Should Online Shopping Change How We Use Space?

an empty storefront on a street with no pedestrians
Photo by Victor Reynolds, via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Should ground-floor use go from retail to housing?


In San Francisco, the closing of once-popular San Francisco restaurants and the decline of longtime Union Square pillar Macy’s raise a question: Have the fundamentals of urban retail changed?


If the answer is yes, San Francisco could move to reduce retail requirements in new housing developments while adding badly needed housing, which would represent a dramatic change in “best practices” for urban neighborhoods.


Jane Jacobs’s support for mixed-use development with “eyes on the street” has long been seen as the best urban design strategy, but this vision assumed that the retail under housing could be rented. What if it cannot? Or, what if the only market for these retail spaces are for offices closed on evenings and weekends? Such uses do not offer the ongoing street activity that created Jacobs’s famed street “ballet.”


As San Francisco and other large cities combat their housing shortages, the requirement that ground-floor space under housing be for retail should to be open to debate. We may conclude that the city should not be giving up housing units for retail spaces that are not wanted or needed.


National Trend


An intriguing article out of New York City found that despite the economic upturn, vacancy rates are up in every Manhattan retail corridor. Some argue that unlike past downturns, this one is not cyclical. Brokers believe that “brick-and-mortar retailers will shrink dramatically during the next few years, so supply of retail space will outweigh demand for it.”


I recall that over a decade ago, Berkeley Daily Planet Editor Becky O’Malley questioned whether Berkeley had too much retail in light of people’s shifting purchasing activity to the internet. Urban America’s buying habits have shifted even more dramatically since that time, raising questions as to whether it’s time to rethink the popular model of mixed-use development.


Like nearly everyone else, I prefer the look of mixed-use streets. I bemoan the Tenderloin’s unusual lack of mixed-use housing, despite challenges finding quality tenants for existing spaces. Jacobs was correct: mixed-use streets are more interesting, and have more energy and foot traffic.


So before we give up on mixed use, let’s consider how San Francisco and other cities can maintain successful retail in an online world.

A Sense of Community


Restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues offer something the online world cannot easily duplicate: a sense of community. Watching a musical or theatrical performance on a computer screen won’t have as big an impact as watching a live performance. And you can’t get a latte or a bottle of whiskey delivered to your door minutes after ordering it online. 


I actively try to recruit retail in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and restaurants, bars, cafes, and entertainment venues are the only businesses that have ever thrived. I explain in my book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, even in the neighborhood’s boom years that ended in the 1950s, the Tenderloin never had many neighborhood-serving businesses. It never had a successful clothing, hardware, or full-fledged grocery store. The neighborhood once had used book stores, a record store, and a sporting goods store, but they are long gone.


Nearly all new Tenderloin businesses are restaurants, bars, cafes, or nonprofits that are not dependent on a local paying customer base. The few relatively new clothing and retail stores are the clear exception.


It seems that all of the San Francisco streets that have been transformed in the past decade—such as Valencia, Divisadero, and Hayes—saw the process driven by this type of business. New condos and other types of retail played a part, but the visual look of the streets changed most due to the core internet-immune retail businesses.


Cities Must Help


In the non-gentrified neighborhoods that struggle to attract and maintain non-food retail business, city assistance is essential. San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development operates an Invest in Neighborhoods program that offers up to $75,000 in city assistance to qualifying new small businesses. Technical assistance from city staff is invaluable, but attracting non-food retail to ground-floor commercial spaces often requires actual financial city assistance, that’s why San Francisco’s Legacy Business program also includes grants. Even longtime successful businesses need help in the current economic environment.


City staff must also provide a reality check for landlords seeking retail tenants. Many have a grossly inflated valuation of their space that results in long-term retail vacancies. These vacancies create a negative retail climate that makes others hesitant to enter.


The mid-market neighborhood was long plagued by owners leaving spaces vacant while they held out for higher rent. I’ve seen spaces in Berkeley where the longtime retail tenant was forced to move after a steep rent increase only to have the space remain vacant for years.


Flexible Approach


For all that the city can do, it may be time for planners and city officials to take a more flexible, reality-based approach. The days of “if you build it, a retail tenant will come” appear to be gone.


The former Market Street Place (now 6 × 6) described by JK Dineen in the San Francisco Chronicle as “the biggest and most ambitious retail development in San Francisco since the Westfield San Francisco Centre expansion” a decade ago remains without a tenant. When a beautiful new development like this cannot easily get tenants, think what that means for those trying to rent other non-food retail in the same area.


Should San Francisco bite the bullet and accept that the city needs housing more than new retail, and that online shopping makes requiring retail in new developments not worth the housing loss?


Planners and/or supervisors need to convene a public meeting to discuss the ground-floor use issue. One idea is to allow developers to split ground-floor space 50-50 between retail and housing, so we get some eyes on the street without sacrificing needed units. As developers are being asked to pay steeper inclusionary housing fees, allowing additional ground-floor units could further a compromise.


With thousands of housing units in the pipeline, now is the time to have this conversation. San Francisco should not be giving up desperately needed housing based on a past vision of mixed-use success that today’s online buying has undermined.


[A version of this post originally appeared on]

Randy Shaw is director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco. His most recent book, "Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America," is now out in paperback from UC Press.


  1. I think this a really interesting topic, particularly in faster-growing Southern cities. While San Francisco can make a fairly compelling case for converting underutilized retail space to housing, Sunbelt cities are still riding the “economic development” train, where even a new Walmart is seen as a boon because it “provides more than 300 jobs,” nevermind what kinds of jobs these include. That being said, I’ve seen several of these booming cities build mixed-use buildings that suffer the same fate you describe here: years of emptiness with full or near-full occupancy above. Part of this could be explained by the consolidation of mass retail in big box “power centers” where nearly anything you’d want to buy is in one massive place.

    It does seem like some cities are wising up to this. I recently read about Portland allowing vacant commercial space in a new development to be converted to residential space, so long as it can be converted back to commercial space if needed in the future. In fact, I think some are even requiring that the ground floor space be designed to convert for either use.

    Maybe instead of the status quo model that says, “build any retail square footage and they will come,” we should be doing research to figure out what types of commercial space will we need in the future? Will our grocery stores shrink because we’ll no longer need space for checkout lines? Can big box stores like Best Buy successfully shrink its stores once all its media is digital-only?

  2. Chris, thanks for noting that this problem of excess retail extends to Sunbelt cities. I think some planners are simply on auto-pilot in assuming ground floor retail is best, and cities should do the type of research you suggest. I’m not aware how the Portland measure you mention has worked out but know that it can be extremely difficult and costly to convert ground floor commercial to housing. Better to get it right prior to construction. Thanks again for the comment.

  3. The redevelopment of older suburban retail strip centers and malls is another way in which the demise of brick and mortar retail may open opportunities for housing development. We are already starting to see housing as one of the predominant uses but need more emphasis on the opportunity this redevelopment presents for creating affordable housing in high opportunity communities.


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