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City struggles to identify, track retail vacancies

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A man looks in on a vacant storefront that formerly housed a coffee shop at the intersection of Balboa Street and Sixth Avenue in the Richmond District. The city has struggled to track and fill retail vacancies. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

After a city inventory reported zero vacant commercial storefronts in San Francisco’s Richmond District, a frustrated Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer put a call out to residents to help her identify vacancies.

The crowdsourced inventory, conducted in April, identified 156 spaces currently sitting empty.

“That’s an appallingly high number for my district,” Fewer told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday. The Department of Building Inspection must still verify the addresses listed as part of Fewer’s count as vacant.

Earlier this year, the Richmond supervisor joined other city leaders in a search for legislative solutions to an uptick in concentrated — and often long-term — vacancies that have led to increased reports of crime, blight and decreased foot traffic along commercial corridors.

The Richmond residents’ vacancy count appears to indicate that city laws enacted over the last decade to track and reduce vacancies have not had the desired effect, in part because a majority of commercial and residential vacancies continue to go unreported to the DBI, which is tasked with vacancy monitoring and enforcement.

The City adopted an ordinance in 2009 that requires property owners of vacant or abandoned buildings to join a registry for an annual fee of $711, and in 2014 a similar ordinance was established to register vacant commercial storefronts.

But a report requested of DBI by city supervisors earlier this year found just 28 vacant commercial buildings and 25 vacant commercial storefronts citywide — and zero in the Richmond — were registered as vacant with the department in 2016.

That report found that “neither DBI nor other City agencies have a comprehensive listing of all commercial storefronts or commercial building and storefront vacancies against which DBI’s registry listings can be compared.”

By contrast, the U.S. Postal Service reported 3,448 vacant commercial addresses that had not been receiving mail for 90 days or more in 2016, although this number also included commercial properties not subject to the City’s vacant building and storefront ordinances.

William Strawn, a DBI spokesman, said that the department does not proactively identify vacancies, but has instead relied largely on citizen complaints.

“If people don’t tell us that there is a vacant building we [won’t know] unless we have a district inspector who happens to be in the neighborhood, sees them and reports them,” said Strawn.

In light of recent efforts to identify vacancies, Strawn said that the department has seen an uptick in complaints. A DBI database of complaints about potential commercial vacancies listed 117 addresses citywide, of which 21 were fully or partially registered to comply with the ordinance between January and June 2018.

The department has also began requiring more field reports by district inspectors in recent months, which have identified additional potential vacancies.

Higher turnover in both residential and commercial spaces can be attributed to skyrocketing commercial rents and the lack of protections for commercial tenants, who have also been affected by the rise of online commerce, which has caused brick and mortar retailers across the country to shutter.

According to Fewer, vacancies in her district have not only increased in number, but appear to persist in certain addresses for years.

“There are people who are actively trying to rent out their space but there are also places that have been vacant for 10 years or more. That’s inexcusable,” said Fewer.

Supervisors Katy Tang and Ahsha Safai co-sponsored legislation in May for a two-year pilot program that aims to expedite legislation for small businesses vying to open up in the Sunset District as well as in the Excelsior neighborhood.

The pilot would eliminate the city requirement to issue notification when an allowed business type wants to move in, and cut down on a roughly six month process to obtain required permits.

Fewer said that she may extend that pilot program to her district. For now, she is taking a “proactive” approach in investigating the root causes of the Richmond’s vacancies.

“We are reaching out to every property owner[on that list] to see what assistance they might need in renting out their business, but also to notify them that they have been identified as a vacant business,” she said. “We also don’t want to punish retail storefront owners if they have been actively trying to rent out their businesses.”

Fewer added that her office has heard from merchants “who have been pushed out that the rents are going up at astronomical rates,” and is currently working with DBI to verify the vacancies in her district and plans to reach out to the property owners.

Fewer said that she is also pushing a “shop local, eat local” campaign in an effort to revitalize local businesses.

“It’s also about the inability of small businesses to thrive here in the Richmond, if people constantly are buying stuff online and not looking at our merchant corridors first,” she said.

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