San Francisco retail goes down the drain

By Barbara Simpson

I never thought I’d be saying or thinking this, but it appears that the downtown San Francisco retail area that I loved for so long is slowly disappearing. Or maybe, not so slowly. It’s mostly gone.

When I first moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, I loved what I saw because it reminded me of a “real” big city. Keep in mind that I am a native New Yorker. I tend to measure my reaction to “cities” by what I remember and like about “the City” — that being NYC.

Sorry, folks, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl!

When I moved here downtown San Francisco had the tall buildings, lots of foot traffic, cabs and buses, cars and honking horns – and a wonderful array of stores. There were major chains and smaller, privately owned businesses. Even If I wasn’t in the mood to spend money, just walking through the area was exciting and, quite honestly, fun.

Slowly, over the years, all that has changed. There were fewer pedestrians. Traffic changed, as did the use of buses and, yes, even trolleys. Most dramatically, what changed was the face of retail.

Many of the smaller shops closed and left vacant storefronts, and the effect of the COVID shutdown was catastrophic. That caused many of the closures to be permanent.

Thousands of workers continue to work from home as opposed to commuting to the city. Customers stayed home as well, and downtown was left with too many stores with the ever-present sign “For Rent” in the windows.

But this week, San Francisco took a real hit as it was officially announced that Nordstrom will be closing its downtown store as well as the nearby Nordstrom Rack. This is after 35 years of retail presence in the city.

It should be noted that Nordstrom closed another of its San Francisco locations in 2019. That was in the Stonestown Galleria, and there were rumors then that others might follow.

As we know now, they did.

Employees got the current bad news in a letter from the chief stores officer, Jamie Nordstrom. He said, “The dynamics of downtown San Francisco have changed dramatically over the last several years, impacting customer foot traffic to our stores and our ability to operate successfully.”

Bottom line: customer traffic is down and so is overall business, but mixed in with all this is the issue of safety – both for customers and employees. Not only are businesses affected, but the loss of commerce is causing the city budget to take a hit. Officials have estimated that the next two fiscal years will face a deficit of at least $780 million.

It’s reported that this closure alone represents more than 300,000 square feet of retail space that will be gone. But this is not the only retail outlet closing – Office Depot, Walgreens and Anthropologie are closing their nearby retail spaces along with a nearby Whole Foods, which reported more than 560 calls to police for violence, drugs and vagrancy in their store prior to the closure.

What’s causing downtown to be less safe? The city has a big and growing homelessness problem, which has spread into the formerly upscale retail areas.

The owner of the Westfield Mall issued a statement that “a growing number of retailers and businesses are leaving the area due to the unsafe conditions for customers, retailers and employees, coupled with the fact that these significant issues are preventing an economic recovery of the area.”

Not only are customers facing safety issues, but the stores face them too. Shoplifting is rampant, causing many stores to put all their merchandise behind glass at the same time other property crimes are increasing.

Not surprisingly, many claim that the city is not doing enough to solve this issue. Whether that is true or not, Mayor London Breed has taken notice. Her office issued a statement that the presence of law enforcement will be bolstered, most notably, that there will be two San Francisco police officers stationed inside every mall, every day.

This follows, however, the fact that she had already cut the budgets of both the police and the sheriff’s department by more than $120 million.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, except it’s likely a sure thing that the problems will continue – the homelessness, the crime and the street drugs. So far, there’s no solution to them, and teams of police won’t be the answer.

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