Hayes Valley Merchants, Hit Hard by Break-ins, Plead for More Help

Updated: Mar 21

  • The 94102 zip code, which encompasses Hayes Valley and part of the Tenderloin, reported more commercial burglaries in 2020 than any other zip code, according to data from the San Francisco Police Department

  • Hayes Valley merchants are demanding help from the City, citing vacancy rates as high as 40% and increasingly brazen property crime

  • The District Attorney introduced a pilot program in District 5, which includes Hayes Valley, that reimburses merchants up to $1000 for the cost of replacing broken windows. That program has reimbursed 12 merchants so far

  • Optimists say the Hayes Valley vacancies are an opportunity to experiment with pop-ups and other retail innovations that the area is known for

After making it through a year of COVID, the boutique Acote in Hayes Valley is finally calling it quits.

“We tried, we really did,” said the store’s longtime manager, Kathryn Sandretto, as she dragged in a sign advertising their 70% off closing sale.

“But we weren’t getting enough sales and foot traffic, and we were getting robbed every week. It’s just too much, and people are burnt out financially, emotionally and mentally.”

Pre-pandemic, Hayes Valley was a crown jewel of San Francisco retail, known for its indie boutiques intermingled with venture-capital backed online brands like All Birds and Warby Parker. The streets teemed with millennials wearing $88 pastel-colored leggings from Outdoor Voices or buying $13 pints of ice cream from Salt & Straw. Between 2008 and 2018, sales tax revenue more than doubled on the bustling Hayes merchant corridor.

But these days, there’s little foot traffic and many boarded up storefronts. Local merchant leaders estimate the area’s retail vacancy rate at as high as 40%, and say property crime has become unbearable.

“We see more criminal attacks daily on our neighborhood’s businesses, residents, and homes. ...What sets these crimes apart is not just that they’re increasingly common and serious, but also that they’re more brazen,” the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association wrote in an open letter addressed to City officials in February.

According to San Francisco Police Department data provided to Public Comment, the 94102 zip code, which encompasses Hayes Valley and part of the Tenderloin, reported 166 commercial burglaries in 2020, the highest of any San Francisco zip code. Those were only burglaries specifically marked as commercial by SFPD – though the true number of burglaries targeting businesses may be much higher, as the department’s data show other incidents targeting businesses that were not classified as commercial.

The next highest zip codes for commercial burglaries in 2020 were 94103 (SOMA) at 141, 94109 (Union Square / Nob Hill) at 106, 94108 (Chinatown / North Beach) at 91, and 94110 (Mission) at 63. Although overall property crime fell 31% last year, burglaries marked as commercial were 72% higher in 2020 compared to the prior year according to SFPD's data.

Neighborhood and public safety officials have linked the rise in burglaries to a decline in tourism, speculating that perpetrators who could otherwise be targeting autos are instead breaking into homes and businesses. Areas like Hayes Valley, which are both centrally located and “perceived to have items of value,” may be particularly vulnerable to commercial thefts, said Robert Rueca, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department.

“With no tourist cars to break into, criminals need other places to steal from,” added Robert Barnwell, chairman of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association Public Safety Committee. “Now they are switching to commercial and residential burglaries, like garage thefts and so forth.”

The uptick in burglaries puts strain on a business’s bottom line, and that’s acutely felt among the many independent retailers in Hayes Valley. Hayes Valley instituted a ‘formula retail’ ban in 2004, meaning brands with more than 11 stores cannot open in Hayes Valley. Unlike the larger chain stores common in neighboring Union Square and the Marina, independent stores are likely less equipped to weather burglaries and other adverse events.

“Chain stores have the staying power and deep pockets, while smaller independent retailers do not,” said Lloyd Silverstein, chair of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association Merchants group, noting that only one chain store in Hayes Valley, Alternative Apparel, had closed during COVID.

Making matters even worse for small retailers, many shops only have one staff member working in the store and cannot afford a guard. This makes it easier for thieves to intimidate the solo employee or steal items while the employee is occupied with other customers.

One store closure can lead to a domino effect where other nearby stores then close, because empty storefronts make existing retailers more vulnerable. B8ta, an electronics store across the street from Acote, closed after an employee was held up at gunpoint in early February.

“The employees at b8ta would call and check on me,” said Sandretto, the Acote manager. “After they closed, I’ve felt so alone and scared because I’m the only store open at this street corner.”

City officials say they are working on solutions and that relief is coming.

“My office has been looking for alternatives for policing that increase public safety that don’t necessarily need armed officers present,” Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district includes Hayes Valley, said at a community meeting on March 1.

He said he had recently requested that the Mayor expand the Community Ambassadors program to Hayes Valley. The program, which is currently running in five neighborhoods, hires and trains local residents to act as a “helpful presence on the streets,” doing tasks such as escorting residents home or reporting crimes.

At the same meeting, Assistant District Attorney Eric Quandt said the DA’s office was doing its best to manage burglaries.

“There’s a lot of perception that our office is not interested in prosecuting cases and that could not be farther from the truth,” he said. “We are definitely interested in prosecuting property crimes.”

Echoing recommendations by police, who have encouraged the use of security cameras, Quandt encouraged businesses to do the same. "Clearance rates,” or the percentage of arrests per reported crime, are 8% for burglaries, which is low compared to other crimes. Cameras can help in building a case, he said.

“Some of my best cases are when I have people staring into Nest cameras,” Quandt said. He added that the DA’s office has been partnering with East Bay law enforcement, because many of the burglars are coming from the East Bay.

Preston and the District Attorney’s office have also been piloting a program that reimburses up to $1,000 of the cost of replacing a broken storefront window. So far, 12 businesses in District 5 have received reimbursements through the program, according to the District Attorney’s office.

And some also think that the glut of vacancies are a way for Hayes Valley to reinvent itself and come back better than ever.

A new company called re/tell is currently working with Hayes Valley landlords to make use of vacant storefronts. Joy Fan, re/tell’s founder, said her company is bringing in local artists to “activate” vacant windows. She is also connecting landlords to local artisans and online retailers interested in renting out storefronts for less than a year, colloquially called “pop-ups”.

Silverstein says engaging in innovative retail experiments and experiences is part of Hayes Valley’s DNA.

“Hayes Valley used to be a very blighted neighborhood,” he said. “It was built on the backs of many small businesses who came because it was an inexpensive place to open a store. The current vacancies provide really unique opportunities where we can try to bring in small maker businesses, which is how this neighborhood was founded.”

Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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