Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW), the company behind the Westfield San Francisco Centre, announced plans to hand their Market Street location back to its lender this August. After over 20 years of operating the city’s largest shopping center, the company decided not to renew their lease with the San Francisco Centre because of “challenging operating conditions” negatively affecting foot traffic and resulting in a decrease in sales, according to a comment URW made to Forbes. The announcement came shortly after Nordstroms and Saks’ decided not to renew their leases in the mall for similar reasons.
These closures have raised many questions about what is in store for the future of shopping centers, but the real question is what does this mean for San Francisco? The rhetoric that URW and other major retail stores are creating surrounding their departures from our city presents a gross misunderstanding of San Francisco’s condition and adds more fuel to the fire that city leaders and policy makers are desperately trying to snuff out. It’s time for shoppers to see the city that’s reflected in the windows of these storefronts and pay attention to what’s really at play here.
Retail stores across the country have fought to stay relevant since the rise of online shopping has interrupted the flow of mall goers. Over the past five years, the number of online shoppers has increased by 40%. Moreover, as some of the working population still operates on the remote system, those who shop in person are doing so closer to home, a trend reflected in increased visits to suburban malls. Major Bay Area tech companies have also felt the post-pandemic sting, with Alphabet and Microsoft announcing layoffs and office closures to cut costs and keep their heads above water.
Though these changes in San Francisco are seemingly related to economic causes rather than safety ones, major headlines about crime in San Francisco have steadily pushed a negative image of the city, implying that the city is a crime free-for-all with no repercussions or oversight. California’s Proposition 47 classifies non-violent crimes, like minor drug possession and shoplifting crimes valued under $950, as misdemeanors. Some critics argue that this law has resulted in the increase of robberies across the state, but the correlation is unclear.
These factors, coupled with a post-pandemic society that’s not entirely comfortable with being in enclosed areas with high volumes of people, do not leave much mystery as to why companies like Westfield have been closing down across the country in recent years. Coresight Research center, which focuses specifically on retail growth, predicts that 25% of U.S. malls will be closed by 2025.
URW said in a press release last year that they are going to close all 24 of their U.S. malls to get back to pre-COVID profit levels and focus on their European market. Ultimately, the decision to close their San Francisco location has less to do with the city’s condition, and more to do with changes in shopping habits stemming from a post-pandemic society that prefers to ‘add to cart’ than actually push one around.
In light of these closures, community leaders and organizations have proposed initiatives to turn empty spaces into resources that could help revitalize the city, with help of San Francisco residents and city leaders. The Mid-Market Business Association wants to turn storefronts into theaters, and the city’s reparation advisory committee says there should be an HBCU here in the future. Mayor London Breed has talked about installing a “science to technology” lab space, and has mobilzed towards developing a soccer stadium down the line. While plans are still in their early stages, we could expect places like the Centre to turn into something more useful than a mall to bring life back into downtown. And as residents of this great city, we should demand that they do. To echo what Mayor Breed said to Bloomberg: “let’s look at what’s possible rather than dwelling on the stories of another store.”