San Francisco neighborhood retail is facing enormous challenges that need immediate attention not only for its long-term survivability but also to continue to support its residents with services close to home. To understand neighborhood retail and its challenges you first need to understand its beginnings.
Neighborhood retail started well before regional shopping centers were built and far earlier then when online retail began to flourish. It was developed to support neighborhoods with grocery stores, barbershops, restaurants and bars and other support services that kept its residents close to home. Retail merchants lived in their neighborhoods where their shops were and had relationships with their customers that were personal and long term.
When regional shopping centers started being built, the foundation of neighborhood retail began to change. I grew up in the Sunset District and my first job was working at GEM Foods on 32nd and Taraval. At the time there were three grocery stores within a two-block radius of this store,. as well as two liquor stores that also sold groceries. In the middle 1970’s Safeway opened a large grocery store on 14th and Taraval. Although Safeway was quite a distance from 32nd Avenue, within five years all of the grocery stores but one closed. Further up the street at least five more grocery stores also closed. Over time the same thing happened to the local drug store when Walgreen’s expanded and then to the local bakeries when Safeway added bakeries within their stores. Bars disappeared as television and new larger scale restaurants combined with bars became the entertainment after work.
Now streets such as Taraval, Noriega, Balboa,Outer Geary and now even Clement Street have seen clear signs of decline.
San Francisco’s response was to pass a chain store ordinance that requires chains with eleven stores or more go through a public review process. Although understandably given the impact that large stores have on smaller neighborhood retailers this is not the answer.
The answer is to bring neighborhood retailers into the 21st century.
New creative central planning needs to happen on these streets to revitalize interest. Taraval for instance needs to enhance its appeal as a street. This could include the removal of power poles and replaced with underground wiring to take away the eye sore of wires spread across the street. A more appealing landscaping plan along with upgrades in signage is critical. More parking alternatives that allow more convenience to shop in neighborhoods. How many times have we wanted to eat on Geary Street or Clement only to be turned off because you cannot find a parking space there?
Retailers in turn also have to modernize their stores within. So how can all this be done? Back in the 1970’s San Francisco developed a bold plan to revitalize the Duboce Triangle area. It created a mandatory upgrade program called RAP. It forced owners to upgrade their properties inside and out as well as upgrade outside electrical services and planting. In exchange property owners were offered low interest loans as well as tax relief to pay for it. This was a great example of a successful revitalization program involving government as well as private sector support.
Government by nature tends to take a reactive approach to developing and maintaining its city but without a proactive approach neighborhood retail could quickly disappear leaving empty stores that will eventually lead to blight. San Francisco is so used to raising property values that the idea that blight could occur in its core neighborhoods seem far-fetched. If you don’t believe it could occur go down Taraval Street and see the condition of its retailers or go down Clement Street and see how many vacant stores are starting to pop up and the condition of the stores that are open. You will quickly see that this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed NOW.