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Stripped of big brands, a downtown San Francisco mall embraces a new class of tenant

Nonprofits and small businesses can now afford a slice of premier real estate

Two people, one in a black jacket and the other in a yellow coat, are on an ascending escalator in a modern multi-level shopping mall with white interiors and glass railings.
The Emporium Centre San Francisco used to be a top destination for shoppers—it’s now over 50% vacant. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Under the historic glass-enclosed dome of the San Francisco Centre mall, patrons used to line up for the movies or special holiday sales at Nordstrom. Now, with both of those options absent, they’ll be using the space for job training and workshops instead.

Nearly one year to the date since the mall lost its signature anchor tenant—setting off a chain reaction of high-profile departures and an acrimonious change in ownership—a new slate of seven tenants are finally starting to trickle into the vacant spaces left behind. 

Chief amongst them are two nonprofits dedicated to serving locals. According to real estate firm JLL, which is now handling leasing at the property, Opportunities for All (OFA) signed up to take 17,000 square feet of office space on the fourth level of the mall, now known as Emporium Centre San Francisco. The city-funded program helps connect people ages 13-24 to paid employment opportunities and job training. 

Another organization, Block by Block, which is a part of the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District (YBCBD), will also lease space at the mall to coordinate its nearby ambassador and street cleaning efforts. Both deals were brokered with help from a combination of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) and Office of Small Business. 

“For too long, many small business owners were priced out of downtown spaces,” said Sarah Dennis-Phillips, director of OEWD, in a statement. “San Francisco Centre’s coordination with the city is part of its re-envisioning of the iconic mall as a place for small businesses to get a foothold and to flourish.” 

A person by a bike stands in front of the San Francisco Centre entrance with bold signage.
Formerly known as Westfield Mall, the Emporium Centre San Francisco is currently mired in a messy ownership change. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Joining the two nonprofits are a string of independent niche businesses that previously, likely wouldn’t have been able to lease space at what was once the city’s premier shopping destination. 

The new entrants include A&S Cell Accessories and Repairs, Hey Hi Toys, pet supply vending machine pop-up Paw Box, vintage store +Friends and Merkado, which sells Japanese kawaii (cute) products. 

“Any positive news over there is great,” said Cameron Baird, a longtime San Francisco retail broker at Avison Young, who is not involved with the mall’s leases. He speculated the new lease rates were either heavily discounted or based on a percentage of sales.  

“There is no better time than now to be a tenant or buyer in the city,” Baird said.  

The mall was formerly owned and operated by a partnership of multinational retail giant Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield and real estate firm Brookfield Properties. Since the property was handed back over to lenders last June, the courts appointed Trident Pacific Real Estate Group as the mall’s temporary steward

As the property’s custodian, Trident Pacific has the authority to manage, reposition and potentially sell the property. Representatives of Trindent Pacific and JLL declined to comment on this story. 

“A retail property like this one is meant to be filled with longer-term-credit tenants,” said Michael Berne, president of MJB Consulting, a Berkeley- and New York-based retail planning and real estate consultancy. “If this is the best they could do right now, it speaks volumes to how far it has fallen.”

Crowded mall interior with busy escalators and many shoppers carrying bags.
The once-popular downtown mall as seen on Black Friday in 2011. | Source: Liz Hafalia/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

Compared to the brands that have left the mall, Berne said the new stores coming in seem like they would appeal to a younger generation of shoppers. 

Despite these new leases, the mall remains more than 50% vacant with big box spaces like the former five-floor Nordstrom and movie theater still empty. The mall’s other anchor tenant, Bloomingdale’s, has a lease that runs until 2046, according to commercial mortgage-backed security loan data. Other notable brands still holding on at the Emporium include Lululemon, Zara and H&M. 

As the mall and nearby Union Square continue to search for a new identity in the wake of the ongoing retail exodus, parties proposing alternative uses are emerging from the sidelines. 

Desi Danganan, executive director of local nonprofit Kultivate Labs, told The Standard he personally reached out to JLL earlier this year to discuss transforming the mostly vacant fourth floor of the mall into a hub for Filipino cuisine, shopping and culture. 

He said the two sides have already had five meetings to discuss potential floor plans and are still having ongoing discussions. 

“They have a strong mall culture in the Philippines,” Danganan said. “If we do this right, it could attract a lot of foreign investment.”