San Franciscans have always been wary of chain stores, more so than residents of any other major US city, none of which have taken on the ever-expanding national corporations and their homogenizing impact on local communities as strongly as San Francisco.
In the decade since San Francisco first adopted trail-blazing controls on what it calls "formula retail" businesses, those restrictions have only gotten tighter for various commercial districts around the city as elected supervisors seek to prevent big companies from taking over key storefronts from local shopkeepers.
But now, as the Planning Department and Mayor's Office push a new set of formula retail regulations that they say standardizes and expands the analysis and controls for chain stores throughout the city, neighborhood groups and small business advocates are decrying aspects of the proposal that actually weaken those controls.
Most controversial is the proposal to almost double the number of outlets that a company can have before it is considered a formula retail business, going from up to 11 stores now up to 20 under the proposal, which was approved by the Small Business Commission last week and heads to the Planning Commission next month.
Opposition is particularly strong in North Beach, one of two neighborhood commercial districts that have an outright ban on formula retail business (Hayes Valley is the other) and where residents are organizing to fight the proposal at the Board of Supervisors and at the ballot if necessary.
"The Planning Department proposal to redefine what a chain store is flies in the face of the voters' will and 10 years of successful chain store policy," Aaron Peskin, the former Board of Supervisors president from North Beach who sponsored the ordinance banning chains there, told the Guardian.
The citywide voters he refers to are those who approved Prop. G by a wide margin in 2006, defining formula retail business as having 11 or more outlets with common branding and merchandise and requiring that they obtain a conditional use permit before opening in most neighborhood commercial districts, thus giving local residents a vehicle to stop those projects.
Although Prop. G allows the city to update its standards and definitions regarding formula retail, Peskin and others said throwing out the negotiated number of 11 outlets undercuts "the fundamental underpinning of the formula retail controls."
The Planning Department proposal also does nothing to prevent big national chains from creating spin-offs to circumvent the controls, a growing trend that raised controversy in the last few years, including when Gap subsidiary Athleta opened a store on Fillmore Street and when Liz Claiborne owner Fifth & Pacific Companies tried to open a Jack Spade store in the Mission District.
Those two controversial provisions in the Planning Department proposal aren't in rival legislation by Sup. Eric Mar, who has long been a champion of expanding controls on chain stores. Both the Mar and Planning Department legislation will go before the Planning Commission on July 17, and they could be either merged or move forward as rival proposals.
"We're hoping this legislation moves forward as quickly as we can," Mar told us. "We're losing neighborhood character in many areas."
For all the indignant opposition to the Planning Department proposal expressed at the June 9 Small Business Commission meeting, where mayoral appointees led that body's 4-2 vote approving the measure, the planners who developed it say they're actually trying to expand the controls on chain stores.