I was overcome with great shock and sorrow last week upon learning that Nordstrom will be closing its glorious store at the Westfield San Francisco Centre in August. I am not one who obsesses with retail therapy, but this is my favorite American department store and I have many happy memories from my shopping there. It sounds corny, but I took the news of its closing as the equivalent of the loss of a cherished friend.
But this closing was not based on the challenges facing the retail sector – it had nothing to do with losing sales to e-commerce or the resonance of the pandemic’s disruptions or consumer trends drifting away from what the store had to offer. Rather, the store is closing because of a preventable situation that should never have been allowed to metastasize.
“Decisions like this are never easy, and this one has been especially difficult,” said Chief Stores Officer Jamie Nordstrom in an email to his staff, which was published in The Washington Post. “But as many of you know, the dynamics of the downtown San Francisco market have changed dramatically over the past several years, impacting customer foot traffic to our stores and our ability to operate successfully.’”
However, the mall’s management was willing to address the manner in plain English rather than coded euphemisms – they issued their own statement to the Washington Post that cited a “deteriorating” crime situation in downtown San Francisco that created “unsafe conditions for customers, retailers, and employees.” And while it is now too late to save Nordstrom, the mall also demanded city leaders do something about the absence of law enforcement in addressing the “rampant criminal activity” which has disfigured San Francisco.
According to the San Francisco Standard, Nordstrom is not the first major retailer in the city to cease operations due to abnormally high crime – or the second retailer, or the third, or the fourth, or the fifth. Over the past three years in the Union Square shopping district where Nordstrom can be found, 17 top-name retailers have either exited or plan to exit because the city cannot get a handle on the rise of crime and the deterioration of the quality of life. Whole Foods, Office Depot, Anthropologie and Crate and Barrel are some of the companies who aren’t leaving their hearts – or their cash registers – in San Francisco.
But this situation is hardly unique to San Francisco. In Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., retailers – both major chains and mom-and-pop stores – have opted to close because local crime has gotten out of control. And this isn’t a situation that popped up overnight. Last summer, Starbucks closed 16 locations across five cities, citing safety concerns in the communities where they were operating.
Last fall, a friend of mine shared a video taken on a Saturday at 6:00 p.m. from a section of lower Manhattan that used to be abuzz with vehicular and pedestrian traffic – but in this case, the streets were empty and there were very few cars and bicyclists on the road. I asked my friend where all of the people went and he informed me that most of the stores in that area are now closing earlier because of the rising level of crime. The closed stores created a domino effect that resulted in fewer people venturing out into what was once a buoyant neighborhood.
But no one in charge of the cities seems to think anything is wrong. Last month, when a massive mob of violent teenagers terrorized downtown Chicago, looting stores and attacking residents, Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson sided with the young hoodlums and lectured the media covering the riot that “demonizing children is wrong.” Huh?
When I learned of the San Francisco Nordstrom story, I checked the websites of the San Francisco Association of Realtors and the California Association of Realtors to see if they offered any public comment on the upcoming loss of this major fixture in the Bay Area’s retail sector. There were no public comments. Of course, I shouldn’t be picking only on those two groups – unless I am mistaken, I have yet to see any organization representing the real estate industry complaining out loud about the spike in crime in America’s cities.
Why has the real estate industry been so silent on this matter? Are the industry’s professionals afraid of antagonizing elected officials if they call them out for doing a dismal job on fighting crime? Are they afraid of being seen as anti-cop if they question why the police departments in the major cities are unable to put a stop to this out-of-control situation?
If any industry suffers as a result of urban crime, it is real estate. Brokers won’t be able to find clients willing to lease stores if an area is considered unsafe. Property managers won’t have tenants and will be stuck paying high property taxes without a secure source of revenue. And no serious developer would dream of coordinating construction projects in an area where stores are routinely burglarized and people are getting robbed, assaulted or worse on the street.
Somebody has to say something about the rise of urban crime. This wretched situation must not take root as the new normal. If the trade associations representing the industry refuse to speak up, then the individual professionals within the industry need to make their voices heard.
As long as the real estate industry remains silent on how crime is destroying America’s cities, then those within the industry are accessories to this crime wave. It’s time to push back against this situation.
Phil Hall is the editor of Weekly Real Estate News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.