Vibrant despite the numerous storefront vacancies, Mission Street in the Excelsior is ailing from high rent blight and crime. Photograph by Emma Chiang for the Ingleside-Excelsior Light.
Although houses in the Excelsior climb toward the million-dollar mark and rental prices soar, its major commercial corridor, Mission Street, is an apparent free-fall. Every block has vacant storefronts. To an almost-lifelong resident like me, there appears to be more vacancies and blight than ever, even during the economic recession of 2008.
I’m not alone. In October, after receiving numerous complaints, District 11 Supervisor John Avalos held a hearing at the Board of Supervisors’ Neighborhood Services and Public Safety committee to address the rash of illegal businesses, abandoned and neglected properties on the corridor. The results were clear: red tape was slowing down code enforcement efforts.
The Excelsior Action Group, a city-funded organization dedicated to enhancing the corridor, is well aware of the issue and has a committee dedicated to alleviating the negative affects. However, EAG can only do so much.
Its quarterly storefront survey found 18 storefronts for sale, 13 vacant and 12 non-performing. However, in the month since that survey was performed, three businesses have left or closed. That’s 46 out-ofcommission storefronts in a 1.4-mile commercial corridor containing 251 storefronts, or just over 18 percent.
Why are so many empty? Many buildings need extensive renovation and repairs to be brought up to code, something property owners are often reluctant to do themselves. Clearly, high rents are also a major factor.
While San Francisco offers some of the country’s best protections for residential renters, small businesses are succumbing to rapidly increasing rents. Merchants are facing highly inflated prices both for their commercial spaces as well as at home. And finding qualified people to work is becoming harder and harder as the city becomes more and more unaffordable.
With a high tax rate—self-employed people pay almost a quarter of their earnings in taxes—no rent control protection, difficulty in borrowing money and inadequate support from the City, it’s no wonder small businesses are struggling.
Yet small businesses that serve local needs have major benefits—they employ residents, have been shown to cycle money back into the community, and provide a local feel that a major bank or cell phone retailer never could.
Historically, the Excelsior has provided an avenue for immigrants to start businesses, and create the sort of vibrant, diverse commercial corridors that make San Francisco the unique city that it is.
EAG has been ramping up efforts to address the vacancies with a new ambassador’s program that utilizes local volunteers to help connect prospective business owners with empty spaces.
“As a community-based organization with limited full-time resources, EAG saw great potential in our volunteer network to play an increased role in business attraction,” said Eamon O’Connor, chair of Excelsior Action Group’s business attraction and support committee.
EAG Executive Director Stephanie Cajina identified different types: longtime, often abandoned vacancies, underperforming or rarely open businesses, and those currently up for rent. The former can contribute to blight, as well as house illicit activities—an issue reported on extensively by the Light.
“With prices going up in other parts of the city, we have definitely noticed some property owners are more willing to ‘hold out’ to get tenants that are willing to pay more than $2.5 a square foot,” Cajina said. “This, unfortunately, does delay storefronts from being activated sooner.”
Since bringing a long-empty storefront up to code can be an expensive and time-consuming process, EAG also offers new businesses assistance with start-up costs under the Invest in Neighborhoods citywide partnership.
When Market Street was deeply troubled by vacant storefronts and rampant crime, Ed Lee stepped in and established an incentive for corporations to move into the neighborhood almost as soon as he became mayor. Now that the Mid Market neighborhood has blossomed, Mayor Lee must focus his attention on the Excelsior.
“For the Excelsior, it’s going to take another round of deepening our outreach efforts,” said Joaquin Torres, managing deputy director at the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
Torres emphasized the difference between the “extraordinarily blighted” Mid Market— with its higher vacancy rate, downtown-adjacent location, and lack of grocery stores and other basic services—with the Excelsior, and noted that the Bernal Heights stretch of Mission Street is also suffering from a large percentage of empty storefronts.
Ocean Avenue’s commercial corridor was improved after forming a community benefits district, an organization that assesses property owners on the corridor based on the property size and spends the money to clean, maintain and enhance the street. Managed by a nonprofit organization called the Ocean Avenue Association, the CBD formed only after local merchants and property owners banded together to clean up, promote and improve the district.
“It’s something that needs to come from the neighborhood itself,” Torres said. “It’s a very thoughtful, methodical process, and requires a very robust, community-oriented approach.”
Ideally, the Excelsior, like Ocean Avenue, would form a CBD to help revitalize the street while preserving its character and existing small businesses.
An Excelsior benefit district is the single best step for long-term growth of the commercial corridor. It would provide sustained maintenance services, get funding and provide a forum for the property owners, merchants and neighbors alike.
To do all this, the City could match the first three years of assessment payments as an incentive for property owners to form the CBD. This is the single best solution. Helping the property owners and merchants establish their own organization would empower them.
Yet Excelsior property owners and merchants have been reluctant to develop a neighborhood plan, initiate a CBD or accept help from the city in the form of improvements. Many do not want to take on loans, even affordable ones, according to District 11 Supervisor John Avalos’ aide Frances Hsieh, in part because they were not offered affordable longterm leases for well-maintained and attractive spaces and feel their very existence as businesses is tenuous at best.
“The city wants to be as helpful as possible,” Torres said, naming a host of services offered by the Mayor’s Office: assistance with ADA compliancy, facade improvements, free legal services for entrepreneurs, and the Invest in Neighborhoods program.
Clearly, though, these incentives have not added up to enough.
A big project the Mayor could initiate now is a comprehensive streetscape plan that looks at sidewalks and sidewalk extensions, street lighting, landscaping, and public art, like on Ocean Avenue. This all would complement the transit-priority improvements on the street, making the Persia Triangle fully realized as the neighborhood’s heart.
The Excelsior doesn’t need to be the “new Bernal” or “up and coming”—especially at the expense of its diversity, local feel and refreshing lack of pretense. On a personal level, we can help improve the corridor by appealing to the tens of thousands of people who already live here to become involved and active in the neighborhood, by advocating City Hall to give more protections to small business, and by finding ways to give back when we can.
We can help by referring prospective businesses to EAG, attending their monthly business meetings, or becoming ambassadors. And we can also help by simply walking Mission Street and patronizing the array of businesses the neighborhood has to offer.
Commercial corridors are important in emergencies, bolstering communities is disaster preparation work. The Excelsior benefits greatly from its unparalleled natural diversity.
While the city’s coffers are flush, funds should flow to where the need is apparent. Let’s celebrate, enhance and preserve the neighborhood. Ever upward!
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