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Exploring the Causes of Decline in Urban Centers Through a Ground-Floor View

Downtown San Francisco’s office buildings have been affected by high vacancy rates and slow return-to-office trends. However, the emptiness extends beyond the offices to the ground floor. The vacant storefronts with closed deli counters and faded signage contribute to the overall uninhabited feeling in the area. Solving the problem of vacant offices upstairs will require addressing the issue of empty ground-floor spaces. The darkened and boarded-up storefronts discourage people from returning downtown.

Urban design scholar Conrad Kickert emphasizes the significance of the ground floor in shaping our perception of a vibrant and safe street. It is where we can observe and be seen, where the city comes alive through its diverse mix of businesses and people. The ground-floor scene plays a crucial role in attracting consumers and creating a lively atmosphere.

Filling the empty ground-floor spaces requires cities to reconsider their approach to downtown revitalization. Rather than solely focusing on retail, officials need to explore alternative uses for these spaces such as health clinics, day care centers, university classrooms, live/work spaces, and fabrication shops. Some propose incorporating small-scale manufacturing that offers higher earnings than retail and relies less on foot traffic. Additionally, other suggestions include public bathrooms, spaces for cultural programming or city services, and artist studios.

To implement these ideas, cities would need to reconsider zoning regulations that currently favor retail and provide incentives to building owners. Property owners must shift their focus from viewing ground-floor spaces as profit centers and instead consider their role in adding value to the floors above. Developers should prioritize the design and planning of the ground floor to maximize its potential.

Some cities have already started experimenting with solutions by pairing vacant storefronts with pop-up galleries and businesses, attracting college campuses, and offering grants and tax credits. The key is to transform the ground floor from a transactional space to an interactive one. The focus should be on creating spaces that serve the community and promote interaction, even if it doesn’t involve direct buying and selling.

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