The culprits, they say, are property owners who charge rents that are simply too high during these troubling business times and let stores close without offering more reasonable rental agreements.
If you walk along Main Street, or even outside of downtown at the nearby Raley's Shopping Center and Rose Pavilion, you'll see what I mean. Empty storefronts and weathered "For Lease" signs are everywhere.
Last Sunday, I had breakfast at Copenhagen, a popular eatery in downtown Burlingame that's a favorite stop when I have to drop someone off at the San Francisco airport. At 10 a.m., both last Sunday and on many previous visits, Burlingame Avenue is filled with pedestrians. This is partly because the Burlingame Chamber of Commerce sponsors the city's Farmers Market on Sunday mornings, but also because all the retail stores are open. Even at mid-morning on a Sunday, the many off-street parking lots the city provides were filled. I found a spot behind Pottery Barn and walked through the store where I counted 12 customers shopping and out onto Burlingame Avenue where numerous locally-owned and operated stores as well as several other chains were doing a brisk business.
Burlingame has done a good job of keeping high-rises out of its downtown, although tall commercial and apartment buildings dot the skyline. It's also developed a retail model that seems to be working, with enough of the Ann Taylor Loft and J. Crew-type stores to attract shoppers of all ages while also boosting pedestrian traffic for the smaller retailers.
Pleasanton could do the same without damaging its historic downtown look and feel. Craig Scharton, when he was executive director of the PDA and helped draft the Downtown Specific Plan which is still in play, suggested asking Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel and Gap Jr. to open downtown stores, but he was shouted down by smaller store owners who felt threatened. They believed then and probably still do and with good reason, that larger stores would pay higher rents, eventually driving them out of business when their leases renew.
But that's already happening. Comerica will soon open a branch bank in the newly-restored Kolln building at Main and Division, paying $4.50 a square foot or more, well beyond what Powell Sweet Shop (which is also in Burlingame) could afford. With chains such as Tully's, Round Table Pizza and others, and Bank of America leasing out premium space in its reduced-service banking facility, rents are holding at rates the smaller family-owned shops are having trouble paying, and certainly too high these days to attract many new retailers.
This is where the city government, through the office of the Economic Development Director Pamela Ott, can lend a hand. The PDA does a good job of sponsoring downtown events, such as Concerts in the Park, and monitoring business activity. As a tax-supported and organization, where all downtown property owners and merchants must be dues-paying members, it answers to everyone downtown and lacks the power to force major change in the retail mix or to offer needed incentives to bring new businesses to the downtown.
It's been unable to provide the teeth needed to develop tax incentives and force property owners to offer lower rents, at least on a short-term basis, to attract new retailers. Unlike Livermore, Pleasanton has no redevelopment district to bring improvement money to its downtown, an idea rejected by Pleasanton in the 1980s. Unlike Dublin, Pleasanton doesn't have major developers agreeing to help finance downtown development as part of their approval agreements for multi-million-dollar apartment, condo and housing projects elsewhere. But Ott and a forward-thinking City Manager, Nelson Fialho and city staff have good ideas for boosting downtown business, such as rebuilding the Domus building into a two-to-three story complex with underground parking, retail-only on the first floor and apartments or condos on the top, similar to what Dublin has been doing.
There's also no rule that an historic downtown must close itself to chains. This doesn't mean bringing Neiman Marcus to our downtown, but a Gap Jr. or Restoration Hardware could help. Again, with a more pro-active City Council to support city staff in reaching out to these retailers, downtown merchants large and small could see pedestrian traffic and sales looking much like Burlingame's with parking lots full and customers waiting in line at cash registers.
It will take a more global view of retailing to compete successfully with our neighbors while also keeping the integrity and historic value of downtown Pleasanton.