For Lease on Union (Image Source: Curbed)

As you might recall, Union Street was recently pegged as one of San Francisco’s three weakest retail corridors. To put it in visual perspective, a tipster directs us to a montage of 29 empty or available store fronts between Gough and Fillmore.

Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by BernalDweller

    The feeling as you walk along this stretch of Union St. is very bleak. My sister was in town last week, and had her hair done at a salon on Union. Truthfully, I hadn’t walked that section of Union in many years, but I remember it being vibrant and cool. Now it seems dead and dated, with a few exceptions. Maybe it was the time of day (late morning/lunchtime), but the empty storefronts have a lot to do with it.

  2. Posted by Tracy

    Opposite my experience living in the neighborhood – a few months ago it did seem unusually dead but the other week I was walking down the street and literally had a bit of trouble because of the crowds (I use a cane). I think it was about 2 weeks after the Union Street fair so maybe there was some residual effect – that plus the good weather that weekend as I recall. Personally, I’m surprised there aren’t a lot more vacancies on this street, and although I hate to say it, I do think more will come up before things start improving. (How many spas/nail salons can an area handle anyways, lol.)

  3. Posted by invented

    Hello new economy.
    Unless SF retail has an active web presence behind the pretty facades –a city which routinely under-builds, is not growing, and which has a modest population of 890,000 — retail does not have the critical mass to sustain the many many shopping districts (and high-end @ that). While I realize many buyers are not local, how many luxury-pet, paper-and-stationery, baby items and tchotchka havens can be sustained? As for food – seems to me that foodism is to SF what Broadway is to NYC – so eateries might be immune.

  4. Posted by Conifer

    Of course we wouldn’t allow any “formula retail” –no Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Talbots, J. Crew. So much better to have empty storefronts, landlords not receiving rent, value of property going down, and eventually reduced property taxes. What an enlightened city government we have!

  5. Posted by Troy Murphy

    Wow! Haven’t been on that block in years.

  6. Posted by scurvy

    Tracy, you’ve obviously never been through Nob Hill, Polk St., nor parts of the Tenderloin. Those areas prove you can have 4.3 nail salons per resident.

  7. Posted by anon

    Conifer – I’m not aware of any formula retail establishments being denied a spot on Union Street (and there are dozens operating there). Are you just being a jackass, or do you have knowledge of some stores not being allowed on Union Street?
    If it’s not the latter, then I would assume that you would agree that Union Street is a PRIME example showing that the chain ordinance is not responsible for all of the empty retail spots in the city, and maybe some other things are to blame (prop 13 for one)?

  8. Posted by anoner

    I heard the landlord for the Bayside Bar & Grill doubled the rent and forced the bar to close. Looks like they haven’t had a lot of luck bringing in a new tenant at their current asking rent.

  9. Posted by HappyRenter

    Although Union may be weak, I took a walk down Upper-Polk last night and was surprised at the number of new businesses springing-up.

  10. Posted by The Drizzler

    I wondered what happened to Bayside. It seemed like a pretty successful sports bar and I wondered why it close – that’s so obnoxious if it is due to the landlord doubling the rent on them. Well I hope they’ve enjoyed the $0 rent they’ve been collecting for the last 18 months.
    anoner do you have a connection with the person(s) who used to run Bayside? I would actually love to talk to them if you do. Not sure how we would exchange contact information over here but if you do know them I would be OK posting my email address on here – I’m not too worried about the Socketsite community knowing my email address…

  11. Posted by anoner

    Drizzler – nope, no real connection to the owner. Just heard about the rent increase through a friend who was working as a commercial broker. So take that for what it’s worth. I agree, it’s a shame if they closed due to the rent doubling. They had cheap pitchers of beer, good screens and really good wings.

  12. Posted by scurvy

    If one of those pictures is of Luisa Hanson’s joint, I’m all for boarded up places.

  13. Posted by eddy

    Maybe the RE agents can use these pics in their photo marketing of listings in the areas.

  14. Posted by redseca2

    I wish we could send over some of the too many to count head shops from the Upper Haight.

  15. Posted by OneEyedMan

    I’m opening a shop next week that specializes in selling “For Lease” signs

  16. Posted by rolfsf

    I was surprised this past weekend when I walked part of 24th Street between Castro and Noe and passed 3 empty/for lease store fronts.

  17. Posted by Oceangoer

    Yup this is my hood and it is pretty scary what is going on. I agree we don’t need so many lingerie and expensive baby stores, but the skid was presaged when about 18 months ago the landlord raised the rent for Burton’s Pharmacy on Chestnut and Fillmore which was a fantastic place … its been empty ever since.

  18. Posted by yao

    wow. i live here and i never realized that all of those places were actually empty. granted, i really only walk around at night when the stores would be closed anyway, but it does seem kinda depressing. i was planning on visiting that yogurt place some weekend!

  19. Posted by joh

    a few weeks ago, I drove through Union St on a beautiful weekend afternoon, and thought to myself how it felt like a weekday afternoon.

  20. Posted by pumpkin patch

    Several years ago, I was window shopping Union St when I tripped into the most ridiculous store. The owner told me that nearly 99% of the shoppers in her store where tourists/not from the neighborhood.
    Maybe this downturn will bring more neighborhood-friendly stores. I live closer to the Filmore shopping district and, to be frank, I loathe the number of the skin/scent/makeup/shoe stores on the strip. How many of those stores does a neighborhood really need?
    These districts have walkable shopping areas that aren’t really practical to the neighborhood itself!

  21. Posted by matt

    I managed a shop on Union for 2 years ending in 2006. I often walked the neighborhood and went to Union Street business association meetings. I met a lot of shop owners. Union Street is floundering today because way too many shop owners are just pissing away their spouse’s/parent’s/inheritance money peddling crap. The shoot-self-in-foot landlords can’t be left without some of the blame, too. I have a feeling the commercial foreclosures will soon start, ushering in more savvy owners who will look for equally savvy retailers. The face of Union Street will change, because it always has.

  22. Posted by Chad

    It’s called Recession 2.0 people 😉

  23. Posted by Jeffrey W. Baker

    The city needs a new tax to prevent this crap. Owner of empty street-level retail space pays the city 100% of previous tenant’s rent every month while the space is empty, if and only if the space was vacated due to increased rent demands or eviction. The kind of crap Luisa Whatshername pulled all over town should _not_ be allowed to happen.

  24. Posted by Fishchum

    Luisa ruined Delaney’s on Chestnut Street and forced out the John Barleycorn on Larkin Street. I spoke to people who worked for her, and they said she’s truly a nightmare.

  25. Posted by gh

    RIP Great Overland Bookstore, it probably wasn’t a viable business, but I liked the book selection.

  26. Posted by Toady

    “The city needs a new tax to prevent this crap”
    Uh, yeah. That’ll work…

  27. Posted by Mediated

    I totally ran into Troy Murphy years ago on Union when I lived in cow hollow. Nice Guy.

  28. Posted by jlasf

    Isn’t a bit of this misleading? I thought that the ex-Prego space was being developed by the Spruce team. And aren’t quite a few of those signs for office space on the upper floors, not for retail space on the ground floor. While there are certainly more empty storefronts than before, it doesn’t feel like the neighborhood is dying. Or am I too optimistic? (Rose-colored glasses are probably available at Eyes in Disguise at 2189 Union Street.)

  29. Posted by Mizz

    Union St reminds me a bit of Melrose Ave in Los Angeles – except that it’s not in LA and it sucks.

  30. Posted by tipster

    What Matt described above is the biggest problem for opening a retail store in a small format: many of the other owners aren’t in it for profit and so they bid the rents up to unrealistic levels, leaving almost all the spaces for people who have no intention to make any money.
    For example, a spouse of a rich guy is bored at home and so the rich guy floats her “boutique” for years to keep her happy, and out of his hair.
    The landlords then think these impossibly high rents are the norm, yet when a sea change occurs and the rich guys no longer have the luxury of supporting a money losing business, the businesses fold and the only way to fill the spaces is to allow the rents to fall to a point where real businesspeople can start businesses that actually profit.
    But right now, business owners and landlords are at a standstill, so everything remains vacant. Each landlord thinks they can hold out, yet the collective action of the landlords is to drive business away from that area, thereby shooting themselves in the foot. When the spaces do finally rent at a lower rent than before, it will be even lower than if the landlords had seen the reality of the situation, and allowed rents to fall to a level that filled the spaces before the shoppers disappeared because of the lack of vibrancy.

  31. Posted by G-man

    If you look at Chestnut and Polk, they both have a constant stream of new restaurants/bars that draw traffic to the street and keep the other shops in business.
    What does Union St have? Left at Albuquerque and Beetelnut. Those were cool circa 1997. Meanwhile, the restaurant next to Beetelnut has been boarded up for years (waaaaay before the the current recession). Ok, I’ll give them Ottomista as a somewhat new place that draws traffic, but you get my point.
    Meanwhile, the Union St association has been blocking numerous attempts at development (like Equinox going into the movie theater that has been boarded up for years).
    If you ask me, that is your problem…A bunch of pretentious ladies with mini dogs in their purse who will only approve of a new clothing boutique (that will never make $) and won’t allow a new bar or gym.

  32. Posted by SFOResident

    Hmmmm; Union Street restaurants that are actually enjoyable and worth eating at: Rose’s Cafe, Capannina (sp, sorry), Betelnut, Osha (or is it Asha?) Thai—-Casual places that aren’t a destination, but that are certainly in the OK class for a sandwich: Cafe Union, Jovino (replaced, quite happily, the old Patisserie from wayback), Boulangerie, Chez Maman—Watering holes that appear to be oddly bulletproof: Perry’s, The Bus Stop, etc….
    Directly on Union: No great Sushi; no great Mexican (Turn Left has never cut it for me)—and where, in a town with the ability to do it, is the Cantonese/Chinese food? And no, the Chinese place in 2001 Union doesn’t make it either…
    Oddly, I would guess not enough eateries is part of the problem…
    And of course Union is “girl retail”; most of retail is “girl retail” unless I missed something (70% of consumer spending, right?); the only major chain I remember leaving is Noah’s (very sad; wish they’d come back); the only major chain I remember being deflected is Borders (into the old movie theater space)—
    Having a Borders in the the movie theater space (instead of another work out club!) would have been nice; lots of foot traffic until late; and that wonderful “third space” that sociologists talk about as a mingling spot—–I think it was the campaign against it by Solar books that zapped it (they were in the basement across the street and in the next block); and ironically, Solar didn’t survive the growth of Amazon and the general death of independent booksellers (RIP Cody’s).
    Wish the landlords weren’t so unrealistic—wish they hadn’t bought properties at prices, with mortgages, that have them grasping for higher rents than the market can bear….
    Worse before it gets better…
    Me thinks.

  33. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    I concur with tipster and add that in addition to the spousal subsidy effect there are also professionals who retire early and leave the rat race to open their dream retail business.
    The thought process usually goes something like this : “I love X. Everyone loves X. I will open a store selling X that will be very popular. Life will be a dream surrounded by hundreds of brand new Xs.”
    My favorite case of X was “angels”. Yes, there was a store selling only angels and angel accessories. It lasted about 2 years.
    I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve advised about opening a business. Having owned my own (non retail) business people think I know how to run retail too. I do sort of. My best advice is to seek funding from a remote party like a bank rather than from family or friends or even yourself. Being at arms length, a bank will take a cold hard look at your business plan and won’t be swayed by emotion and relationships.
    It’s amazing how many prospective retail owners don’t even have a business plan. But they do have ready : a catchy name, an idea of how to redecorate, and their initial inventory all picked out.
    But as tipster notes, plenty of retailers don’t even worry about profit or sustainability. They are hobbyists in the guise of businesspeople.

  34. Posted by Fishchum

    SFOResident – I can’t understand why you would classify Perry’s and The Bus Stop as “oddly bulletproof” – and you left off the nearby Brazenhead and the right-on-Union Nettie’s Crabshack off your eatery list.

  35. Posted by FormerAptBroker

    I’ve been buying almost everything I don’t eat or drink on line for almost 10 years. Now that quite a few others (like my parents and my wife) have discovered the shopping on line is 1. Easy and 2. Saves a lot of time and money I predict a lot more pain in the retail world for years to come…

  36. Posted by OneEyedMan

    Many posters here are correct. As I walk down the street and see some of these specialty retailers (that frequently appear to be customer free zones) I can’t help but try to calculate in my head their daily “nut” to open the door – rent, utilities, wages, insurance, inventory carry cost, advertising, etc. Then I try to figure how much they make on each widget they sell and how many widgets they need to sell that day just to open the door in the morning. Then I say to myself: Who in their right mind thought you could set up a shop there and sell that many widgets a day?
    Then I go home and order my widgets on line from some guy working out of his garage in Omaha for about 1/2 what the cute shop was asking.

  37. Posted by sleepiguy

    I agree with pretty much everything said here. Union St has been dying for a while, and the economic downturn just hastened its demise. It seems like pretty much everything closed in the last 6 months and quite a few of the remaining stores seem to be on life support. Although they just opened a puff pastry shop (!?) at Fillmore. Meanwhile, Chestnut St. seems to be doing just fine.
    Anyway, I asked this in another thread, but what could you put in these vacancies that has any chance of succeeding?

  38. Posted by anonn

    Yeah, to echo sleepiguy, does anybody have a theory as to why Chestnut is faring so much better than Union these days?

  39. Posted by anon

    ^It has always seemed to me that Chestnut has more spaces that are usable for modern stores – more with larger floorplates, more with higher ceilings (it seems to be very common on Union to have very low ceilings), and Chestnut has more useful daily need stores which bring everyone from the neighborhood by every day (Walgreens, more banks, higher proportion of restaurants to boutiques, etc). Union really needs a drug store, IMO.

  40. Posted by anon

    ^One more thought – Union has always seemed like a high end mall to me. Fun to walk through every few months, but not somewhere that I would go often, like the neighborhood shopping areas like Polk, Fillmore, or Chestnut. Even though those other areas may have high end boutiquish stuff as well, they also offer normal stuff.

  41. Posted by anon

    I do happen to know of one landlady in particular who has driven countless Union street proprietors out of business. One of hers is that building on the SW corner of Fillmore and Filbert. She will let something sit vacant until she gets her price every single time. I think she owns about four or five buildings in the area.

  42. Posted by Fishchum

    I think the anon @ 12:59 hit the nail on the head – I go to Chestnut Street all the time for the basics – dry cleaners, bank, Walgreen’s, deli – and occasionally hit a movie, grab a beer at the Marina Lunge or the Horseshoe, or get a quick, easy, bite to eat. In fact, a lot of the eateries cater to the financial district types who put in long hours and don’t want to cook – plenty of places that sell good, relatively inexpensive food to go.
    I go to Union Street because my friend has a salon and she cuts my hair. Or Fredericksen’s if I need some tools or supplies. Other than that, I go around the holiday’s and pick up a gift for the wife at Lush. That’s about it.

  43. Posted by asf

    speaking of Chestnut St, don’t forget the Marina Super (possibly the best neighborhood non-safewayish grocery in SF, great for produce), its affiliate Marina Meats (pricey but good meat and fish), and the divine bread at Marina Bakery. Union has none of that.
    Chestnut does have one or two nail salons too many though

  44. Posted by scurvy

    I’ll be honest, I’d love to open a gun store right on Union St. It would throw feces in the face of the constitution haters that gun stores only open in poor neighborhoods, and it would be the only gun store in SF now that High Bridge is leaving for the peninsula.
    If rents drop enough, I might just do it. Of coures, it would have to be a high-end gun store. Maybe sell the Hello Kitty AR-15?

  45. Posted by Robert

    Scurvy, have you ever been to Madrone? Other than it being a fantastic bar, they have several guns. One is a centerpiece rifle with a plaid cloth cover above the mirror. Then there is a sculpture of a deer or equivalent with two rifles glued into its helmet. I bet you could clean-up just selling showpieces to the interior decorators. I’d call the store “Guns for Nuns” — no business plan required!

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