San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 17, 2014
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.
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.
Senior Policy Advisor AnMarie Rodgers and Project Manager Kanishka Burns sat down with the Guardian to go through details of the proposal and a May study it was based on, “San Francisco Formula Retail Economic Analysis,” by Strategic Economics, as well as an earlier study by the Controller’s Office.
“Our department is super committed to encouraging the diversity of neighborhood commercial districts,” Rogers told us, acknowledging that small businesses often need protection from deep-pocketed corporations that can pay higher rents and enjoy other competitive advantages over mom-and-pop stores.
Rodgers cited studies showing that local small businesses circulate more of their revenues in the city than big chains, boosting the local economy. That’s one reason why the Planning Department proposal expands formula retail controls to include the categories business and professional services (including Kinko’s and H&R Block), limited financial services (including street front ATMs and small banking outlets), and fringe financial (such as check-cashing and payday loan outlets).
Stacy Mitchell is the senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization that has been working with San Francisco on its formula retail controls since their inception. She applauds the city’s current efforts to create more comprehensive guidelines and to require more economic analysis.
“San Francisco doesn’t have a good mechanism for fully evaluating the economic impact of these proposals,” Mitchell told us, calling the Planning Department and Mar efforts “a really good place to start the conversation.”
But Mitchell said that she doesn’t want to weigh in on what specific number of outlets may be right, saying city officials just need to decide, “What is the right balance and mix and how do we want to handle it?”
Rodgers told us the Planning Department legislation will expand the number of businesses that fall under formula retail controls, even as the threshold is raised to 20 outlets, although she couldn’t quantify exactly how much.
But critics are focusing on aspects of the proposal that loosen current restrictions, noting how that cuts against the trend in recent years of supervisors seeking to tighten restrictions in their districts, creating a hodgepodge of legislation that the Planning Department was trying to overcome with comprehensive new legislation.
Mar was also critical of the Planning Department proposal for not looking at corporate ownership of subsidiaries, something that his legislation does, stating that companies with a 50 percent or more ownership stake in an outlet get included in the formula retail designation.
“Our proposal has been attacked by people who think we’re over-regulating and those who think we’re under-regulating,” Rodgers told us.
Yet as the June 9 Small Business Commission hearing made clear, supporters of the proposal predictably came from the same business groups that have opposed formula retail controls from the very beginning: San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Association of Realtors, and San Francisco Building Owners and Managers Association.
Representatives from each of those three groups were the only people who spoke in favor of the proposal, each of them declaring it a “balanced” and “data-driven” compromise that they support, even as they argued for loosening the restrictions even more. But the vast majority of speakers were neighborhood activists critical of the proposal.
“Going from 11 to 20 makes no sense at all. Who picked out this number?” Susan Landry, owner of Animal Connection in the Marina District, told the commission. “Please have a conscience and vote for independent businesses.”
But Small Business Commissioner Kathleen Dooley said the vote was just the latest example of a commission stacked with mayoral appointees (including two bankers) doing the bidding of downtown rather than advocating for small business interests.
“Nine supervisors have tightened up the restrictions in their districts, but the Planning Department has gone the opposite way,” Dooley told us. “The irony was it all started with the protests [of chain applicants skirting local controls], but the Planning Department turned it on its head to loosen the restrictions.”
Yet the planners involved on the proposal call that a simplistic view that discounts the comprehensive nature of the new policy, which they say could serve as a model for other cities.
“I think they’ll all catch up to us,” Rodgers said of the other big US cities that have become to explore formula retail controls as local small businesses struggle against competition from chain stores. “We are a national leader on this and we want to get it right.”
Mitchell agreed: “There are lots of conversations going on around the country about how to meet this challenge, and people are watching what San Francisco does.”
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