The Bay Area is enjoying its strongest surge of retail expansion in years, fresh evidence that the wounds inflicted by the Great Recession are healing.
Developers are building retail projects at a brisk clip, demand for retail space has surged and vacancy rates have dwindled, and merchants are scouting for sites to open stores, according to realty experts who track the retail sector.
"This is definitely the strongest market for retail in the Bay Area since the downturn, no question about that," said Garrick Brown, director of research with Terranomics, a realty brokerage that specializes in retail properties and tenants. "There is a lot of demand all over the Bay Area for retail space."
At the end of June, the nine-county Bay Area had about 1.3 million square feet of retail sites in the pipeline -- defined as actually under construction or about to launch construction -- according to Terranomics. That is up from 1.1 million in mid-2012 -- and well ahead of the 150,000 square feet in the retail pipeline in mid-2009, which was the year after the worst of the financial crisis of 2008, Terranomics experts said.
"We are leasing everything we can touch," said David Taxin, a partner with Meacham/Oppenheimer, a commercial realty brokerage. "I've been doing this for a long time and this is definitely the strongest demand by retailers in years."
All of this stems from the perceived economic strength of the region.
"You have the demographics and the economy, job creation and the relatively low unemployment rate," Brown said. "That's what retailers are looking for. They want a sure thing, and the Bay Area nails it on all fronts."
In another sign of the health of the market, vacancy rates are declining steadily for retail spaces in the Bay Area. At the worst part of the current cycle, vacancy rates peaked at above 7 percent during 2010. Now the rate in the nine-county region is 5.8 percent, according to Terranomics.
In some spots, the demand is even higher. San Mateo County, San Francisco and Marin County are all regions where demand outstrips supply.
"On the Peninsula and in San Francisco, there is really nowhere to build, and the development process is very difficult, even if there are places to build," Brown said. "The East Bay and Santa Clara County are the most welcoming for retail development."
In Santa Clara County, the largest retail center now under construction is Village Oaks in South San Jose, a 320,000-square-foot complex that will be anchored by Target and Safeway. In the East Bay, the biggest retail projects under construction are a 140,000-square-foot Target store at Alameda Landing Shopping Center in Alameda, and an 80,000-square-foot Foods Co store in Oakland's Foothill Square. San Francisco's largest project is the 270,000-square-foot Market Street Place.
Retailers as big and familiar as Target, Safeway and Whole Foods are on the hunt for new space. But they are joined by a wide range of other stores, from Walmart and its neighborhood markets to Jamba Juice and Five Guys.
"We are ramping up our real estate efforts again in the Bay Area," said Adam Smith, executive coordinator for store development with Whole Foods. "We are back where we were in the early 2000s, actively pursuing sites and leases."
During those peak years, Whole Foods opened about five stores a year in the Bay Area. That's down to about two stores a year. Whole Foods has 30 stores here.
Calling it "a great market for us," Smith noted "the Bay Area is the birthplace of the natural and organic food movement."
Whole Foods just opened its first store in Fremont, and is building a store near downtown San Jose at The Alameda and Stockton Avenue that should open during the second half of 2014. It also recently disclosed plans to open a new store in Dublin and its second store in Walnut Creek.
Target has been active with store openings in San Jose and the East Bay, and it is even finding sites in crowded San Francisco.
"The Bay Area is a region Target has an eye on," said Matias Cavallin, a Target spokesman. "The economy here is really allowing us to gear up for more store openings." Target has 54 stores in the Bay Area.
Bay Area cities welcome the heightened activity, because the increase in retail sales helps fill municipal coffers.
"During the downturn, when taxes were lean, we really felt the pinch," said John Lang, chief economist with San Jose's Economic Development Department. Now, he said, "retail sales are growing, and we are seeing a growth in tax revenue."
During the 12 months ending in June, San Jose generated roughly $13 billion in taxable sales, up 3.4 percent from the same period that ended in June 2012. It also was 21 percent above the $11.03 billion in taxable sales during the trough of the retail downturn, the 12 months ending in June 2010.
Some of the shoppers at the opening of the new Whole Foods in Fremont appeared to be confident about their own economic circumstances.
"Over the last year, the economy has improved a lot," said Jessica Thompson, of Union City. "I feel better about spending money."
Contact George Avalos at 408-859-5167 or 408-373-3556. Follow him at Twitter.com/georgeavalos.