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Get creative with Natali's $20K

by BAR Editorial Board

Get creative with Natali's $20K

The Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District has accepted a $20,000 donation from gay Castro property owner and landlord Les Natali and plans to use it for a vacancy reduction study. Ironically, Natali is responsible for a portion of the gayborhood's high commercial vacancy rate, whether keeping properties closed for nearly two decades, as is the case with the old Patio Cafe space, or refusing to renew leases, which closed the popular Zapata Mexican Grill last summer. So, a donation from him to the CBD to further study the commercial vacancy rate is a head-scratcher.

Natali has long owned businesses and properties in the Castro. More than a decade ago LGBT community leaders filed a complaint with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission against him stemming from alleged racial discrimination at his Badlands bar in the Castro. A 2004 report by the agency found that the bar was discriminating against African-Americans, but the findings were never official because the HRC executive director at the time did not sign off on the staff report. Natali and the complainants eventually reached a confidential settlement. There were calls to boycott his establishments and he further riled activists when he bought the Pendulum bar - historically the one bar in the Castro that catered to gay African-American men - and renamed it Toad Hall, after another former gay bar.

Nearly three years ago we reported on the Castro Merchants' efforts to get Natali to open the former Patio Cafe as well as renew a multi-year lease with the owners of Zapata Mexican Grill on 18th Street. The group's president, gay small business owner Daniel Bergerac, wrote that Natali's vacant properties were a "huge and rapidly-growing blight" in the neighborhood. In a letter responding to Castro Merchants, Natali's attorney Steve Goldstein wrote that Natali "wholly embraces" the association's "credo to make the neighborhood alive and thriving."

Well, that hasn't worked out. However, Natali has - again - announced that Hamburger Mary's will open soon in the Patio Cafe space.

In the fall of 2014, the CBD conducted a retail strategy survey that was taken by 1,200 patrons both online and at various street locations in the Castro and along upper Market Street to provide better insight into who is shopping in the district and what businesses people felt were missing.

As we reported at the time, the surveys found that the most requested businesses included a bakery, butcher shop, and additional clothing stores, particularly for women. The number one retailer many survey takers said they wanted in the neighborhood is Trader Joe's, which had twice abandoned plans for sites along upper Market Street due to neighborhood concerns about parking and traffic.

Other businesses included art gallery space, ice cream, jewelry, men's clothiers, gyms, veterinarians, specialty bookstores, and more restaurants with late night hours or outdoor spaces.

In the intervening years, some of those types of businesses and new eateries have opened. Now the popular Art Walk occurs on the first Thursday of the month, visiting local galleries and other shops. But businesses in the neighborhood are also constantly changing.

The CBD should accept Natali's money and put it to practical use rather than another study by pricey consultants that will likely reveal what many, including the CBD, already know: filling commercial vacancies is hard. Businesses face many challenges like high rent, neighborhood concerns that lead to city restrictions, and poor management or investment of resources. But let's be honest and also acknowledge the elephant in the room: property owners get a tax write-off for their vacancies, sometimes benefitting them by taking a loss. When you have a site like the Patio that's been closed for nearly 20 years, you have to wonder how sincere Natali is about filling his vacant properties.

So the CBD should get creative in accepting Natali's donation. Start a lending circle for small businesses so that they can borrow funds if an emergency arises. Actively provide information to potential storeowners, including recruiting businesses patrons want. Update the old retail strategy survey, but a whole new study is probably unnecessary.

The CBD has been proactive in addressing various quality of life concerns, activating spaces like Jane Warner Plaza, recruiting ambassadors to help guide visitors, and managing street cleaning crews. A fresh approach is needed to keep the Castro vibrant and gay.

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