San Francisco is in the process of reviewing the Upper Haight commercial corridor with an eye towards what immediate locals, rather than tourists, are interested in buying
Along with other touristy areas, the world-famous corridor has been hit hard in COVID-19, but there were signs of trouble before the pandemic
Tax data shows that between 2008 and 2018, sales activity in Upper Haight declined roughly 8% in real dollars; in neighboring corridors, such as Hayes and Divisadero, sales more than doubled in the same period
San Francisco’s tourist areas have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Haight-Ashbury is no exception.
Outside of downtown and South of Market, Upper Haight–extending from Masonic to the entrance to Golden Gate Park at Stanyan at Haight–has seen some of the most business closures of any San Francisco commercial corridor since March. But even before the pandemic, there were signs of decline on the world-famous street.
“It’s been a tough year; business was already way down in the beginning of the year even before this setback,” said Greta Marti, who runs Haight-Ashbury T-Shirts, which sits at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, along with her family. Formerly known as Great Expectations bookstore, the shop has been a neighborhood fixture since 1977, but is due to close permanently on Dec. 31.
Haight-Ashbury T-Shirts is one of many Haight St. businesses reliant on tourist foot traffic, which is heaviest in mid-March through Labor Day in a typical year.
After a banner season in 2017–the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, with a busy events calendar to match–sales at the shop trended downward, Marti said. An extensive, multi-year construction project on Haight, which kicked off in September 2018 and spans sewer work, street repairs and other improvements, didn’t help.
Compared to other nearby corridors, Haight St. has seen a disproportionate drop in sales activity over the past several years.
Data provided by the City shows that in 2008, Upper Haight generated $972,005 in sales tax revenue. By 2019, that figure was $1,092,139, reflecting a roughly 8% decline after adjusting for inflation. By contrast, sales tax revenues on the Divisadero St. and Hayes St. corridors have more than doubled in the same time frame; Lower Haight, a smaller and less touristy strip, saw revenues grow by about 40%.
Restaurants appear to be the main driver. In each of those District 5 corridors, sales tax growth in the hospitality category, which covers restaurants and hotels, well outpaced the retail category. That lines up with trends in other neighborhoods, as well: A 2018 survey of North Beach, for example, found that 80% of vacant storefronts were zoned for non-restaurant use.
That dynamic also poses a problem for Upper Haight, which has introduced restrictions on new restaurants and businesses that serve alcohol over the years.
“It’s going to be impossible to attract restaurants until the city enables Haight St. to have the same liquor license as other areas,” said Michelle Leighton, who lives near Buena Vista Park. “I think once you get nicer restaurants, you also get nicer merchants.”
The Haight-Ashbury has other idiosyncrasies that, according to some residents, will hamper a recovery.
Citing a lack of appeal and worsening street conditions, those residents say they avoid the corridor apart from a handful of anchor businesses, such as Robert’s Hardware and Gus’s Community Market. It’s not a new debate in the neighborhood, with complaints and disagreements over the Haight’s homeless population–and more broadly, what the neighborhood needs to thrive in the longer-term–playing out over decades.
But with tourism not expected to bounce back anytime soon, the conversation may be different this time.
Some of the City's other tourist-centric areas, such as Fisherman's Wharf, have introduced plans to lure more locals with fresh restaurant and nightlife options. Plans are underway to at least consider doing the same on Haight St. as the Summer of Love slips further into the past.
In response to the pandemic, San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development launched a formal review of the buying habits of Upper Haight residents. The office is in the process of surveying residents of the immediate neighborhood, with the goal of informing the City’s recovery planning for the Haight and other tourist-heavy corridors.
“One of the primary challenges of COVID is that corridors like Upper Haight that had relied on visitors and tourism cannot do so now, so the survey is targeting immediate neighbors...we expect this to be the primary customer base for quite some time,” said Gloria Chan of OEWD.
In the meantime, Upper Haight residents are hoping for a revitalization that knits together the street’s legendary mystique with current realities.
“There’s so much potential to make it an amazing cultural corridor–arts venues, little intimate clubs–in keeping with what the Haight used to be,” said Ilana Minkoff, who lives near Haight St. “That could be a great place for the city to grant some money.”