There are a number of key things the city can do to turn that around and become a truly small-business–friendly place — and most of them go far beyond public-relations efforts and cutting through red tape. The basic approach to policy needs to change; here are a few ways to start:
•Stop allowing big chains to come into town. That's not exactly rocket science, and it isn't so hard either: Hayes Valley and North Beach both have "formula retail" laws that restrict the chains, and there's talk of doing the same in Potrero Hill. But why does this have to be fought block by block? Why not a citywide ordinance that protects every neighborhood commercial district — and, more important, keeps the life-sucking big-box giants away from the city altogether?
•Make small, locally owned businesses part of the planning process. The city's own (limited) studies have made clear that the type of development the mayor and the current city planning leadership has in mind would damage local businesses, particularly in the repair, distribution, and small manufacturing areas. That alone ought to be grounds to change directions. Why not a checklist for every new project that includes the question: Will this displace existing locally owned businesses? If the answer is yes, the project should be rejected.
•Take progressive business taxes seriously. There's almost certainly going to be an effort this fall to change the city's business-tax structure, with one of the goals being an increase in overall revenue. That's great, and it ought to happen — but the tax rates have to be shifted too, so that a tiny local retail outlet doesn't pay the same amount as the Gap. (Socking big-box outlets with a special tax or fee — possibly based on the fact that they are by nature car-driven operations — might be a nice way to bring in some cash.)
You can't be friendly to small local businesses these days without taking sides in the national economic war — and that means coming out against the big chains. Until San Francisco does that, all the talk of supporting local merchants will amount to nothing. SFBG