Owners of empty storefronts forced to rent or pay city fees 

click to enlarge storefront
  • Jessica Christian/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • A “For Rent” sign sits in the window of an empty storefront at 1918 Taraval Street in the Sunset District.
San Francisco loves to hate its empty storefronts.

For years merchants and residents have complained about how empty storefronts are a bane, attracting crime, graffiti and hampering economic activity. In 2009, empty storefronts were such a plague that The City got a little creative by launching an Art in Storefronts pilot program to try and bring a little life to the shuttered spaces in the Mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods.

While empty storefronts are much maligned, the fact is that they are private property, and landlords can choose to rent them or not -- only now if they don’t rent, it’ll cost them. A new city law requires owners of any storefront left vacant for more than 270 days to pay $765 annually and register with The City.

Supervisor Katy Tang, who introduced the legislation, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors, made her case for its need by pointing to city data showing there were more than 45 vacant ground floor commercial spaces in the Sunset District, with 24 on Taraval Street, which she represents. Also, she noted that there were 179 vacant storefronts counted recently in 25 commercial corridors citywide.

Judging by Tang’s legislation, empty storefronts are sinister. “In addition to being eyesores, these vacant commercial storefronts have a detrimental impact on the economic viability of the commercial corridors in which they are located. Vacant storefronts often attract illegal activity, such as squatting, vandalism, and dumping,” the legislation says. “Such activity not only repels would-be customers and patrons from commercial corridors, but also places an undue burden on city agencies.”

The fee for empty storefronts builds on an existing requirement for owners of vacant buildings to pay a fee and register with the city, which began in 2009, but excluded buildings with residences above commercial space.

The list of vacant buildings “with the building boom still going, has actually fallen from 500 during the recession of a couple of years ago to about 240 today,” Department of Building Inspection spokesman William Strawn said in June.

Storefront owners who are actively acquiring permits or trying to proactively lease space, such as by having hired a real estate agent or listing the property for lease, can receive an exemption.

The Small Business Commission has discussed the need for something like Tang’s proposal for at least four years. “This legislation will patch a critical gap in the existing vacant building registration ordinance,” Small Business Commission director Regina Dick-Endrizz said in a letter to the board.

Some who are working to revitalize commercial corridors see the registry as valuable assistance.

“An up-to-date registry of property owners and those responsible for maintaining vacant buildings will ensure that we know whom to contact to address problems and to facilitate negotiations with potential interested tenants,” said Angela Minkin, chair of the Excelsior Action Group Advisory Board.

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