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‘A ghost town’: How downtown San Francisco mall became a shadow of its former self

A compilation of images of the Centre Mall shows the contrast in attendance over the years. | Source: The Standard; SFChronicle/Getty Images; AP Photo

The pictures are enough to make a shopper wince and a store owner cry.

San Francisco Centre's new operators say they are committed to bringing back the half-empty mall, once the pride of Downtown, now a source of civic embarrassment and shame. But new data from location analytics company Unacast shows how foot traffic around the complex has fallen off a cliff.

The company uses GPS data gleaned from smartphones and mobile apps to estimate the number of people in a given area. In December 2019, the estimated number of visitors to the mall that month was 668,000, boosted by the holiday shopping season. In December 2023, the mall only drew 265,000 visitors, a decline of more than 60%.

The data around the mall tells one story. Photos of the mall before and after the recent falloff in business tell another. Both present portraits of a business district in crisis, with the one-time landmark of San Francisco shopping now a shadow of its formerly vibrant self.

People sit on a bench engrossed in their phones, a blurred figure walks by, shopping bags at their feet.A person in long attire holding a pink bag walks past a brass-railed, light-filled interior.
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At left, people take a break from shopping to relax on benches on Black Friday 2019. At right, a person walks through the same area, now without seating, on Jan. 12. | Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle/Getty Images; RJ Mickelson/The Standard

The pandemic, which kept people sheltered inside for months and eventually kicked off a broad shift to hybrid work patterns, has hit Downtown San Francisco especially hard. 

In its wake are an increasing number of vacant office buildings, a major decline in the daytime population of office workers and a significant drop in foot traffic that used to feed retailers and restaurants. 

In the mall’s case, annual visitors dropped from 6.43 million people in 2019 to 2.24 million in 2021. Escalators, pathways and even entire floors where people previously congregated now feel mostly bare. 

An indoor multi-level shopping mall with shoppers and curved escalators.An overhead view of a multi-level shopping center with curving escalators and people milling about.
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At left, shoppers pack the spiral escalator on Black Friday on Nov. 25, 2011. At right, a few people take the same escalators on Aug. 27, 2023, the day Nordstrom closed its doors. | Liz Hafalia/SF Chronicle/Getty Images; Jason Henry for The Standard

Unacast data showed foot traffic at 3.36 million people in 2022, with numbers holding steady at about that same level in 2023. But data for the second half of 2023 hints at the challenges facing the property. 

In August, Nordstrom—an anchor tenant, along with Bloomingdale's—closed its doors, leaving more than 300,000 square feet vacant. The mall’s central spiral elevator now carries shoppers to five floors of shuttered retail space in an eerie echo of what used to exist.

Since then, Unacast’s data has tracked a continuing monthly decline in estimated visitors to the San Francisco Centre.

That coincides with what remaining tenants in the mall report and what our photographers captured while on recent visits to the San Francisco Centre. Brian Politron, the co-owner of luxury sneaker reseller Nectar Supply, previously told The Standard that Nordstrom’s departure left the mall “a ghost town.” 

A bustling mall interior with shoppers and reflective ceiling doubling images of people and storefronts.People riding an escalator in a mall with reflective ceiling creating mirrored images.
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At left, people crowd an escalator on Nov. 25, 2011. At right, a few people ride the same escalator on Jan. 12. | Liz Hafalia/SF Chronicle/Getty Images; Camille Cohen for The Standard

Before-and-after images of the mall during its peak holiday season and the current situation on a typical weekday cut a striking contrast that explains the decline in activity. 

After the decision by Westfield and its partner Brookfield to stop making loan payments on the property, Trident Pacific Real Estate Group was appointed as the mall’s receiver in October. Essentially, the company is court-ordered to act as the property’s custodian with the authority to manage, reposition and potentially sell the property. 

Last week, representatives from Trident Pacific and the property manager it hired, real estate firm JLL, had their first meeting with tenants where they tried to instill confidence they would continue operating the mall even in the face of a rash of recent closure announcements, including Adidas, J. Crew and Aldo.

But a picture, you might say, is worth a thousand promises. 

Silhouetted figures stand before a brightly lit LEGO store with a large red and yellow logo.A blurred person walking past glass doors with reflections and light streaks.
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At left, customers line up for the grand opening of the Lego store on Aug. 26, 2016. At right, a person passes the shuttered store on Jan. 18. The store closed on Nov. 30. | Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle/Getty Images; RJ Mickelson/The Standard
People are walking past an American Eagle store inside a mall, with a man reading on his phone.A security guard in a yellow jacket patrols near an American Eagle store in a shopping mall.
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At left, people ride an escalator near American Eagle at the San Francisco Centre on April 13, 2022. At right, a security guard ascends the same escalator on Jan. 12. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Camille Cohen for The Standard
A busy food court with diners at tables, large hanging lamps, and a variety of food stalls in the background.An indoor food court area featuring a Brazilian restaurant, with a customer at the counter and modern lighting overhead.
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At left, people eat in the food court near the restaurant Catch Isle, now closed, on July 31, 2008. At right, a person orders food on Jan. 18 at the Fire of Brazil, which replaced Catch Isle. | Paul Sakuma/AP Photo; RJ Mickelson/The Standard
A busy urban sidewalk filled with diverse people walking past storefronts with signs, like "Juicy Couture," on a clear day.A busy city street with pedestrians and storefronts including Michael Kors and Adidas.
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At left, people walk down Market Street in front of Juicy Couture, adjacent to the San Francisco Centre, on Jan. 14, 2011. At right, pedestrians walk through the same area on Jan. 18. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; RJ Mickelson/The Standard
2 people walk through a busy food court with low lighting in backgroundTwo women talk in a mall food court with tables, chairs, and fast-food outlets in the background.
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At left, crowds eat in a darkened area of the food court during a partial power outage at the San Francisco Centre on May 30, 2019. At right, people chat in the same food court, now virtually empty, on Jan. 12. | Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images; Camille Cohen for The Standard
People wait in a mall beside a "Vampire Academy" movie sign.A shopping center with people walking by a large yellow sign displaying "SAN FRANCISCO CENTRE" adorned with snowflakes.
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At left, fans wait to meet the cast of the movie "Vampire Academy" on Jan. 31, 2014. At right, two people walk through the same corridor, now empty except for a holiday display, on Jan. 18. | Kimberly White/Getty Images; RJ Mickelson/The Standard
Three women in pink tops and jeans exit a shopping center with bags; one woman talks on a phone.A woman walks past brass-colored building doors, holding a phone and a bag; reflection and interior visible.
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At left, group of shoppers leave San Francisco Centre on Aug. 9, 2006. At right, a lone shopper exits through the same doors on Jan. 12. | Benjamin Sklar/AP Photo; Camille Cohen for The Standard
Crowded mall interior with busy escalators and many shoppers carrying bags.People are using an escalator in a modern indoor shopping mall with stores and a digital directory.
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At left, shoppers fill the mall on Black Friday on Nov. 25, 2011. At right, people walk through the same area on Jan. 12. | Liz Hafalia/SF Chronicle/Getty Images; Camille Cohen for The Standard
A family at a food counter, with a bored child leaning on his hand. People dine in the background.A man leans on a counter in a dimly lit food court, looking away thoughtfully. Tables, diners, and a Pepsi ad are visible.
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At left, Christina Sanchez, in red, orders lunch with her nephew Kymani and niece Kaliyah during a power outage in the food court on May 30, 2019. At right, Carlos Hernandez looks to get the attention of an employee at the same restaurant on Jan. 18. | Liz Hafalia/SFChronicle/Getty Images; RJ Mickelson/The Standard
People are descending on an escalator, holding shopping bags. There's a mix of ages and styles.A person descends an escalator holding a shopping bag, wearing a white jacket, striped shirt, and blue pants.
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At left, shoppers ride an escalator on Black Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. At right, a lone woman rides the same escalator on Jan. 12. | Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle/Getty Images; Camille Cohen for The Standard

Kevin Truong can be reached at kevin@sfstandard.com