By Thomas K. Pendergast
Some commercial corridors in the Richmond District are riddled with empty storefronts. A new survey by the Richmond Review newspaper shows that the majority of them have been empty for more than a year.
The count focuses on the shopping areas along Balboa, California and Clement streets and Geary Boulevard, starting at Arguello Boulevard and going west out to the Pacific Ocean. It was discovered that there are at least 91 empty storefronts.
The survey did not count empty storefronts off of the main commercial corridors.
A January, 2018 survey counted 113 empty storefronts. Comparing the addresses of the 91 empty storefronts recorded this year, at least 72 have remained empty for more than a year.
Recently the SF Board of Supervisors (BOS) passed legislation sponsored by District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer to increase reporting requirements for landlords who find themselves without tenants in their buildings.
The legislation will amend the building code to require the owners of vacant or abandoned commercial properties to pay annual registration fees, require annual inspections or register abandoned or vacant storefronts and update the penalties for violations of these registration requirements.
Fewer is hoping that her legislation will increase the accuracy and effectiveness of the city’s vacant storefront registry by increasing the Department of Building Inspection’s (DBI) resources to monitor and enforce the new registration requirements and clarify the enforcement process.
At a hearing of the BOS on March 5, Fewer reminded everyone that when she first looked into the issue of empty storefronts, she was told by DBI that the Richmond District had none, or at least there were none registered in that district.
“In 2018, only 40 storefronts registered and paid the vacancy registration fee in the entire city of San Francisco,” Fewer said. “This legislation is the result of months of collaborative work with small businesses and neighborhood leaders, as well as DBI. No one understands the importance of addressing this issue more than our local restaurants and small businesses.”
Yet cracking down on landlord scofflaws is only half of the challenge when it comes to filling empty storefronts. The other is finding people willing to take the financial risk of starting a new business, especially considering the byzantine labyrinth that inexperienced entrepreneurs can find themselves in when navigating their way through the city bureaucracy.
Mazen Gad is originally from Alexandria, Egypt and he opened up a corner convenience market at 4800 California St. called On The Run in late August. He first met the landlord in June, so it took a couple of months to negotiate the rent and the terms of the lease, and then line everything up to get his business started.
He said it was easy enough for him to get a business license. The difficult part was dealing with the SF Planning Department.
“They don’t tell you exactly what they need you to do when you open a business,” Gad said. “They should have guidelines for the people opening the business so we don’t keep submitting the plan and getting refused, Instead of telling you ‘Oh, it’s not working,’ you end up spending more money. Well, tell us what you guys need us to do for a new business.
“When you keep me not sure what to do with my business, I keep paying the rent and all that, and people keep coming to work … it just drains whoever tries to open a business. That’s the thing that bothers me most, dealing with the Planning Department. They don’t make it easy for people opening new business.”
Further complicating matters is that running a market means he has to coordinate and deal with at least 40 different vendors to get products. Gad said if he has to close to get something done right, that could cost him thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
Gad said he pays $3,000 per month in rent for a 900-square-foot space, and that’s just the base expense. He estimates he has already sunk a total of $50,000 into his business, which includes money spent on renovating the place before he opened up.
James Wong opened a bakery called Breadbelly at 1408 Clement St. three months ago. He considers himself fortunate because he took over the building of a previous bakery, so most of the infrastructure for the basic operations was already in place.
He started the process of going into business about a year earler. Wong said the City does actually have resources available to new business owners, like small-business programs. He admits that at first dealing the with Planning Department was a little intimidating but the more experience he got, the better he handled it. He learned to be more prepared when he approached them, knowing what they were looking for and asking the right questions.
“It wasn’t in our budget to find a place that was not pre-existing,” Wong said. “We know if you’re building from scratch it could take up to a year to go through the permitting process. It’s not so much that the City is slow on giving permits. I think it’s more on the owner of the business meeting them half way and knowing what they’re going into, to help expedite the process.”
Wong said they were also lucky that the landowner was willing to keep the rent within their reach and make it possible for them to seal a deal. He said it is not uncommon for new small businesses to spend half a million dollars to open up and to make it profitable.
“Labor in the City is not cheap,” he explained. “Having contractors come out, buying materials that you know are going to last … it’s just being smart about planning for those things; I think a lot of businesses don’t foresee a down period after they open, so they need to be prepared for that.
“I think the biggest challenge of opening a new business in the City is it’s just expensive,” he said.
So, why does he think there are so many empty storefronts around town?
“I think it’s just landlords, they want to be able to get market price and for a small business to survive in this City, it’s a big risk,” Wong said.