By Thomas K. Pendergast
More than eight percent of storefronts around the major commercial corridors of the
Sunset District are sitting empty, about one out of 12, according to a Sunset
The survey looked at Irving, Judah, Noriega and Taraval streets, plus Ninth Avenue in the
Inner Sunset. It was necessary because flaws in the City’s tracking system appear to have
grossly undercounted the number of ground-level businesses now sitting empty, as city
officials themselves acknowledge.
The impact of empty storefronts is not just limited to neighborhood blight and graffiti,
but also indicates jobs not available and tax revenues not being generated.
In terms of percentage, the shopping district along Taraval Street seems to be the worst
hit at this point. Of the 251 commercial spaces and businesses with a significant presence
or signage on the ground floor that was counted, 27 appeared to be empty, or 10.7
percent of the total.
In terms of aggregate numbers, Ninth Avenue combined with Irving Street, between
Fifth Avenue and Ocean Beach, appears to have the most empty storefronts. Of the 406
commercial spaces with a significant presence or signage on the ground floor of those
streets, 38 appear to be empty, or about nine percent.
By comparison, Judah and Noriega streets are doing much better. In Noriega Street’s two
smaller shopping districts – one between 19th and 27th avenues and the other around
30th and 34th avenues – the street appears to have only nine empty storefronts out of
196 commercial spaces.
Judah’s shopping area near Ocean Beach appears to have only six empty storefronts out
of 94 commercial spaces with ground floor commercial space.
Collectively, there are about 947 commercial spaces with a significant presence or
signage on the ground floor of all of these shopping districts or commercial corridors, of
which 80 appear to be empty.
One of the problems in trying to deal with the issue of vacant storefronts is the lack of
reliable figures calculated by the City. This came out at a recent meeting of the SF Board
of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting on Feb. 5.
Two ordinances have been passed in recent years to try and get a handle on the citywide
problem, one in 2009 and another in 2014. The first requires property owners to register
vacant commercial and residential buildings with the Department of Building Inspection
and pay a $711 registration fee once a year after the building has been vacant for more
than 30 days. Failure to register and pay the fee can result in a penalty fee of $6,399.
A more recent ordinance sponsored by District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang was adopted in
2014 and applies to commercial storefronts that have been vacant for more than 30 days.
The $711 fee, however, is not due in these cases until after 270 days have elapsed since
registration, in order to allow the owner time to find a new tenant or buyer, make
repairs and improvements.
An official from the Department of Building Inspection, assistant director Ronald Tom,
told the committee that the buildings or storefronts recorded on its registries are mostly
identified through citizen complaints.
In a report requested by District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee, the board’s budget and
legislative analyst said self-reporting by property owners, as required in the ordinances,
has resulted in fewer registry entries than citizen complaints.
“Complaint-driven is not going to work,” District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said at
the committee meeting. “We have to be more pro-active.”
“I know that there’s a lot of work that we all do in our respective supervisors’ offices in
conjunction with our other city departments in trying to both recruit and retain
businesses in our commercial corridors,” Tang said. “And I know that each of our
corridors have their own sets of challenges for attractiveness, especially when you throw
into the mix the changing face of retail and that there’s so much e-commerce going on
right now. I know that it’s a conversation we all need to have as a city family, in terms of
whether we need to reconsider how it is that we zone our city and our commercial
neighborhoods, how it is that we deal with our vacant and abandoned properties and
Yee spoke about past efforts to address the issue.
“Though we passed vacant building regulations in 2009 and again in 2014, we have not
seen the kind of improvement that we had hoped for,” Yee said. “Commercial vacancy
issues can potentially be addressed through zoning. High rents and the rise of
e-commerce are challenging traditional retailers in San Francisco and elsewhere.”
In an analyst’s report requested by Yee, six policy options were recommended to deal
with empty storefronts:
• The Board of Supervisors could enhance funding for the City’s existing small business
loan programs to assist property owners in leasing their vacant properties;
• The board could request that the SF Planning Department and SF Planning Commission
consider and report back on possible zoning and SF Planning Code changes that would
allow for more flexible use of commercial spaces, possibly reducing the size of
commercial spaces, especially on the ground floor, so the space could be used
• The Department of Building Inspection could improve outreach on Vacant Building and
Commercial Storefront registration requirements and reduce barriers to reporting
vacant commercial properties by the public and city agencies, like creating online portals
for the public to report vacant buildings and storefronts;
• Existing ordinances can be amended to raise fees and penalties, particularly for non-
registrants of properties with extended vacancies, to serve as an incentive for property
owners to self-report vacant properties. Such fees and penalty increases would also
generate more funding for the department to cover the costs of enhanced
• With a combination of improved identification, reporting and monitoring of vacant
properties, the department could leverage Housing and Urban Development (HUD) data
to identify areas that have high commercial vacancy rates and proactively track changes
• The Vacant Building and Commercial Storefront registries could be made available
to the public. The problem of empty storefronts is a city-wide issue, and Union Street
Merchants Association executive director Lesley Leonhardt gave her take on why
even in a relatively good economy stores are still sitting empty.
“The last 10 years has been very challenging and the reasons are multiple,”
Leonhardt said. “We have high rents and, unfortunately, an attitude of greed from
certain people. They will not rent out until they get a certain amount, and that is
very unfortunate. Oftentimes, we’ve found out that we have offshore owners of these
buildings and they’re hard to contact. They are unresponsive.”
She also noted that many of the old buildings are not compliant with requirements
of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the construction required to fix them is
sometimes discouraging or even prohibitive to new businesses.