Saturday, February 24, 2007

Westfield San Francisco Centre

San Francisco attracts merchants the way the airline business lures swashbuckling investors. Ignoring mountains of historical evidence, the ambitious entrepreneur tells himself that he will succeed where other multimillionaires or billion-dollar corporations have failed. He expends immense sums restoring faded facades and modernizing interiors. He patiently files the requisite permits and makes dozens of presentations and commitments to City Hall, unions, neighborhood residents and businesses, and the media.

The latest example--Westfield Centre on Market Street—opened last September. The spelling alone—the British / French “centre” —exudes snob appeal. But they will need a lot of purchases from snobs (and even the hoi polloi) to recover the $460 million of renovations they had made to the old Emporium site. San Francisco retail stores are heavily disadvantaged against their suburban counterparts. Labor, plant, and equipment cost much more, while congested downtown traffic and expensive parking hamstring demand. It’s a wonder that any of them break even. Even those with the deepest pockets, like Microsoft, throw in the towel.

This week I finally paid a visit, before the musky odor of elephant blanc became too pronounced. The new, well-lit interiors were indeed impressive. Foot traffic was light at lunchtime. It was Fat Tuesday and unlikely that business would pick up during Lent (not that many pay attention to the post-Christmas religious calendar any more).

A thriving retail sector is key to the revitalization of San Francisco’s downtown. But Union Square and the Westfield San Francisco Centre cater to well-heeled residents and foreign visitors, not the Costco/Target/Wal-mart crowd of which your humble servant is a member.

Maybe San Francisco could learn from Las Vegas, which appeals to every demographic and economic class. Through his issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, our mayor showed that the laws in the rest of the state and nation do not apply here.

So why not issue an executive order to allow gambling? (Pres. Bush could take a few lessons from SF's mayor about ignoring the prerogatives of the legislative and judicial branches.) That would increase foot traffic in a hurry. “Back to the Barbary”—a slogan for San Francisco in the 21st century! © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Slot machines under the dome would be HUGE.

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