A pedestrian walks past a vacant storefront along Stockton Street on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF strengthens vacant storefront registration requirements

San Francisco strengthened a vacant storefront registry Tuesday to encourage more property owners to fill the empty commercial spaces that dot many business corridors.

Under legislation introduced by Supervisor Sandra Fewer and unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors, thousands of property owners who are not renting their commercial space will have to start registering and paying for annual inspections.

“When you have commercial property owners holding multiple storefronts vacant for long periods of time, that hurts all the other small businesses in the area who rely on a vibrant commercial corridor to attract customers,” Fewer said in a statement. “The enforcement mechanisms in this ordinance are vital to addressing our vacancy problem head on and complement ongoing efforts to fill vacant storefronts so our small businesses can thrive.”

The legislation was expected to pass, having picked up support from all members of the board leading up to Tuesday’s vote, indicating how the issue of vacant storefronts touches many neighborhoods in San Francisco.

SEE RELATED: San Francisco seeks to get a handle on its inventory of vacant storefronts

The proposal was also supported by the Department of Building Inspection, which is charged with overseeing the existing vacant storefront registry, a requirement that dates back to 2009.

But Fewer said the existing registry is broken, as many building owners are not registering, mainly because a property owner doesn’t have to comply if their site is up for sale or rent.

While there are thousands of storefront vacancies across San Francisco, only owners of 40 vacant storefronts registered with The City, according to Fewer.

Supporters of the proposal view it not only as a means to encourage those who own vacant storefronts to lease the spaces but also as a way to gain a more accurate picture of how many vacancies there truly are in San Francisco. Accurate data could help The City better tailor economic development and other policies.

Fewer’s legislation requires an annual registration fee of $711 due at the time of registration, not after 260 days as is currently the rule.

It also requires all commercial vacancies to register regardless of whether they are advertised for sale or lease.

Buildings owners will also have to pay for a third-party to inspect their vacancies annually to ensure the conditions of the site’s exterior and interior comply with city code and report their findings to The City.

A violation would carry a $2,844 fine.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which advocates for the interests of restaurants, backed the proposal in a Feb. 25 letter to the board.

“Restaurants play a vital role in community building and placemaking,” wrote Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “Often a pioneering restaurant moves into a neighborhood and attracts other businesses to follow. Much of the economic development in the last 10 years has been related to restaurants and other related food businesses. By having accurate data and hopefully opening up more vacant storefronts, restaurants can continue to be anchors in our neighborhoods.”

Supervisor Matt Haney said during last week board committee hearing on the proposal that he recently walked along Market Street with his legislative staff and “most glaring even on our main thoroughfare in our city are the number of vacant storefronts.”

Corey Smith, deputy director of the Housing Action Coalition, a pro-development nonprofit, said last week that “a really effective way” to reduce vacancies is to “add housing at all levels of affordability along our commercial corridors.” He said that would create a stronger customer-base for businesses.

SEE RELATED: Tax on vacant housing, storefronts proposed for November ballot

Fewer, however, cautioned that market rate development may be part of the problem.

“An increase in market rate housing can lead to gentrification which can actually be detrimental to existing merchants as there is currently no rent control on retail space,” Fewer said. ‘What we are seeing is that when areas gentrify so quickly and massively around neighborhoods that many of these merchants that have been around for 20, 30 years are priced out because there is no retail rent control.”

San Francisco is also considering a vacancy tax to address vacancies in both residential and commercial properties. Supervisor Aaron Peskin reaffirmed last week his intent to introduce a vacancy tax for the November ballot.

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