Recently, Erik Honda from DTNA solicited community input regarding formula retail in the district. I offer these thoughts in response to this article in the DTNA.org newsletter (page 4). In sum, I’m against caps, quotas, or outright bans on formula retail. Here’s why:
1 – Formula retail bans/caps are a red herring
What matters in a great neighborhood is the mix of stores, not the company structure or number of outlets per se. Would lots of neighbors be very upset if La Boulange or Cako moved into an unused space on Market Street? Or a sporting goods store like Big5 moved into the Tower Records building? No, despite the fact that these are formula retail businesses. Just because La Boulange has 20+ stores doesn’t make it a negative addition to our neighborhood. Conversely, if you’ve ever taken the K Muni line out to Geneva Ave/City College, you’ll pass by whole swaths of Excelsior shopping corridors filled only with locally-owned, non-formula retail. It’s a dreary zone of acrylic signs touting karate studios, car repair, hair salons — and nary a formula retail store in sight. This neighborhood, while largely free of ‘chain stores’, has a nasty walking experience. Its lack of formula retail is both a symptom and a reflection of a lowered quality of (street) life. The salient point: neither the presence nor the lack of formula retail is a proxy for ‘quality of life’ or a great neighborhood experience.
2 – Beware of false comparisons
The DTNA article mentions that corridors like Valencia Street and Hayes Valley have formula retail bans, but this glosses over the fact that both districts have easy access to formula retail a block or two away. Mission Street is full of formula retail, so Valencia folks can always hit the Foot Locker walking one block over. To speak of bans in the context of a large area such as the Castro district is to mistake the kind of limited, contained ban on areas like Valencia or Hayes street. A better comparison would be to speak of a “formula retail ban along 18th Street” if one wishes to make some kind of parallel. But it’s an illusion to imagine that Valencia or Hayes Valley residents have some kind of ‘formula retail-free’ zone. It’s a cosmetic rather than functional shift; and they freely take advantage of proximate formula retail anyway.
3 – Bans/caps are not a solution; conditional use/retail mix goals are
It’s ironic that DTNA embraces the CVS Pharmacy taking over the Tower Records building. There are already seven pharmacies within 3 or 4 blocks of that location, including a newly-minted Walgreens (formerly BioScrip) pharmacy about 100 feet from the front door of the proposed CVS. What makes CVS a non-ideal solution is that there is already too much of that business type in the neighborhood. In the same way, the district has too many nail salons and tattoo parlors. The negative here is not that these are formula retail, nor that they’re locally-owned. The negative is that adding more nail salons and tattoo parlors adds nothing to drawing people onto the street. What we need are tools that let us shape the mix of retail, not broad cudgels (i.e., bans/caps) that focus solely on the nature of the business ownership.
4 – Locally-owned small businesses are not inherently good for quality of life
As mentioned above regarding lackluster streets of the Excelsior, neighborhoods with no formula retail and lots of small locally-owned businesses are not inherently wonderful urban zones. And just because a business is small/local, that doesn’t make it inherently great for our locating along our commercial corridor. Imagine a locally-owned used car dealership taking over the Arco station at Castro/Market. Imagine four or five ‘independent’ gas stations taking over Letitia’s corner, Industrialist’s corner, the empty lot at 15th & Sanchez, and Hole in the Ground at 16th/Market. Hard controls (such as percentage caps) on formula retail do not guarantee great retail mixes come to our streets. I say again: exclusively promoting small, local businesses is not a proxy for inherently better quality of life.
5 – Fears of formula retail ‘takeover’ are ungrounded
What most people dislike about formula retail is this image they have of giant parking lots, big box stores, and a repetitious landscape of suburban auto-corridors. And this is an ugly reality. However, this kind of formula retail presence is next to impossible to create in our district. Why not fear it coming here? Because our district’s lot sizes are small; because there will never be that kind of parking available; and because the Octavia Plan and Upper Market Plans are restrictive in ways that work against this particular kind of suburban development.
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So what do we need, if not ‘hard controls’ for formula retail? First of all, the current process (conditional use requirements, neighborhood input, Planning Dept hearings, etc.) is a fairly good one. It offers some chance to guide the mix. Secondly, we’re not anywhere close to being oppressively ‘maxed out’ by formula retail in our district (25%, 28%… whatever the current mix is, it’s not extreme). Hard controls are arbitrary — and people just get in their cars and drive to the formula retail that they want (hello Trader Joe’s…). Better to let formula retail be close and at hand. Better to allow it in a guided system. Bans/caps are dumb, unwieldy tools for development.
Lastly, I’d like to say that local, small businesses thrive when near formula retail despite what they may think. The Whole Foods coming to Dolores & Market will utterly revitalize the corridor between Church and Dolores along Market St, in ways that three decades of “local, small business” has failed to do. Yes, Cafe Sienna was nice. Yes, Gingerfruit was good. Yes, a small Ion car dealership is handy. But no, these businesses are note enough to create a vibrant, wonderful section of our streetscape. That corridor has been moribund for decades. Anchoring a thriving (yet formula retail) food store there will enhance, not detract, from the success of all the smaller businesses along that street. If we want to see more small businesses succeed and fill all the empty storefronts along our streets, we should be enticing the right kind of formula retailers into the mix, not talking about arbitrary limits and hard controls.
So, I’d love DTNA to talk about using more tools to shape the kinds of businesses that move here — and get away from obsessing about “formula retail vs. locally-owned”. The ownership structure of a business is not what matters to quality of life. And that’s why you see DTNA surveys listing “formula retail” so low on the list of quality of life issues. People get that notion intuitively. The question is: will our neighborhood’s Land Use Committee steer away from obsessing on ownership structure and focus on what matters?