To see how fast the reality of retail is changing, look no further than Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
The city’s favorite tourist district is trying to make changes. The district needs to “evolve,” and to “become an increasingly top-of-mind and welcoming destination for the local customer base.”
In other words, it wants to become a destination for San Franciscans, not just tourists seeking fudge shops and a Golden Gate Bridge key chain.
The path forward? Apparently it’s “retail curation, public realm, and further opportunities for event activation.”
I took the quotes from the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefits District Retail Strategy report. To drill down further into the meaning behind the jargon, I called Troy Campbell, the district’s executive director.
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Last month, he presented the report’s findings to the San Francisco Port Commission in the hope of garnering support.
“We’re looking to fill in some of the areas around the district that aren’t always thought of as Fisherman’s Wharf, with opportunities for people to experience something,” Campbell told me.
Oh, experiences. So locals aren’t the only reason why the Wharf is trying to evolve.
When it’s coming from a marketer, the word “experiences” is code for “Millennials.” At least a thousand of them have said to me that “experiences” are the only things people under 40 are interested in, to the point that people my age have been accused of driving everything else in the American consumer industry into bankruptcy.
“Certain demographics are behaving differently,” he said. “Millennials travel differently and live differently. So we’re interested in attracting them with experiences.”
Personally, I think Millennials are too burdened by student debt and stagnant wages for this country to expect them to save everything from the hotel industry to McDonald’s.
But I understand why a retail-heavy district like Fisherman’s Wharf is exploring the idea of making a frantic pivot to Instagrammable public art. For instance, “Expand retail-tainment opportunities … (and add) new attractions to the neighborhood,” the report suggests.
“Lefty O’Doul’s is opening on Jefferson Street soon. We don’t have a Giants experience at the Wharf, and it’s nice to see an addition like that,” Campbell said. “We’ve also just opened a cheese school at Ghirardelli Square. We’re looking at things that won’t compete with the shops selling the fleece jackets everyone needs when they come to San Francisco.”
Here’s where I’ll admit that Fisherman’s Wharf is one of my guilty pleasures in San Francisco. Since the Community Benefits District is looking for ways to attract both locals and people under 40, I have a few suggestions:
• There’s a formula now for making your district look “hip.” Don’t fall for it.
At this point, every city booster’s idea for “renewing” their neighborhood follows the same formula: mixed-use buildings with housing over specialty retail, an artisanal coffee shop, small amounts of public space with a suspicious amount of policing, and a microbrewery with an outdoor garden and bocce court. Yawn.
It’s tempting to do the same thing everyone else is doing, but San Francisco doesn’t need more of the same. The Wharf’s history as a port and its waterfront location should drive the “experiences” developed there, whether it’s water-based activities for kids, retail fish markets or restaurants with open-front patios so that everyone can enjoy the view.
•Every neighborhood needs services — especially this one.
There are still plenty of services for which the locals in that far north corner of North Beach and Russian Hill have to travel. The community benefits district is interested in drawing more services to the area, especially health care. Offices for doctors and dentists would be welcome (and probably high-rent). I’m sure the locals would appreciate barbers and yoga studios, too.
•Keep the suburban restaurants. To us, they’re exotic.
San Franciscans do a great job of supporting local businesses and blocking most chains from popping up on every corner. This necessary vigilance is one of the biggest reasons our great city doesn’t look like Everytown, U.S.A.
But have you ever been to Daly City on a Saturday afternoon? Quiet as it’s kept, that’s when the Serramonte Center is crawling with San Franciscans. It turns out that we, too, enjoy the occasional hunt for Target bargains. We, too, love to pick up some liquor from BevMo and those cans of roasted peanuts.
When your everyday life is full of paleo-friendly bone broth and organic plant-based meals, the double deep-fried seafood products at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. sound like an exotic change of pace.
Just ask my colleague Peter Hartlaub — he used to live in Oakland, which is even cooler than San Francisco, and he’s an unrepentant fan of Pier 39’s Hard Rock Cafe.
Caille Millner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @caillemillner