Saturday, February 9, 2013

dealing with the death of main street

originally posted on the posterous site. july 25, 00:55:00am

it’s no secret that I grew up in a small town and now live in the “big city”, and for as much as i didn’t appreciate small town life growing up in it, there are times now as an adult when the death of main street makes the biggest city-living promoter to grieve a little...

this last trip to san francisco, i was lucky enough to explore the city more and see neighborhoods that i hadn’t before. san francisco has it all: comfortable climate, culture, lots-to-do, architecture, a liberal mentality, progressive attitudes, great food, eclectic mix of neighborhoods, and unfortunately like small towns everywhere -- dying main streets.

i started traveling to san francisco in february of '09 when i started with my current employer, and over the course of the last eighteen months or so, portions of market street have continued to sit empty. not being familiar with local politics and the whose-who and what-not, i can only speculate on why these prime locations, continue to sit empty; perhaps it's recession or just bad business venture…the list of potential reasons goes on and on. but i do know that these empty store fronts serve to strangle neighborhoods.

during this trip I was lucky enough to read an article in the san francisco examiner, penned by andrea koskey, that explores the “death of main street” in the neighborhood of north beach. the merchants there are fed-up with these blemishes, and feel that unoccupied stores have a negative effect on the neighborhood. the merchants argue that successful neighborhoods become that way because of the mix of merchants, which in-turn attracts people, making the neighborhood a destination and that foot traffic attracts more merchants – empty store fronts on the other hand deter foot traffic.

the merchants want to enact legislation through the board of supervisors that would make it harder for landlords to take advantage of tax-law loop-holes by fining the property owner based on the length of time the storefront remains empty (some of those storefronts have been empty for years - prior to the recession). great thinking, but i personally think the idea needs to be fleshed out more.

the neighborhood should look at business improvement districts, or bids. bids seem to be the new layer of government these days and are as powerful as home-owner-associations in the residential world. these authorities “equally” tax (if there is such a concept as equal taxation) both commercial property owners and businesses, using the funds to pay for street-level improvements (i.e. plantings and beautification) and for services like street concierges that promote the neighborhood, provide directions, and so forth (if north beach currently has a bid, then please forgive my ignorance).

with the merchants and the board of supervisors working with a bid to fine property owners for empty stores fronts, the neighborhood now has an agency that not only promotes local business, but can manage those fines and funds locally -- instead of them being lumped in with local tax revenues. these fines should be used to jumpstart the neighborhood.

how you might ask? with the bid as fund manager, potential new independent merchants could access local grant funding to establish their new business in that neighborhood. this removes the empty storefront, increases the local tax base for beautification and street-level improvements, and ultimately speeds the transition from sketch to destination. existing businesses could even tap into these funds, through low-interest long-term loan programs, to expand their businesses into empty storefronts.

i applaud the merchants of north beach for the idea-seed of fining absentee landlords and those responsible for the neighborhood blight, but that’s not solving the problem. the merchants of north beach should not only look at punishment for those who are killing main street, but they (and merchants everywhere) should consider the opportunities that come with punishment. fining and possibly over-fining landlords is only going to turn empty storefronts into empty storefronts with for-sale signs and further muddy the often love/hate relationship that merchants can have with their landlords.

but, using those fines to give independent business owners a start would drive new business and jobs, which begets filled store fronts (and happy landlords), which begets foot traffic, which begets destination status and merchant profits.

everyone wins in the end with that solution, not just local government, who lets face it, has a hard time balancing a check-book as is.

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