Discovering the formula

Is San Francisco's local charm really safe?
San Francisco has a thing for local businesses. From Chinatown to Hayes Valley, the dozens of distinctive neighborhoods that constitute this city have for the most part maintained their individuality with one-of-a-kind, locally owned places to shop, snack, and seek services.
While many cities and small towns across the country have succumbed to the sprawl and homogeneity of chain stores, some have resisted, even in the face of lawsuits and wily campaigning from megaretailers. Big corporations including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target are combating restrictive municipal legislation with their money, pouring millions into local political races and flying in paid signature gatherers for ballot referenda.
"They're spending $100 per vote in some cases," Stacy Mitchell told the Guardian. Mitchell is the author of Big-Box Swindle and a senior researcher for the New Rules Project, a subsidiary of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, which tracks legislation against formula retail.
"They're getting mixed results," she said, which means sometimes the big boys lose, like in the multiyear battle with Inglewood that sent Wal-Mart walking. But more often than not, the formula retailers win.
Take Chicago as a recent example: Mayor Richard Daley overrode city councilors and issued his first veto in 17 years, against legislation that would have required large retailers to pay a living wage to employees. Councilors hoped to trump the mayor with another vote, but at the last minute three councilors switched positions to side with Daley.
"I still don't understand how it happened," said SF supervisor Tom Ammiano, who flew into Chicago to speak in favor of the legislation. He told us the city was behind it, though opponents were arguing that low-income people needed the option to work and shop at Wal-Mart and it was discriminatory to not allow the store to move into the city. "They played the race card. It was obvious they were people on [Wal-Mart's] payroll."
In the week since the veto, Wal-Mart has already swooped in with several site proposals for the first 20-acre megamart in Chicago. It’s stated an eventual goal of building 20 stores in the Windy City. Could Wal-Mart spite San Francisco just like it did Chicago?
Since 2004, San Francisco has operated with the Formula Retail Ordinance, designed to preserve "the city's goal of a diverse retail base." This isn't an outright ban, but it makes the application and review process more arduous for formula retail. The ordinance defines formula retail as any chain with 11 or more outlets that offer standardized services or mimic one another in decor, architecture, and practices (like Starbucks, the Gap, and Wal-Mart, to name an infamous few).
The relevant legislation, Section 703.3 of the Planning Code, reads like it was penned by a Norman Rockwell acolyte and cites such businesses as generally undesirable, granting neighborhoods the right to be notified of potential chain store proposals. While the legislation allows neighborhoods to create their own stricter legislation, it also grants them the right to accept a chain into the fold, which is a pretty big loophole.
So far, most neighborhoods haven't been welcoming. A battle in North Beach over Home Depot resulted in an outright ban of all formula retail in the neighborhood. Hayes Valley followed suit. Conditional use permits in western SoMa, Cole Valley, and Divisadero from Haight to Turk add an extra layer of scrutiny to the planning process when a Starbucks or Target want to set up shop. Potrero Hill–Showplace Square is the next in the trend, with a 12-month interim conditional-use period and a more permanent restriction on the way. That restriction was introduced by Sup. Sophie Maxwell, approved by the Land Use and Economic Development Committee, and headed to the full Board of Supervisors for initial approval Sept.