San Francisco may ease up on allowing retail space to be converted to offices

As San Francisco landlords struggle to fill vacant retail space, city officials may allow conversions to office space.

San Francisco’s Planning Commission will discuss a plan tomorrow to ease up on retail-to-office conversions in downtown San Francisco. The idea is for the city to become more flexible as the national retail market grapples with huge shifts.

The move would help fill empty space and address the city’s huge office crunch, which has sent commercial rents skyrocketing, disproportionately hurting small businesses and nonprofits. The planning department currently has four applications on file — including the huge, vacant 6×6 retail center in Mid-Market — to shift existing upper-level retail space to office use.

The proposal came after planners rejected a proposal to convert the third floor of the former Loehmann’s department store at 222 Sutter St. to office space. Planners wanted to avoid losing sales tax that retailers generate for the city, but critics pointed out that vacant space doesn’t generate sales tax.

The importance of retailers for the city’s budget is clear: Union Square merchants generate more than 37 percent of the sales tax that the city gets from consumer goods. Those same retailers generate more than 15 percent of the city’s total sales tax funds, according to a new retail report from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

As part of a revised downtown plan, planning commissioners are considering loosening restrictions on retail-to-office conversions above a property’s third floor. Changes the planning department is recommending would still prohibit non-retail sales from occupying a building’s first through third floors. Above the third floor, however, offices would be allowed if the leases encompass 5,000 square feet or less. For offices that want to lease more than 5,000 square feet, the deal would require a conditional use permit.

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