San Francisco Adopts Legislation To Help Fill All Those Vacant Storefronts

Photo by  Hannah Morgan  on  Unsplash

For a city filled with newly-minted millionaires, San Francisco has a lot of vacant storefronts. There are countless reasons for the shift away from brick-and-mortar retail. Too many people are shopping online. It’s impossible to pay staff a living wage in the most expensive city in America. The rent is too damn high. And then there’s the cost of opening a small business in the city. Most would-be small business openers simply cannot afford to bank roll the months of permitting and approvals that precede a store opening. To its credit, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is trying to alleviate some city’s infamous red tape. On Wednesday, Mayor London Breed signed legislation to simplify the permitting process for small business owners.

So what changes? District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown, who sponsored the legislation, explains that the measure "simplifies our permitting and zoning rules to make it easier for small businesses here to get open and stay open." According to Breed’s office, that includes:

  • Enabling retail businesses to diversify their offerings by reducing costs and barriers in order to serve to-go food and to incorporate entertainment and events.

  • Increasing opportunities for retail, restaurant, and nightlife businesses to fill vacant storefronts and enhance neighborhood vibrancy by enabling open air food service, removing barriers for arcades, and relaxing the impacts of zoning restrictions designed for other neighborhoods.

  • Supporting live music venues by eliminating duplicative inspections and reducing burdensome food service requirements for entertainment venues.

  • Clarifying multiple previously ambiguous Planning Code provisions in order to bring greater clarity and consistency to the permitting process.

Beyond the regulatory jargon, the real win in this legislation is that it empowers businesses to adapt to the experiential demands that customers are looking for. Wooden Coffeehouse owner Steve Wickwire, who had struggled with the city’s redundant permitting hurdles when trying to secure a beer and wine license for his business’s comedy nights, said, “This legislation addresses several imperative revisions in current zoning structure, and marks a triumph for the future of small businesses in San Francisco.”

Can this legislation save retail in San Francisco? It’s too early to say, but at least it gives businesses a fighting chance at diversifying offerings.