My love affair with San Francisco began in the mid-80s when I was working in advertising and made a whirlwind trip to the city to observe consumers behind a one-way mirror talking about my client’s pickles. I caught an early flight out of New York and spent the day and early evening indoors listening to focus groups and my travel colleagues were too wimpy to go out on the town afterwards. I took the rental car and headed into the city from our airport hotel and enjoyed what is still one of the best Chinese meals I ever ate.
I was smitten by San Francisco’s beauty and fascinated by the city’s then Bohemian ways. I began visiting regularly, first once a year and then making multiple yearly visits. In 2012, I became bi-coastal, initially living in San Francisco’s SOMA district one week a month. The more time I spent in San Francisco, the less New York City appealed to me. A year later, San Francisco was officially my home, a point of pride that I initially shared with a certain smugness.
Without fail, every morning when I’d walk to my local Peet’s to fetch a coffee I’d think to myself, “I can’t believe I live in frickin San Francisco.” Below is one of several views I enjoyed from my San Francisco condo. Much of the view has since been blocked by a high rise rental building.
San Francisco began losing its appeal as Silicon Valley companies began thriving and tech geeks overran the city. I was aghast by the disrespect the techies showed the locals, particularly homeless people. The tech companies paid well, and soon San Francisco reeked of excessive wealth and locally sourced, farm-to-table restaurants, craft breweries, and coffee shops where obnoxious baristas pretentiously served overpriced single-origin coffees.
Ed Lee, then the city’s mayor, never met a developer he didn’t like, and soulless high rises began sprouting around my condo, making it near impossible to leave my parking structure between 3 pm and 7 pm because of the worst gridlock I ever experienced. I moved to Marin County for about a year, and then made my way to Los Angeles.
San Francisco has fallen on hard times, and much of the horror has made national news. Homeless squalor, while always rampant, has become even more widespread and the misery and suffering has dramatically worsened. Property crime is so rampant that people began leaving their car trunks open so that marauding thieves could see there was nothing to steal. A California law that made stealing goods valued less than $950 a misdemeanor resulted in people walking into local shops and helping themselves to merchandise and leaving without paying.
Loser legacy publications like the Los Angeles Times are quick to note that violent crime statistics show that San Francisco isn’t as bad as some other major cities, but the local television stations appreciate the city’s increasing dangers. As a matter of routine, they are accompanied by armed security guards, much like foreign reporters in war zones.
In November 2021, a security guard named Kevin Nishita was killed guarding a San Francisco television crew while they were covering a so-called smash-and-grab across the bridge in ever more violent Oakland. Here’s the tribute I published about Nishita. The man gave his life protecting a television’s station’s camera equipment.
San Francisco suffered more major blows this week that history shows could be the final nails in the city’s economic coffin. Nordstrom announced it would close its flagship downtown store when the lease expires in August, as well as its nearby Nordstrom Rack discount outlet. Saks Off 5th also announced it was pulling out of town.
The Nordstrom closings follow the abrupt shuttering weeks ago of a flagship Whole Foods three blocks to the west after just over a year in business. Whole Foods had big plans for the giant 64,737-square-foot store, which included 3,700 locally sourced products. Whole Foods in San Francisco is a major supporter of local businesses, and last year sponsored the opening of La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace. La Cocina is an organization working to increase equity in business ownership for women, immigrants, and people of color. That marketplace is also suffering.
The Nordstrom and Whole Foods closings followed a slew of other retail closings in San Francisco’s Union Square, a major tourist area. Indications are the retail dominos will keep falling.
Following Nordstrom’s store closing announcement, T-Mobile shuttered its flagship 17,000-square-foot Union Square store, a two-level complex formerly occupied by the Apple Store. The retail building, located in a once heavily trafficked area, sold for a record $50 million a decade ago. The San Francisco Standard prepared the graphic below.
Nordstrom’s downtown San Francisco store isn’t just any department store. It’s an expansive 312,000 sq. ft. award-winning space occupying multiple floors. It’s more than double the size of the average full-line Nordstrom store. It occupies a big chunk of the Westfield Mall, which I used to frequent. Although I find malls intimidating and typically shun them, the Westfield Mall when I lived in SFO was quite pleasant to visit, with its circular escalators and an awesome food court. Blake Nordstrom, the company’s former CEO, told me in an email exchange nearly ten years ago that he was particularly proud of the San Francisco store’s redesign.
If Detroit’s history is any guide, the closing of a major department store is when a city reaches the point of no return. In July 1982, Hudson’s announced it would close its landmark 28-story store in downtown Detroit after the Christmas season. Underscoring the significant blow to the city, the New York Times reported on the closing, calling it the end of an era. To the retail chain’s credit, it continued to maintain its headquarters in the building, employing more than 1,000 people. Hudson’s was merged into the department store division of Dayton Hudson two years later and most of the remaining jobs were moved to Minneapolis.
The Hudson’s building stood vacant for more than a decade, a reminder of a once great city that in its day was known as “The Paris of the Midwest.” I recall looking at the building in the mid-80s and imagining all the hustle and bustle that took place in the area decades ago. The building was demolished in 1998, and a much delayed taxpayer subsidized skyscraper is going up in its place.
The San Francisco Standard, an impressive for-profit daily bankrolled by a successful venture fund billionaire who remains committed to the city, reported that Whole Foods’ downtown store was the site of several overdoses, psychiatric episodes and other emergencies during its first six months of operations.
As reported by the Standard:
The fire department was dispatched 35 times to the Whole Foods at 1185 Market St. between the time it opened in March of last year and October 2022, according to the most recent data immediately available. Those calls were a mix of overdoses, medical emergencies and other disturbances such as reports of assaults and people bleeding at the high-end grocer.
One September 2022 overdose resulted in the death of a 30-year-old man named Steven Clark, who is remembered by family as an award-winning clarinet player who suffered from mental illness and addiction, according to his obituary.
Reading up on the closing of the San Francisco Whole Foods I was struck by the similarity of conditions that forced Starbucks to close its oldest corporate-owned Motor City store in February. JC Reindl, a reporter at the Detroit Free Press, tracked down former employees who worked at the shuttered Detroit Starbucks.
Here’s what Reindl reported:
A former shift lead, who worked for two years at the Midtown Starbucks until about 2019, recalled in an interview this week how she and other staffers often encountered safety threats, including assaults and attempted assaults and harassment from non-customers, despite the presence of private security guards.
Store employees would call Wayne State University Police several times a week, the former employee said. Even though the Starbucks is off campus, university police patrol the area and responded much faster than Detroit police, she said.
During her time at the Midtown Starbucks, the former shift lead said:
- People openly urinated on the coffee shop’s floor in protest of the customers-only bathroom policy.
- She was harassed by a man whom she caught smoking crack and ordered to leave.
- Multiple people overdosed in the bathrooms, sometimes needing staff to revive them with Narcan.
- A co-worker was mugged at the bus stop outside the store.
- Another co-worker was chased to her car by a woman threatening her with a needle.
- A couch was removed because of bedbugs.
- The tip jar was stolen several times, in one instance prompting a manager to chase the thief outside.
- The store faced staffing struggles well before the COVID-19 pandemic because of the “wild” working conditions.
- Diaper-changing stations in the bathrooms were removed because of illicit drug use.
Detroit has been suffering an exodus of people for seven decades, its population shrinking to 639,111 residents in 2020 from 1.8 millions residents in 1950. San Francisco now leads the nation in net outflow of homebuyers, and indications are the outward migration will accelerate.
A San Francisco Chronicle poll last September revealed that roughly one-third of the respondents said they were likely to leave within the next three years. A 65% majority said that life in San Francisco was worse than when they first moved to the city. Less than one-quarter of respondents said they expected life in San Francisco to improve in two years. More than one-third said it would worsen.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s response to Nordstrom’s store closing made clear that pessimism about her city’s future is justified. A spokesperson told the San Francisco Standard that the city had taken various public safety measures, including two dedicated police officers inside Westfield Mall and “community ambassadors” deployed in the area.
It’s rather comical that Breed’s spokesperson cited deployment of police officers as a safety measure, given that she cut $120 million from the budgets of both San Francisco’s police and sheriff’s departments three years ago. The San Francisco Standard recently reported that the department was down 335 officers since 2017 and its staffing level of 1,537 officers fell well short of its goal of having 2,100 members on the force.
Having two police officers patrolling a mall is a big strain on the department, particularly given city’s growing inability to respond to 911 emergencies.
As for Breed’s community ambassadors, I encourage the Standard to report on who these people are and the work they perform. Given the persistent crime in the neighborhood, they don’t appear to be all that effective.
It seems unlikely that another giant retailer will step up to take over Nordstrom’s giant space, which means less traffic to the mall, which in turn will hurt other stores and likely result in more crime and disturbances. Breed’s people want to turn San Francisco’s growing vacant retail space into offices, which doesn’t seem all that smart.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a 22-story glass and stone tower at 350 California Street that’s up for sale will be lucky to fetch $60 million, if it sells at all. That’s an 80% decline in value in just four years. The building, located in the once busting financial district, is three quarters vacant.
Empty offices and shuttered retail shops – tourists from Detroit should feel right at home visiting San Francisco. The possibly irreversible decline of the picturesque City by the Bay is a national tragedy.
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