Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

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By Ernest Salomon
Donna took me to San Francisco for four days to celebrate my 82nd birthday celebration.  We go about twice a year and have seen the city sink into decay in some areas, among them the main shopping destination of Union Square.
This time we were taken aback by how far the area in and around the square has gone to hell.  The square itself is full of drunks, homeless and criminal types. Storefronts with once fine merchandise are empty.  Arthur Behrens, one of Americas great shoe stores formerly located on the corner of Maiden Lane and Stockton Street closed ten months ago and the store is still for lease.  Oh yes, there is a For Lease sign in the window.  Powell, from Post to Market is a No Man's Land of tourists and T-shirt shops.  Stockton Street is also horrible! . A hot dog stand sits in front of Macy's entrance on Geary Street.  Just lovely! 
There are empty store fronts all around the square area as nasty looking and acting hawkers selling tour bus rides for busses parked there are in people's faces..  I spoke to two lovely saleswomen in Neiman's on Wednesday afternoon and they said "We don't shop downtown any more and neither do many other locals.  It is awful, stinks from human waste in some places and is dangerous".  We don't like working "after dark shifts".  The store had more sales staff than customers and the number of staff has been slashed!!
The biggest thing that hit us was the huge Powell Street lobby of the St. Francis Hotel.  It was a place where locals once said  "I'll meet you under the clock at X o'clock".  It had a tea room and a huge arrangement of sitting areas.  The lobby must be over 5,000 square feet.  All the seats are gone, the tea room is closed and the clock is gone from the center of the lobby and hidden in a corner. I asked the doorman and he said, as I thought, that the lobby had become uncontrollable with vagrants, homeless and outright criminals and so they had turned it into a huge empty space.  The stores on the outside of the hotel are empty and there are several other empty storefronts nearby as well. Some signature SF businesses in the area such as Bernstein's Fish Grotto are now tourist junk shops as is the former Cable Car Clothiers, both on Powell Street.
Cars are broken into all over the city, especially in the downtown and there are warning signs everywhere.  Scary people accosted us as we walked. The streets are filthy.  Businesses are leaving when their leases expire. Merchants and building owners are frustrated and angry.
Much of this has been wrought by the elected officials of San Francisco and the police not doing their jobs.  The quest for tourism and its tax revenue coupled with police indifference have destroyed the downtown SF area and it will only get worse!
This same situation is on its same downward path here:  State Street downtown retail area death! The destruction of our local housing stock is another issue that has been made worse by the same indifference and poor planning of our city's leadership!
The time for hand-wringing at City Hall ihas gone on too long already and is long past and won't do anything but make things worse for an even longer time. Our city needs a change of direction which can only come by new people with new ideas and leadership from the top on down in City Hall!
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TheKid5 Jun 26, 2017 03:29 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

As to the high rents on State Street being the culprit for the mess it is in-They are certainly a factor, but rents are a product of supply and demand, just as many other products. The high rents on State Street have been driven up by chains that can afford to do a certain volume and still pay high rent. A good example is the Apple Store, which pays $85,000 a MONTH! No other retailer could afford this rent. There are now at least 50 vacant spaces on State and those property owners who have had negative income against operating and mortgage costs and those who have mortgages that must be paid from rental income will have to lower their rents if they are to survive the downturn. This does not apply to deep pocket property owners or those that have paid cash or have paid off for their property. They have more breathing space with an empty store on their hands. Paseo Nuevo is also in trouble and now is looking for and advertising pop-up stores-not a good sign. Saks will probably leave when their lease is up and Nordstrom's is not exactly on solid footing. Bottom line is that if these stores remain vacant and the amount of vacancies continues to grow, rents will be forced down and maybe we will see a resurgence of local retailers. Before this happens, we need new and future thinking people in City Hall and the November election will give our people the chance to better downtown.

TheKid5 Jun 26, 2017 05:34 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

Channelfog: You are right but I did say this in my posting: "This does not apply to deep pocket property owners or those that have paid cash or have paid off for their property. They have more breathing space with an empty store on their hands." Rents are a major factor in determining commercial property value and some owners would suffer owning a building that is worth less than they paid for it in granting a long term lease that devalues their property. This entire State Street train wreck is for the most part the result of long term poor planning and no nurturing of the entire downtown retail area by mayors and city councils who have no clue about the retail business. The last eight years under Schneider & Co. have been the straw that broke State Street's retailing back. Too much emphasis on tourism, cruise ships, liquor, restaurants and police officers that are held back from doing their jobs. The last chief was inept and the present chief thinks that she is a social worker! In November, voters must take the opportunity to make sure that the new mayor and council members grasp the need for revitalization of State Street and think about the quiet enjoyment of local residents in their city for a change!

Channelfog Jun 26, 2017 04:47 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

Without disagreeing with THEKIDS, I would like to clarify. When property owners are so wealthy and manifest insular attitudes, market demand economics fly out the window. Their storefronts constitute empty civic embarrassement and wield economic and emotional hardship on the rest of the community. Often these property owners are "old time" SB family descendants who, therein, feel entitled to administer their legacy in such a civically detrimental fashion.

a-1498490528 Jun 26, 2017 08:22 AM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

How about Ventura? Thirty years ago Ventura's Main Street was a slum much as Santa Barbara's State Street is becoming. But they have now made it into a vibrant and fun area with almost no bums in sight. How did they do it right and what did Santa Barbara do wrong?

Ahchooo Jun 25, 2017 08:05 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

There are lots of examples of other cities and towns with similar problems. Show me a city our size that does _not_ have empty storefronts and homeless, and then let's look at what they've done to achieve that.

goaty Jun 25, 2017 07:34 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

While blaming greedy landlords and the unsightly poor are easy targets it is just a simple fact that there are more store fronts for retail than are really needed in the modern world, so much commerce is being conducted online that there will be a real crisis in retail the same as there was for those of us in manufacturing. Things are going to get worse before they get better especially since those currently in power in Washington are only concerned with the needs of the ultra-rich.

a-1498425737 Jun 25, 2017 02:22 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

To echo another subscriber, the real problem is the high rents downtown. We don't want to lose our downtown and we don't want it to be so stinky and awful that we don't want to go there. I put myself through college by working at Trenwiths and my first job was at Bank's Stationary. Some of my favorite stores are long gone and they just couldn't afford the rents. We want locals here, we want local businesses and we want our own people to thrive and we want our downtown to be an enjoyable place for ourselves, families and visiting friends. We have to make sure that happens by sweetening the pot, somehow, so that our own businesses can thrive and we can work on getting the mentally ill off the streets.

Flicka Jun 25, 2017 09:36 AM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

I don't know much about the SB City Council, or even who all the people are. As far as needing "real locals" on the Council go, Bendy White was born and raised here. His family has been here for generations.

sbjoe Jun 25, 2017 08:06 AM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

When the Macys downtown closed, I wish the mayor had been on a plane the next day to Minneapolis, trying to get Target to move here. Target has multi-floor stores in many locations including Ventura so it would not of the question and a step up from the 99 cent stores on lower State. Hello, Mayor? City council? How about some leadership?

Ahchooo Jun 24, 2017 04:19 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

While it is true that there are too many vacant stores, it is still fun to walk on State Street! Please don't scare people away. I walked from Cota up to Victoria last week and was not accosted by any homeless or creepy people. Saw a couple, but they were minding their own business, not in anyone's way. There are shops and restaurants worth going into. Don't forget about the very charming La Arcada, with the turtle fountain and sculptures. Just beware there is a lot of construction around the back of the library and the art museum right now (improvements).

Yes, we need to make things better, but State Street is still a pretty nice place.

yourfakereality Jun 24, 2017 04:09 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

The buzz I'm hearing is that a finanancial collapse far worse than 2008 is imminent, but the real concern is doing something about lower state street? If you don't believe something really bad is about to happen in this country, google 'walmart detention centers' and tell me that the closed Walmart in San Jose doesn't look more like a jail than any retail store you've ever seen.

Flicka Jun 24, 2017 03:46 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

There was a time when State Street had affordable stores like Pennys, Montgomery Ward, Learners, and five and dime stores ; Woolworths, Kress, and another I can't remember. Also, higher end places like Levys, Penningers, etc. and, medium places like Silverwoods clothing. Everyone could find the perfect place to shop. Ott's was a perfect place with different departments, clothing, china and toys, etc.; Stores that were here for generations. It's a shame the way our town is now, absolutely disgusting.

Channelfog Jun 25, 2017 02:35 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

Yes, Flicka, all the establishments you mentioned as well as L.N.Dietrich car parts and Banks Stationary store, there was a time when I did virtually all of my shopping on State Street. From motor oil and pet food to fine stationary, those truly were the days. I agree about the landlords and high rents; the State Street we once knew and loved cannot be replaced at current crazy rents. Oh...and back then, one could park on State Street too.

therealbebe Jun 24, 2017 03:15 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

All these ongoing comments and debates attributing the ouster of local business and rampant vacancies, and who is calling out the ACTUAL elephant in the room?

Retail landlords ask for ridiculous rents. Period. It's not the vagrants, etc. All of that is a consequence of widespread vacancies, not the other way around. RENT, people. RENT that these landlords are asking are only payable by large corporate business, not local folks.

So excuse me for laughing when I read stories about "local retail property owners" coming together to figure it all. Please. The tax benefits of leaving a property vacant make them more money than renting their shops out at lower prices.

Greed. It's not rocket science.

2contango Jun 24, 2017 01:32 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

We seldom go downtown anymore. Retailers cater primarily to tourists, and restaurants have become too pricey. We could use more resident-oriented businesses outside of the high-rent State Street corridor, but city leaders have chosen to protect the interests of downtown businesses and property owners. Milpas Street would be natural area for small business owners and young entrepreneurs who have been priced out of State Street. But the city is actively discouraging this, such as enacting restrictions on new restaurants on the East Side. Raising the sales tax may bring in more revenues in the short term, but when the next recession hits and tourism drops, the city will find that residents are spending their money elsewhere.

TheKid5 Jun 24, 2017 12:28 PM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

What can be done?

Mayor Schneider and the present city council have accelerated turning our downtown into one giant tourist trap and booze zone with more liquor licenses per capita than any other California city! Dozens of cruise ships use our water and spew diesel soot into our city while they idle in the harbor! The downtown has been stolen from local resident use and has been converted into as giant tourist trap with bars and T-shirt shops. The police are not allowed to do their jobs against vagrants and criminal elements roaming State. Our policed chief thinks she is a social worker; she is a cop! Better stores cannot and will not survive with trash shops around them and nothing but restaurants and bars. Paseo Nuevo is dying as well and its Macy's anchor is gone and making it tough for smaller shops to survive, Saks and Nordstrom's are next to go. There are now about 50 empty retail stores with more to come. We need a new mayor and council who will start to bring anew thinking process to city hall and start to concentrate on ideas and policies that look to make our city center welcome locals again. Otherwise, downtown State Street is doomed to become an ever growing no mans land!

Channelfog Jun 24, 2017 09:49 AM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

There are already plenty of bond measures on property tax roles to provide for the schools, and plenty of sales tax revenue. The problem is that bloated administrators suck up a huge amount of school funds, and local government squanders the tax revenue. Increasing sales tax and property tax (through additional bond measures) only makes SB less affordable for owners and shoppers. Measure D and then measure A, were supposed to fix our traffic congestion, widening Hwy 101, yet through more mismanagement that money has been squandered on a bloated staff at the Santa Barbara Association of Governments. Go to the SBCAG website and you will see that they were supposed to bring Metrolink up to SB and even with measure A funds, they do not have enough money to widen 101 all the way through SB. Tragic mismanagement in "The Land of the Lotus Eaters", NOT a shortage of money.

mattyboy Jun 24, 2017 09:30 AM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

Don't worry, they are looking to raise the SB sales tax to alleviate such issues. You may have recently received the mailer. Of course, if we don't raise the sales tax, our schools, fire, and police will suffer, and our roads will continue to deteriorate...

willow Jun 24, 2017 09:04 AM
Diminishing Quality of Downtown Needs City Hall's Attention

Thank you for a well written op-ed. You describe a scenario that is no doubt unattractive to all. However, do you have a proposed solution? I keep hearing that we should replace the sitting City Council, but with whom? And what will those new members do? I don't think we should continue to blame "them" if we are unable to come up with a decent suggestion for improvement.

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