How storefronts contribute to neighborhoods

I lived in San Francisco for almost five years, right when the gentrification debate was hitting its stride. People were throwing rocks and slashing tires of the Google Buses, Smart Cars were being flipped over in the Mission, and anti-yuppy graffiti was everywhere. These same issues are happening in cities across the country (and world) because the number of young people who enjoy the conveniences of a city has sky-rocketed in the last 10-15 years1, and cities have essentially been caught with their pants down. They’re just not built to quickly respond to such a significant demographic change.

A lot has been written about these issues, and I’m not educated enough nor feel I can contribute in any meaningful way. However, one issue I’ve noticed that’s often missing from the debate is regarding local businesses.

One of the cornerstones of what makes a great neighborhood is what kind of stores, restaurants, and bars are able to afford renting a space on the ground floor of a building. Just like cheaper housing invites a variety of people of different socio-economic backgrounds, cheaper spaces do the same for business.

If I can setup a workshop2 that allows people to learn how to knit, I’m probably not rolling in money. But I am adding incredible character to my block. People get to know each-other, become friends, share a drink, and learn a new skill. I’m building community.

The biggest problem with the new construction going up in San Fransisco isn’t just the fact that they are all geared towards people with obscene paychecks3, but that they suck character out of neighborhoods by denying small shops. The only places that can afford these glass walled ground floors are larger companies, or companies that sell products that are extremely highly priced.

Developers are essentially building the scaffolding that either encourages or discourages community. If they ignore how their building affects the neighborhood, the end result can be a net negative for many, many decades.

I empathize, they have an incredibly diverse set of interests to satisfy. The community, the city, burdensome regulations4, tenants, investors, etc. But you can see what kinds of neighborhoods get built when there’s no responsibility to the community you’re contributing to. Look at King St between 4th and 3rd. It’s a soulless place. You’ll never see a dive bar in this new construction. You’ll never get a pizza slice spot.

The new construction in the Mission is similar. Homogenized, modern-ish buildings with a lower floor that is basically just glass walls. I understand that glass walls are appealing to get people to look in your tenant’s stores, but the lack of customization around storefronts in new construction leads to a visual sameness that is incredibly boring. The creativity and variety is entirely lacking. Who wants to go to these neighborhoods?

As a developer, taking on construction in San Francisco is daunting. The regulatory hurdles are immense, the number of community meetings are brutal, and while everyone wants to get the rent prices down, they don’t want new buildings to hurt their neighborhood’s existing character5.

However, I think as a developer in a city as culturally rich as San Francisco, you have a responsibility to add to that culture. While we may not need to demand below market rent for new tenants like we do for new apartments, we should at least be demanding spaces that can allow the ‘hole in the wall’ places to exist.

Cities thrive on variety. I think we can expect and demand that.

  1. Millenials really like walkability and short commutes 

  2. Incredible places like Workshop SF - thank you for teaching me to sew! 

  3. This is not always true, but more units in general is a good thing and in time will push down prices. TechCrunch wrote a great article on this. 

  4. What it costs to open a restaurant in SF 

  5. Pervasive NIMBYism is crippling cities’ ability to respond to changing population and demographics. An interesting thing that’s happening now is YIMBYism (Yes, in my back yard). It’s a wild world. 

Written on April 26, 2018