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The 'Demolition Man' Pandemic

Josh Stephens on
May 21, 2020

I’ve been thinking about Taco Bell a lot. 

I think about it whenever I jog past my favorite coffee shop. I think about it whenever I feel pangs for a Hinano burger or a small batch sour IPA at The Daily Pint. I think about it whenever I look at my Yelp bookmarks. 

As I’ve written before, local stores and restaurants are bedrock institutions of the urban experience. Cities are fundamentally gathering places. But we don’t “gather” by the millions. We gather by threes and fours and ones and twos in restaurants, cafes, bars, and coffee places. They are as fragile as they are important.

A world of ubiquitous Taco Bells was envisioned not by stoned teenagers but rather by the 1993 cinematic specimen Demolition Man. In it, supervillain Wesley Snipes is cryogenically imprisoned like so much seasoned beef and thawed in 2032 in the West Coast megalopolis of "San Angeles." Sylvester Stallone is a cop who was similarly frozen and similarly thawed so he can rearrest Snipes.

In this sanitized future, vices like swearing have been eradicated and, chillingly, only minimal personal contact is permitted. Among these futuristic trappings, the bewildered Stallone finds but one dining option: everything from fine dining to fast food, comes courtesy of a preposterously hegemonic version of Taco Bell. 

The film does not quite explain how every other restaurant disappeared. But now I have an inkling: a viral pandemic may have screwed up the commercial real estate market. 

The shutdown imposed to slow the contagion of the coronavirus has already hastened the demise of an untold number of local outlets, especially restaurants. Rent is due, and takeout surely doesn’t cover the bill — especially in ultra-expensive markets like much of coastal California. 

Normally, after enough missed payments, landlords will evict. Vacancy does nothing for a landlord, so he or she has to find a new tenant. And, normally, if the landlord is savvy, or lucky, she gets a better tenant who can pay more and/or succeed longer. That’s sometimes sad, but it’s mostly fine. It’s capitalism. 

Here’s where we make a run for the border. (There’s a slogan that hasn’t aged well.) 

If a going concern—be it a decades-old dive bar or the experimental Peruvian pizza place--can’t survive at a given location in the pandemic economy, what could possibly take its place? And at what lease rates? Even if rents fall and/or landlords cut deals, literally no one other than enormous, well capitalized chains is going sign a lease any time soon. 

The most direct way to avoid this catastrophe is for landlords to give their tenants some breaks. If landlords and tenants (and landlords’ mortgage holders) can share the pain, everyone can make less money, but possibly survive. The question here — and this of course applies to residential real estate too — is where will the buck stop? Will everyone cooperate for the long-term good? Or will banks stick it to landlords? Will landlords stick it to tenants? Will tenants stick it to …whom?

Though small retail tenants are the ones who contribute the most to the urban fabric, they have the least leverage and are the least fungible. A bank is mostly an assemblage of 1’s and 0’s. But independent restaurants are like endemic species in old-growth forests. They can’t just hippity-hoppity over to the next grove when theirs is chopped down. 

Assuming that Rambo is not about to parachute in and save America from the virus, I fear that the death rate for restaurants is going to be shocking — without a serious advocacy campaign, some effective local regulations, and/or a credible threat of having to drink Pepsi for the rest of eternity. 

I’m trying to address Steps 1 and 3 right now. 

As for Step 2, cities have traditionally allowed restaurants to perish before their eyes. They love to subsidize billion-dollar projects like stadiums, and they trip over themselves for Amazon. But they take for granted institutions that nourish their communities, economically, socially, and literally.

Of course, these regulations and whatever emergency measures cities are concocting are too little, too late. At this point in the crisis, cities are going to have to rely on the resilience of restaurateurs and the enlightened self-interest of landlords. If that doesn’t materialize, though, and the restaurant apocalypse comes to pass because of unforgiving landlords, it’s going to be terrible. And it would be doubly terrible if landlords oust their tenants only to replace them with plywood and tax write-downs.

And as people find other places to eat, planners will have to find new ways to bring life to their cities.

Update: Since this blog was posted, Senate Bill 939 has been introduced to create some protections for small businesses, including a moratoria on evictions and the right to renegotiate rents. 

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