Once-bustling retail hub at SF cable car turnaround sits mostly empty 

City pledged $6M to revive Powell Street stretch, where 22 of 33 storefronts are vacant

Once-Bustling SF Cable Car Turnaround Sits Mostly Vacant
Powell Street between Market and Geary streets in San Francisco (Google Maps)

San Francisco tourists who hop on a cable car at the turnaround at Powell and Market streets now see empty storefronts.

The once-bustling gateway is lined by boarded-up stores, with 22 vacancies out of the 33 storefronts on Powell Street, between Market and Geary streets, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The three-block corridor once harbored such stores as AT&T, Uniqlo, H&M, Gap, Skechers, Rasputin Records, Lush, Paris Jewelry, Bar Norcini, Blondie’s Pizza, Tad’s Steaks and Marquard’s Smoke Shop. All gone.

A year ago, the city announced a $6 million plan to bring stores back in the wake of soaring office vacancies, street crime and a drop in tourism, with Macy’s expected to close in nearby Union Square next year.

Whether the plan will be enough to beckon businesses back to Powell Street isn’t clear.

Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Union Square and is running to unseat Breed, said the city would spend $4 million of the money on streets and sidewalks.

The cable car turnaround, highlighted in movies and Instagram posts, is where tourists line up to board the Powell Street car to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Julie Taylor, real estate broker with commercial listings on the street, said she was glad to see the city giving Powell Street attention, but that the funding falls far short.

“The work that needs to be physically done takes a couple years and a bigger budget,” Taylor told the Chronicle.“If it takes $1.5 million to build a toilet in Noe Valley, what are we going to do with $4 million over three blocks?”

The city had said that the remaining $2 million would help fill vacant storefronts, promising to spend the money to “incentivize and jumpstart up to 10 new tenancies in storefronts along Powell Street.” 

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The Chronicle reported in October, however, that city officials gave $440,000 to Food Network star Tyler Florence’s planned Union Square cafes, leaving less for other small businesses.

Bringing life back to Powell Street may not be easy. Foot traffic in Downtown was down 32 percent over three and a half months last year compared with the same period in 2019, according to the University of Toronto, which measured cell phone use in the area.

Two of the three storefronts in the historic Flood Building sit empty. Karin Flood, whose family has owned the building for two generations, saw Gap close its 45,000-square-foot store in 2020. Whichever tenant rents it would have to spend money to build it out, she said.

Flood said one way to help Powell Street would be to reopen Market Street to cars. Its closure to private vehicles, she said, has “disconnected” the neighborhood from the rest of the city. She also said the city needs to clamp down on “illegal vendors,” remove trees lining the first block of Powell and toss out empty newsracks on the street.

“All the elements are there for a vibrant corridor, we just need to declutter,” Flood told the Chronicle.

Morgan said tenants are still interested in Powell Street, particularly non-luxury retailers who want smaller spaces. But filling bigger stores will be key to retail revival, because large tenants help bring shoppers to the street.

Peskin said there is no “silver bullet” to revive the area. He suggests a tax proposal he launched with Breed that would exempt more small businesses. He also said landlords should accept lower rents.

“There are landlords who are (trying to charge) some of the highest rents in America on Powell Street,” Peskin told the Chronicle. “They’re going to have to lower their expectations.”

— Dana Bartholomew

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(Photo Illustration by The Real Deal with Getty)
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