Concerns over vacant SF Chinatown storefronts

Folks in San Francisco's Chinatown say their neighborhood is not only losing its culture, but its business. Merchants say there are currently 46 vacant storefronts and that number keeps growing by the week.

Today, dozens of business owners and concerned Chinese-Americans held a rally at Portsmouth Square to draw attention to the problem.

During the day, Grant Avenue seems to be bustling, but at night, many say Chinatown has become a ghost town.

"It's dead at night after 6 o'clock," said Wilma Pang, the founder of ‘A Better Chinatown Tomorrow’. In fact, Pang and dozens of others say shuttered storefronts are becoming too commonplace.

"Within a 1.34 mile radius in Chinatown, we have more than 46 empty storefronts," said Jenny Chan with Treehouse Space, which is committed to creating an initiative to revitalize Chinatown. Chan says business has slipping for the past five years and she wants to save Chinatown before it's too late.

"Because like the big tech boom in San Francisco is growing that, like, that's when big companies would take over and then high rises would come," said Kyle de Vries, an intern for Treehouse Space who surveyed the vacancies as part of a project.

So why all the vacancies? Residents say high rents are to blame.

Wilson Kuang is being forced to close his shop Brayden Fashion in 12 days.

"I lost money cannot stay so I just return back to the owner. I pay nearly $11,000 a month; it was $8,000 about year and half ago."

And while $11,000 may seem steep for a commercial space in Chinatown, the cost is more than double that in neighboring Fisherman's Wharf and the Financial District.
Real estate broker Shaun Bloomquist of Colliers International says commercial space is tough to sell in Chinatown because of all the business restrictions.
"You can't have a McDonalds or a Burger King, any chain store which by definition is more than 11 locations," said Bloomquist. "The permit process is also lengthy, it can take a year or longer which is a turnoff for tenants and landlords."

Jenny Chan and Kyle de Vries say many of the buildings are old and in need have repair and renovations. That, of course, is costly, and most owners aren't willing to pour more money into some of the dilapidated spaces.

"Today I saw two new signs saying retirement," said Tane Chan who's owned the successful Wok Shop for 47 years. While her business has survived the ups and downs of the economy, Chan says the landscape of Chinatown has changed.

“A lot of the big restaurants that drew so many people and especially the restaurants that would accommodate big banquets that seems as if that's a thing of the past. People want destination weddings now and Chinatown is not a destination."

"The only place surviving right now really well is Stockton Street, the vegetables, the fish markets because they are very competitive in price," said Pang.

We asked Wilson Kuang what he was going to do when his store closes August 15th.

"Maybe [I'll sell items] online, that's the only way you can do," he sighed.

For now, Chan and de Vries are calling on the younger generation to step up. "We also have a lot of young businesses coming in as well and we just need more to come," she said.