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San Francisco rolls out 'Vacant to Vibrant' program for pop-up businesses in empty downtown spaces

San Francisco tries out pop-up program to fill out empty downtown spaces
San Francisco tries out pop-up program to fill out empty downtown spaces 03:53

SAN FRANCISCO -- With retail stores closing down, property crime concerns, and complaints about open drug use, downtown San Francisco is having an image crisis. But the city has an idea to pull its downtown out of the doom loop and bring businesses back.

It's been about two months since Tristen Philippart de Foy opened his restaurant, Heartwood, in downtown San Francisco.

"We wish there was more foot traffic, but things have been good - about as good as what could have been expected," he said.

He didn't decide to open here for what downtown is like, today, with a record amount of vacant office space, for-lease signs up on virtually every block, and a lack of people. For him, it's a long play.

"We wanted to set our roots down in what we felt was a time when the Financial District needed people to do that, so when there was more of a boom time, we were already in place and not behind the curve, essentially," he said. "I could see it getting a little bit worse before it gets better. But I do think that San Francisco is not a city that can be held down. I think it's one of the greatest cities in the world."

Numerous efforts to revitalize downtown San Francisco are underway. That includes the city and SF New Deal's "Vacant to Vibrant" pop-up program, where small businesses will fill vacant spaces for a three-month period with pop-up experiences, from food and beverage, to arts and entertainment, to retail, and more.

"Through our program, we're going to be able to show what a vibrant downtown could look like," said Simon Bertrang, the Executive Director of SF New Deal. "We're running the Vacant to Vibrant program in order to showcase for the city and the region what is possible in a revitalized downtown."

Bertrang says the first of three application periods recently closed. There are around 15 spots available in the first round of the program, and there were nearly 900 applicants for the spaces, which far exceeded Bertrang's expectations.

"We are offering free rent and a small stipend, a $3,000-$8,000 stipend, but I don't think that is the thing that is driving the large response that we're seeing. I think what's driving the response is people in San Francisco and in the region who really care about this city and want to participate in building its future and re-envisioning its future," he said. "I think it is a counter to some of the negative narratives to see such a response, an energetic and positive response, from so many people with such great ideas that they want to bring downtown."

Walking through his new restaurant's neighborhood, Philippart de Foy is encouraged by the enthusiasm and hopes the new program helps out. However, he says it is just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

"I don't think San Francisco could be held down for that long. But I think until we see a real estate reset and a market reset, from a commercial and residential standpoint, it's going to be a long road back," he said. "I just don't think it's realistic that a lot of these businesses are going to be able to thrive without more resources."

As he writes a new chapter, he'd like to see downtown's next chapter have less of a corporate and tech-driven environment.

"It would really be nice to see San Francisco start to make that a focal point in getting that back and make it an art-driven and culture-driven city again," he said. "Just making this more of a center for culture and diversity. I think diversity means a lot of things - diversity of people, diversity of people, but also, diversity of business. I think that's going to be a big part of making San Francisco a more well-rounded city and downtown a more well-rounded downtown."

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