San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s President Tom Ammiano has proposed a citywide ordinance that would require retail development projects larger than 50,000 square feet, with the exception of supermarkets, to undergo an impact review and obtain a conditional use permit before building.
The ordinance notes that large retail stores could impact traffic, reduce the diversity of the city’s economic base by eliminating smaller businesses, and preclude higher value industrial development on the few sizable parcels of urban real estate available. For these reasons, according to the ordinance, large retail stores warrant added scrutiny.
The Planning Commission, appointed by the mayor, would be charged with reviewing development proposals and granting permits. The Commission would consider whether the store “will provide a development that is necessary or desirable for, and compatible with, the neighborhood or the community” and whether it will “be detrimental to the health, safety, convenience or general welfare of persons residing or working in the vicinity.” Decisions could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
The ordinance would give the city significantly more leeway to reject big box development. It would also give officials more leverage to negotiate with developers over such things as the store design and site plan.
Supervisor Ammiano has offered the measure as a temporary interim ordinance that would remain in effect for one year, giving the city time to consider options for a permanent impact review law.
The proposal was prompted in part by Home Depot’s plans to build a 140,000 square foot store (about the size of three football fields) on Bayshore Boulevard off Cortland Street. This is the fifth time the company has tried to build in San Francisco. Earlier this year, Home Depot’s attempt to locate in Visitacion Valley met with strong neighborhood opposition, prompting the Board of Supervisors to enact a measure limiting development on the site to no more than 65,000 square feet. Home Depot backed out.
The company’s latest proposal has drawn fire from local hardware dealers and residents of the adjacent Bernal Heights neighborhood. They believe the superstore would drain the life out of small, neighborhood-serving businesses, draw shoppers from throughout the city, and inundate the area with traffic and congestion. A store of this size typically generates several thousand car trips every day.
Big box retailers have saturated many suburban and small town markets, and are increasingly turning their attention to central cities. More often than not, they’re encountering strong opposition. Earlier this year, neighbors thwarted furniture retailer Ikea’s plans to build a 300,000 square foot store in the middle of Brooklyn.
A coalition of community organizations is currently fighting Wal-Mart’s plans to put a 200,000 square foot store, surrounded by 900 parking spaces, in the heart of historic New Orleans.
Most cities are ill-prepared to deal with the growing interest from big box retailers. Zoning codes in many places allow big box stores with little or no review of the potential implications. Economic and traffic analyses are not required, citizens are given no opportunity to provide input, and city officials have only limited power to reject stores that will have a negative impact.
A growing number of communities are addressing this problem by capping the size of retail stores and/or enacting impact review ordinances. The kinds of impacts considered vary from one community to the next, but might include such things as impact on traffic, downtown commerce, community character, public revenue, and the environment.