New businesses bustling on Union Street 

San Francisco is struggling with a 10 percent unemployment rate and lingering vacancies citywide, but there are some pockets of neighborhoods that may be experiencing a mini economic boom.

Merchants said the revived interest in Union Street has much to do with declining rents and the elimination of a decade-old cap on the number of restaurants allowed in the commercial district.

The district, which stretches from Steiner Street to Van Ness Avenue, has five new restaurants scheduled to open. 

Before the cap was lifted last year, restaurants were not allowed to open in any commercial spaces unless the space was an existing restaurant. There are now 29 restaurants in the Union Street commercial district, with room for a total of 32, according to Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier’s office.

“Things are changing and it’s all good news. There were a lot of vacancies,” said Lesley Leonhardt, executive director of the Union Street Merchants Association. “The idea was to get more mix in the district, not just to fill up holes from fleeing retailers who couldn’t afford high rents in the down market.”

Last year, there were 17 vacancies along Union Street. But as rents started to drop — by as much as 30 percent in some cases — vacancies also declined. To date, there are 10 vacancies along the Union Street commercial district, said Cameron Baird, vice president of Brick and Mortar Commercial in San Francisco.

Already, Kasa, Brick Yard and Jamba Juice have opened in the district, according to city planners. Giordano Brothers, a local sandwich shop, was approved to open on Union Street but later backed out after neighborhood opposition to a back patio. And a new restaurant, Unique, is trying to open in the 1800 block.

“It’s a collaborative effort to get Union Street back to where it was,” said Todd Slosek, co-owner of Unwind, a restaurant that will open in July. “It used to be more vibrant with more restaurants and shops that have turned over and are now vacant. There was more foot traffic, and that foot traffic left to Chestnut Street, where more restaurants have opened up.”

The cap on restaurants on Union Street was lifted last year when turnover was high and vacancies were on the rise. Since then, other commercial districts have pushed policymakers to remove the limits on the number of restaurants, such as in Noe Valley. Last week, the Planning Commission approved a recommendation to lift the current restaurant ban in the Castro district. That will be heard by a Board of Supervisors committee in July.

Restaurant boom

Since a cap on eateries was lifted, Union Street’s attracting business.

17 Union Street commercial district vacancies in 2009

10 Vacancies this year

30 Percentage rental rates have declined, on average

29 Restaurants in district

Sources: Brick & Mortar Commercial, Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier

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