Rent-free pop-ups breathe new life into Downtown San Francisco

17 retailers participate in city’s Vacant to Vibrant program around Embarcadero Center

Rent-Free Pop-Ups Breathe New Life Into Downtown SF
SF New Deal's Simon Bertrang and 4 Embarcadero Center, San Francisco (Google Maps, SF New Deal)

Free rent for pop-up businesses in San Francisco has given pop to its Downtown.

About halfway into a three-month program dubbed Vacant to Vibrant, many say it has breathed life into empty Downtown storefronts, while giving local businesses a way to introduce foods and goods to new customers, the San Francisco Standard reported.

The program, which started with 17 pop-up retailers mainly on the Embarcadero Center and surrounding streets, aims to inject arts, culture and a small-business feel into needy areas.

The program includes Rosalind Bakery, whose owner Matthew Kosoy wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning to cart a truckful of pastries from his Pacifica bakery to a free pop-up cafe at 4 Embarcadero Center.

And it includes Whack Donuts, a vegan doughnut store that owner Vandor Hill started out of his kitchen during the pandemic. Hill, who splits a pop-up with York Street Cafe, says he sells at least 250 donuts a day — with Mayor London Breed among his earliest customers

Nafy Flatley, owner of Senegalese restaurant Teranga, opened a Vacant to Vibrant outpost with a staff of three serving 15 to 20 diners a day — and aims to open early enough for breakfast.

“It’s a great idea, and I’d love to see it in other parts of the city,” Flateley told the Standard.

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SF New Deal, the nonprofit managing the program with $710,000 of funding from the city and an undisclosed grant from Wells Fargo, will expand the program next year, according to Executive Director Simon Bertrang.

The money covered grants to pop-ups; improvement, insurance, and permitting costs for the storefronts; and technical help and marketing for businesses, Bertrang said. 

“All across the board, we’re very inspired by the activators themselves,” Bertrang said. “We feel that they’re really leading the way towards creating a vision for the future of Downtown.”

Another round of businesses from the original 850 applicants will be chosen to occupy other storefronts, he said. Most of the initial businesses will receive another three months of free rent to extend operations. 

A handful of others are in the process of negotiating free or preferential lease deals with commercial landlords hungry to breathe life into Downtown.

The main goals of the program are both immediate activation of the empty storefronts as well as possible long-term new tenancies, according to Sarah Dennis Phillips, executive director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.“We hope it will lead to long-term leases and economic impact, particularly for our small business sector; but in the meantime, we want people to experience and enjoy Downtown,” Phillips told The Real Deal this fall.

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