How Church Street Became a Retail Wasteland

Several empty storefronts on the 200 block have been slow to repopulate, affecting traffic for merchants nearby.

When the building that housed Aardvark Books went up for sale in September, threatening its future, an unusual thing happened. The property owner, reportedly surprised by an outpouring of support for the independent bookstore, pulled the listing and decided to stay. The 40-year-old Aardvark and its famous orange tabby, Owen, will remain open for the foreseeable future — but its challenges aren’t over yet. Multiple store closures in the area of Church and Market streets now threaten its viability.

In what was once a thriving neighborhood, a block between Market and 15th streets now has at least 10 empty storefronts, some of which have sat empty for years. Neighboring merchants point to the February 2016 closure of Sparky’s — a 24-hour diner that sat at 242 Church St. before it’s owner stopped paying rent — as the first domino in that chain that led to the January closure of Snowbright Launderette around the corner on 14th Street.

Other businesses to leave the area since Sparky’s departure include Church Street Flowers, Chilango, Azteca Taqueria, and Crepevine — all after reported lease issues from a new landlord. Jeweler and crystal shop Karizma managed to relocate to 262 Church St., Photoworks moved a couple blocks west to 2279 Market St., and The Apothecarium moved to 2029 Market St. upon required retrofitting.

Longtime Aardvark employee David Lugen has noticed fewer customers since the closures began. Managers at Church Street Cafe, Miyabi Sushi, and Church Street Groceteria also report a noticeable decline in foot traffic and sales.

“There’s just fewer people coming into the neighborhood because there’s fewer things to do in the neighborhood,” Lugen says. “I don’t ever remember seeing a vacancy in the Castro — this is a fairly new thing.”

Fiat Lux owners Marie McCarthy and Alexei Angelides say they packed up from their small Church Street location in October 2016 due to turbulent management. After the building was sold, they were refused a lease, and instead operated month-to-month. The situation was made more volatile when they heard that neighbors like Church Street Flowers, who also wanted a lease, were given a dramatic rent increase.

“This is so strange for a business because you can’t make improvements if you don’t know how long you’re going to be in the space,” McCarthy says. “We had enough of this impersonal harsh treatment and decided it was time for us to go as well.”

Many people have pointed fingers at Veritas Investments — which owns 48 buildings with retail space citywide, according to Asset Manager Justine Shoemaker — for buying up buildings in the area that now house empty storefronts. The company brought the popular Verve Coffee Roasters to 2101 Market St. in February 2017 after Veo Optics moved to Valencia Street.

Veritas had a chance to hear concerns during a community meeting in January, but their response didn’t immediately lift neighborhood morale. Still, the corporation maintains that businesses are coming soon after soft-story retrofit and general permitting delays.

“Much of this is coincidental,” says Santino DeRose, who has been leasing some Veritas properties through DeRose & Appelbaum. “It is a very active intersection, and although we have some inactive spaces at the moment, there is a lot happening that will soon result in a very exciting area of town.”

According to Shoemaker, fitness studio The Boombox is expected to open at 2109 Market St. in 30 days, North Beach’s Il Casaro Pizzeria is opening another restaurant at 237 Church St. by the end of May, and a realty office is coming to the long-shuttered 2095 Market St. within the next two months. By the end of April, the former Church Street Flowers location at 212 Church St. will function as a pop-up gallery space until a long-term tenant is found.

In the meantime, Veritas is actively marketing the locations of Sparky’s and Crepevine. A retrofit at the building that housed Photoworks, Rikkers Liquor, and The Apothecarium was completed in December, opening those spaces up for a show as well. Either way, Veritas has shown that it’s invested in the neighborhood and eager to fill the empty spaces with the right retailers.

“I think it’s really important to say for Veritas [that] rent isn’t our primary focus,” Shoemaker says.

In response to concerns about safety and blight that come with empty property, Veritas hired a security company to patrol the area. But a man dressed in all black, outfitted with weapons and operating out of a small office next to the former Crepevine, has hardly been a warm and welcoming addition to the area — especially with a name like Legion Corporation, represented by what Lugen says is a fascist-looking logo.

Regardless of the promised businesses, Hank Lim, owner of Church Street Cafe, wants the Board of Supervisors to implement a plan to end tax write-offs for spaces that are vacant for more than six months or one year. The longer a business is closed, the more its neighbors are affected, he argues.

“Less storefronts mean there’s going to be less people coming here,” Lim says. “We feed on each other.”

Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, whose district includes Church and Market streets, has another idea: switching from a complaint-driven vacancy policy to enforcement by additional workers from the Department of Building Inspection. The subsequent cost of frequent inspections would be passed onto landlords.

Another way to disincentivize building owners is to require more than having a broker, with signs that are left up for several months. Vacancy taxes would have to be sent to the voters, complicating and delaying the issue.

“I’d really like to see more movement,” Sheehy says. “This is a citywide issue.”

Sheehy plans on following up with the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association in the next couple of weeks but did not have a timeline on when legislation might be introduced.

In February, the Land Use Transportation Committee discussed a study that showed that the 2009 Vacant or Abandoned Building Registration Ordinance did not substantially reduce vacancies.

But the longer the issue is kicked down the road, the more businesses could shutter. Merchants like Louie of Church Street Groceteria have given up on waiting around for City Hall.

“Our leaders here? Forget it,” Louie says. “They were shit — they tax the small guys so much.”

Though the city can take action to alleviate pressures unique to red-hot housing markets like San Francisco, it’s only one part of the battle; the nationwide trend of online shopping has taken a toll on city culture as well.

Ultimately, Lugen says long-standing, loyal neighbors who frequently patronized the neighborhood have either been priced out or passed away, bringing in new neighbors who aren’t familiar with merchants — and don’t seem to be making an effort.

“It used to be a real community, a real neighborhood of people.” Lugen says. “That seems to have gone.”

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly. |  @idamoj

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