Room to grow: how to plant new businesses

There are many hurdles for successful small businesses in San Francisco. What do they need to flourish?
Small shops and businesses are a vital part of a thriving city, but storefronts like this are an increasing presence in San Francisco. PHOTO: NAOMI ROSE

Part 1 of a series.

You may have grown accustomed to it. after all, you walk down Chestnut and Union at least once a week, if not more. So when you stroll passed an empty storefront you might not even notice it anymore. But an empty storefront is a squandered opportunity — a missed chance to make our community more vibrant, diverse, and prosperous.

Many San Franciscans have turned to elected officials for solutions to our struggling streets. Too few, though, have consulted the folks who know what it takes to maintain a business in a difficult time and setting.

That’s why I talked with current and former business owners up and down the Marina’s commercial corridors. These savvy individuals presently run or previously operated businesses in every sector — from restaurants to retail — in nearly every San Franciscan neighborhood as well as in nearby counties.

Turns out cultivating a street is like cultivating a garden: Each flower needs a space to grow, nutrients to develop, and soil to establish roots. For a business to blossom, it needs reasonable rent and leasing terms, substantial foot traffic, and freedom from red tape that prevents them from ever getting ahead.

It’s hard to imagine a gardener planting a seed in the crack of a sidewalk. They’d know it would have no chance to survive. Entrepreneurs similarly avoid renting spaces with suffocating rents and leases. Yet landlords, responding to market forces, have increasingly presented would-be and current Marina merchants with untenable terms.

That was the case for one entrepreneur on Fillmore Street — Jason Yip, the owner and founder of State Apparel. Yip had developed a great product and was ready to move to a brick-and-mortar location, yet rent and lease terms in the Marina pushed him to begin looking to other neighborhoods. Eventually, one landlord decided to give him a break — a trial period of sorts — and it was the adjustability he needed to test his idea.

Fortunately for all parties (including our community), Yip’s seed has grown into an impressive flower that’s made its mark on the local economy. A key ingredient to cultivating our garden, then, is opening up more welcoming spaces. Policymakers ought to consider what they can do to help landlords offer flexible rental agreements that let entrepreneurs test the viability of their idea.

Even with space to grow, a plant will wilt absent regular watering (cacti excluded).
Similarly, Marina businesses crave regular visitors — they need foot traffic that brings customers in on a frequent basis. Presently, a lack of convenient public transit options, workforce housing, and events limits the number of potential customers coming to the area’s businesses.

Politicians regularly discuss plans to expand BART/Muni options as well as the need for affordable housing, but according to Benson Wang, owner of The Palm House on Union Street and Dorian on Chestnut Street, they should consider paying more attention to events. For instance, Wang lists the Union Street Festival as a key driver of new business. “The festival helps build awareness [of local businesses],” in Wang’s opinion, “and it contributes to the holistic growth of our community.” Turns out festivals may be among the best fertilizers for struggling flowers.

Some Marina businesses have landed in a plot with fair rent and good foot traffic, but they struggle due to city regulations. One retail store owner provided an unexpected example: dynamic parking prices. In the mind of this owner, the city offers too few parking permits to business owners. Accordingly, many employees and owners find themselves constantly running to the meter. What’s more, many of these meters are dynamically priced, meaning that at peak hours employees and owners may be paying more for parking than the clothes they’re selling.

No one likes a garden full of weeds. The Marina needs the touch of a green thumb to revitalize its streets. Recently, though, city construction efforts have bulldozed rather than gently tilled the soil for small business development. Temporary projects, such as redevelopment of Van Ness Avenue, can permanently impact small businesses. The construction work on key transit corridors will eventually bring more shoppers to storefronts. But, in the short run, the massive (and commonly delayed) construction projects have starved many restaurants from their share of sunlight. Business owners are eager to work with planners and politicians to develop new ways to build roads without blocking revenue.

Rain or shine, business owners have solutions they know will make their companies more likely to thrive. Look forward for future pieces on specific strategies to improve conditions for business growth throughout Cow Hollow, the Marina, North Beach, and the entire Northside.

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