. I have friends who went through an entire year of paying rent and going through the permitting/inspection process before they had to finally pull the plug. And it’s not like they got any money back.
Luckily there is some hope on the horizon. Earlier this year Supervisor Aaron Peskin announced that he planned to put a vacancy tax on the ballot that would charge $250 a day for any retail space that’s been empty for over six months.
Mayor London Breed has also announced plans for legislation that will make the make it easier and less expensive to get through the permitting process. She’s pushing for more flexibility in what can be done in what spaces, as well as going through old planning codes and seeing which have become archaic. But as of yet, none of these measures has taken a effect.
In the meantime, what we can do is patronize the places we love. I know how easy it is to just order things online, but if we don’t support our local businesses they won’t be around much longer. And this goes for ordering food from delivery apps as well. Services like Uber Eats, Grub Hub, and Door Dash charge such an egregious amount to the local businesses that it eats up most of their profit. So shut off Netflix, and get out and visit your favorite restaurants.