Don't weaken protections against chain stores

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EDITORIAL As we reported two weeks ago ("Breaking the chains," June 17), the San Francisco Planning Commission will soon consider rival measures to modify the city's decade-old policies regulating chain stores (aka formula retail businesses) and giving neighborhoods the ability to reject them. This should be viewed as a chance to strengthen protections, not to weaken them at a time when small businesses need all the help they can get.

There are a number of important reforms in both the formula retail proposal by Sup. Eric Mar and the one developed by the Planning Department in coordination with the Mayor's Office. Both expand on the types of businesses covered by the regulations, they close key loopholes, and they require more detailed economic studies to give the public and policymakers more information on how chain stores impact neighborhood commercial districts.

But in exchange for those protections, the Planning Department measure also makes concessions that are unacceptable and inconsistent with the formula retail standards that voters adopted through Prop. G in 2006. Specifically, planners are making the dubious claim that they have the authority to increase the threshold of what's considered a chain from 11 stores now up to 20 stores, unilaterally rejecting a compromise number negotiated at the time between progressive leaders and the business community.

The logic offered for that change is equally questionable. The planners and backers of the change in the Mayor's Office and business community say local businesses that grow beyond 11 outlets — such as Philz Coffee, Lee's Deli, and San Francisco Soup Company — shouldn't be "punished for their success" by enduring a lengthy and expensive conditional use permit process.

But gathering information and letting the community have a voice isn't punishment. Larger businesses have more resources to go through the approval process, and the city rarely rejects formula retail applications anyway. Planners argue that the conditional use process is onerous and can take six months or more — but that's an argument for reforming the process, not bypassing it. The Mayor's Office should devote more resources to hiring more Planning Department staff to speed up this process, raising the fees on applicants to do so if necessary.

The Planning Department proposal also makes no effort to determine who owns the business that want to open here, allowing corporations to create endless subsidiaries and spinoffs to bypass the formula retail controls, something the city already has seen with the controversial Jack Spade application in the Mission District and other projects.

Corporations can be wily and predatory as the seek to endlessly expand into new markets, and if San Francisco's nationally recognized controls are to have any relevance, they'll need to adapt to changing circumstances. That means we need to strengthen and not weaken them.

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