Strolling down University Avenue, shoppers can easily see there aren't as many places to shop as there were a year ago.
"For rent" signs seem to be multiplying like bunnies -- and staying up for months and months.
"There's a widely held perception that if the landlord weren't so greedy all the spaces would be leased," said Jonathan Goldman, senior vice president of Premier Properties Management, Palo Alto.
But Goldman, who's been in the business for 13 years, disagrees.
He points to the space vacated by Stanford Bookstore two years ago that sat and sat.
"We just leased it for significantly under the going rate," he said, noting that he's never seen rents advertised for under $3 to $4 a square foot.
"We could have taken a tenant a year ago for $2 but there were no tenants," he said.
The new lease, to The Natural Mattress Store, is short-term; if the tenant succeeds and decides to stay, the "opportunity" to rent will be at a higher rate, he added.
Vacant ground-floor retail spaces along University Avenue and nearby side streets range from a 1,000-square-foot former art gallery on Bryant Street to the 13,200-square-foot space on University Avenue vacated in March by Z Gallerie (which was temporarily rented as Spirit Halloween). Rents range from $3 to $7 per square foot, with many simply listed as "negotiable," according to Goldman.
All told, about 16 percent of the 600,000 square feet of space is vacant in the downtown "core" zone, along University Avenue from Alma to Cowper streets, including the little side streets and parts of Lytton and Hamilton avenues, Goldman said.
That's of concern to Palo Alto officials. The city has an ordinance that states retail space can be rented out as office space when the vacancy rate exceeds 5 percent. But retail tends to draw shoppers to the business district.
In September, the Planning and Transportation Commission considered staff recommendations to change the ground-floor retail rules. The commission voted to recommend removing the 5 percent trigger, meaning that retail space cannot convert to office space in the downtown core regardless of how much vacant space exists.
It also voted to add ground-floor retail requirements to buildings on the south side of Hamilton Avenue between Emerson and Ramona ("the strongest block of retail") and to half-block of Emerson including the Aquarius Theater and two restaurants.
And they voted not to remove protection from University Circle and along Alma Street and portions of High Street near Hamilton Avenue.
The City Council is tentatively scheduled to discuss changes to the ground-floor retail rules on Monday. (View downtown zoning map)
Goldman isn't advocating turning retail space into offices, but he is circumspect.
"If (office space) is the only thing that can survive, you need to do something. You don't want boarded up buildings in your neighborhood," he said.
"We're all scared -- landlords, tenants -- of University Avenue converting to office" because no one's going to shop at a store in the middle of a block of offices, he said.
Ultimately, he says landlords make more money from retail on University Avenue than office. But, "the reality is, it doesn't matter how cheap you make it, there are a lot of people who really can't afford to pay the rent," he said.
Goldman said vacancies sometimes occur because businesses become obsolete or marginalized.
"The Bead Shop is a perfect example," he said, noting that much of the bead business is conducted online today.
Pointing to downtown vacant storefronts, Goldman said, "Some were victims of the economy, others of a changing world. The problem is there's no new trend."
In 2001, it was nail salons and yoga studios.
"Other than yogurt, we're not seeing any growth industry. We're not seeing national retailers. It's been bleak," he said.
Sam Arsan of Arsan Realty, which partners with Premier Properties on some downtown listings, has never seen downtown so empty.
"What we're going through is unprecedented, in terms of the economy everywhere," he said. "The level of interest has dropped by a good 70 percent from a year ago."
But that doesn't mean nothing can be done to help.
Arsan hears complaints from merchants about the "vagrancy" issue and thinks the city should do more to control that, to encourage shoppers to come downtown.
He does acknowledge that price can be a real deal-killer.
"Tenants are more leery to committing to paying $7 per square foot in an economy that shows no signs of improvement," he said.
Landlords are holding tight, trying to make their price point, but Arsan says it's still a supply-and-demand market.
"Where deals are going to be made will be lower than in the past couple of years," he said. "It's probably going to be a short-term thing; eventually the market will turn."
"I'm very enthusiastic about University Avenue. It's always been a strong retail market."
What people don't realize, he added, is most of the buildings downtown are individually owned, unlike Stanford Shopping Center. One merchant could be offered lower rent at Stanford because he attracts customers to the entire mall.
"To ask an individual owner to keep rent low to bring in a tenant that's good for the city, it doesn't make sense," he said. Some owners feel they need to renovate and upgrade their spaces, so they can get the traditionally higher rents downtown.
"That's his retirement. You can't blame anyone for trying to maximize their investment," Arsan said.
University Avenue is really no different from nearby "Main Streets," said David Blatteis, principal of Blatteis Realty Co., San Francisco. "Palo Alto is in the same league as Burlingame Avenue, Fourth Avenue in San Mateo, Union Street or Chestnut Street in San Francisco. They all have more vacancies than they ever have before."
More recently, "Owners are seeing the light and are willing to lower the rents. We're starting to see more interest in coming back into these vacant stores," he said.
In August, a lease was signed for 370 University Ave., the 2,800-square-foot former home of The Golden Loom. GameStop, which sells electronic games for adults and has more than 5,000 stores around the world, is in the process of redoing its remodeling plan to conform to the city's environmental requirements, Blatteis said.
The building owner was originally asking $7 a square foot, but came down to about $5.60/square foot a month.
While the store is unlikely to open before the holidays, Blatteis is optimistic about its impact on University Avenue.
"There was nothing like it on the street. They're big advertisers. They'll help attract more shoppers to the street."
Most problematic on University Avenue are the larger properties, including 180 University, which used to house Magnolia Audio Video, and of course, Z Gallerie, at 340.
"Z Gallerie will be impossible," Goldman predicted, but Arsan takes a more mellow view: "High profile is sometimes tougher to lease. It just may take longer than expected."
While only a couple of months ago Arsan was prepared for "some pain in the next year or two," he's expressing more optimism this week.
"I'm showing space more than in the past six months. People are starting to at least look and maybe start new businesses," he said, adding that he's signed four deals in the last two months, including a couple of new apparel stores downtown -- Premier Boutique on Ramona and Orapa Boutique on Hamilton.
Goldman is a bit more guarded: "It's going to be a long period of recovery for downtown."
In the meantime, "There are a lot of people with a dream," he said. "Landlords are being very flexible. If someone wants to try something for a year, they're getting a deal of a lifetime."