business news in context, analysis with attitude

We've spent a lot of time here on MNB talking about America's troubled cities, and the impact that urban issues - especially vandalism and theft - are having on retailers.

But in the last couple of days, there have been a number of stories examining the issue from a different point of view.

•  The Los Angeles Times had a piece about how - while "at least 26 stores have closed in downtown San Francisco since 2020, with seven more slated to shut down," and the overall vacancy rate in the city's Union Square shopping district "went up to 15.5% in the first quarter of 2023, up from 14.2% in the last quarter of 2022 - local officials are telling a different story.

"But Mayor London Breed and other San Franciscans have pushed back against the narrative in recent media coverage that Union Square is doomed.

"'Those folks who don’t walk the streets in San Francisco, that don’t live in San Francisco, but they want to write about and commentate about San Francisco, I challenge you to come to this city and see what it feels like,' Breed said during a May 16 news conference. 'I challenge you to come shop at the stores that you’re complaining about, which you probably never even stepped foot in in the first place.'

Breed emphasized that media outlets aren’t covering the stores, such as Banana Republic and Ikea, that have moved or are planning to move into Union Square …  Breed held a news conference a couple of weeks ago with District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin to announce a $6-million investment into the three blocks of Powell Street near Union Square where H&M, Gap and Uniqlo have closed their doors in recent years.

"While Marisa Rodriguez, the CEO of Union Square Alliance, acknowledged that certainly some stores have left Union Square during and after the pandemic, she emphasized that luxury retailers in particular have expanded, opened or moved to the area.

"'The heart of the square is beating strong — it’s alive,' she said. 'There certainly have been challenges postpandemic that a lot of major cities have been experiencing. We are trying to position ourselves to meet the moment and pivot where we can.'  Saint Laurent, Chanel and Van Cleef & Arpels have all moved to Union Square, while Pandora opened its doors there last year."


•  The Wall Street Journal had another take on the same story, noting that "tourism is close to prepandemic levels in San Francisco, and many tourists are visiting the growing number of luxury stores in Union Square, as are wealthy shoppers.

"High-end retailers including jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels, watchmaker Patek Philippe, Chanel, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Brunello Cucinelli have opened new stores, expanded, or announced plans to do so.

"Luxury brands typically have heightened security and offer appointments. Shoppers are typically greeted at the door, which is sometimes locked behind them. Upon leaving, staff can load their purchases into their cars.

"'The luxury shopper isn’t experiencing the city the way regular shoppers are—they are in a bubble,' said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData, a data analytics and consulting company."


•  The Wall Street Journal also had a story suggesting that it is critical to look beyond "downtown" when evaluating the health of cities:

"While office towers sit empty and nearby businesses struggle to pay their bills, residential neighborhoods in America’s biggest cities are bustling again.

"The pandemic and remote work have done little to dent the overall appeal of cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, foot-traffic and rent data show. Instead, the pandemic has shifted the urban center of gravity, moving away from often sterile office districts to neighborhoods with apartments, bars and restaurants. 

"'We’re now back to what cities really are - they’re not containers for working,' said Richard Florida, a specialist in city planning at the University of Toronto. 'They’re places for people to live and connect with others'."

The Journal continued:

"At the height of the pandemic, some analysts predicted that big cities would enter a downward spiral as remote workers sought more space and cheaper places to live. That happened to some degree early on, but it didn’t last. While big metropolitan areas lost population during the first year of the pandemic, partly because of a drop in immigration from abroad, the losses have since slowed or reversed, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of census data.

"Many residential neighborhoods benefit from remote work. As people spend more time at home, they frequent local shops, gyms and restaurants, boosting the economy of places such as Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Ditmas Park and Williamsburg, as well as Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown.

"Data from Placer.ai, which tracks people’s movements based on cellphone usage, shows a stark divide between office and residential districts. In Downtown Los Angeles, visitor foot traffic is 30.7% below prepandemic levels, while Downtown Chicago’s visitor foot traffic is 27.2% lower. By contrast, in the residential areas of South Glendale and Highland Park near Los Angeles and in Chicago’s residential Logan Square neighborhood, visitor foot traffic has been rising and is nearly back to prepandemic levels. "

Another example, from Chicago:  "Lakeview, a neighborhood within walking distance of Lake Michigan and Wrigley Field, is bustling with young residents, families and Cubs fans, said resident Naomi Polinsky. Its restaurants and bars were packed on a recent Saturday night. 'We walked next door to the sports bar, and there was not a single place to sit. We walked across the street to the wine bar, completely crowded,' she said."

KC's View:

The numbers cannot be spun.  In many cities, crime - and especially violent crime - is up.  That goes for small cities as well as big ones.  (New York City, according to FBI crime statistics, has a lower per-capita crime rate than Nashville and scores of other cities.  Go figure.)

But it is important to remember that these numbers are not set in stone.  I love the argument advanced in the Journal piece that cities are not just their office buildings, though those clearly are an important element in any urban landscape.  But cities also are much more, and as hubs for cultural and business innovation, as well as centers of diversity (of people as well as thought), their health is critical to our national health.

This is a moment.  The moment will pass.  And the retailers - especially the food retailers - that are able to hang in and innovate will, I think, be rewarded.

When considering our cities, I find myself remembering the words of Raymond Chandler:

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything."