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Small Business is Thriving in Neighborhoods Under SF’s Only Socialist Supervisor

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Awesome photo of Japantown by Jeremy Huang via Unsplash

Op-Ed by small business owners Christin Evans, Nick Parker, and Asakichi Sakakihara

What the Chronicle termed the Downtown “doom loop” has been getting national coverage, but here’s a compelling counterpoint – three of San Francisco’s neighborhood commercial corridors: Haight-Ashbury, Hayes Valley and Japantown, all in Democratic Socialist Supervisor Dean Preston’s District 5, are actually thriving. This is not in spite of him being a socialist Supervisor, but because of the corridors’ close partnership with him.

While some neighborhoods are being decimated by business closures and plagued by storefront vacancies, many of the neighborhoods of District 5 are faring very differently, so what gives? New data shows that neighborhood areas Preston has represented for three years are seeing a surge in small business activity. We argue that through a combination of hands-on work with local businesses, smart policies, and engaged business owners, Preston has helped small businesses weather the shelter-in-place and stage a comeback in a period of strong economic recovery.

A recent Chronicle piece on the woes of downtown notes:

Some residential areas have fared better, though recovery has been uneven. Japantown is one of the few places in San Francisco where sales tax revenue is above pre-pandemic levels, albeit by less than 2%. The Western Addition is doing even better, with businesses there generating 17% more revenue last year than they did in 2019.

This is certainly the case in the Haight Ashbury. The Haight had over 32 vacant storefronts at the peak of the pandemic. Now there are fewer than 14, with half of those on the verge of being leased up.

Certainly there are several factors that have contributed to the turnaround including the hard work of the businesses themselves and the Haight Ashbury Merchants Association who helped to stabilize economic factors challenging the realities of keeping the lights on. How did the Supervisor play a role? At the peak of the pandemic hardship, Preston ensured merchants had access to the latest information on available grants and loan programs, connected businesses to legal assistance, authored legislation encouraging commercial rent relief for the months that businesses were forced to be shut, and funded a study that surveyed the area’s customers about businesses they’d like to see in the vacant storefronts, a report which was shared with realtors marketing vacant spaces.

The Haight is booming and bustling right now. Saturdays are back to being the busiest we’ve seen in years, the Haight Street Fair is back, tourists have returned, and while we still have challenges like every other neighborhood, it’s a pretty remarkable comeback.

A packed event at The Booksmith for Eirinie Carson’s new memoir The Dead Are Gods. Photo from the Booksmith’s Instagram

But it’s not just the Haight.

Japantown is celebrating its own revival, as was clear from the massive turnout from the recent Cherry Blossom Festival and the crowded Japancenter malls. Sales tax revenue is above pre-pandemic level, a remarkable comeback after the Japantown malls were closed and businesses were on the brink of closure.

During the pandemic, Japantown leaders expressed concern about whether Japantown as we know it would even survive. Things have turned around thanks to the strong mutual aid effort from the Japantown Merchant Association, the Japantown CBD, and other community organizations in partnership with Preston’s office. Japantown leaders also partnered with Preston on major legislative initiatives to prevent the eviction of small businesses, win relief from back rent obligations, and launch a crime victim assistance program for small businesses in D5.

Hayes Valley has seen a similar rebound. While the early days of the pandemic devastated Hayes Valley retail, the Chronicle noted in a November 2021 story that the neighborhood has become “a symbol of S.F.’s resurgence. “ The neighborhood is bustling, and numerous new businesses have opened. Preston’s office was instrumental in launching Hayes Street as a Shared Space, shutting down the block to traffic near Patricia’s Green, one of the first street closures in the City. Preston’s office partnered with the neighborhood association to launch it, deploying interns to join with neighborhood volunteers to staff the effort, an unusual partnership that illustrated the hands-on approach of his office.

Perhaps it’s because Preston is the only former small business owner on the Board of Supervisors and has been a champion for neighborhood businesses in City Hall, and the data is increasingly showing the impact of these efforts. Street fairs, festivals, block parties, and shared spaces are going strong across District 5 and new businesses are opening in formerly vacant storefronts.

At a time when the media is focused on the Downtown “doom loop,” we are celebrating small businesses this month and appreciating the partnership of an elected official working closely with local businesses to ensure our neighborhoods thrive.

Christin Evans is the owner of the Alembic and the Booksmith in the Haight Ashbury. Nick Parker is the owner of Mercury Cafe in Hayes Valley. Asakichi Sakakihara is the owner of Asakichi in Japantown.

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