The malling of San Francisco

National chain stores are flooding into a city that once led the nation in protecting neighborhood businesses and setting limits on commercial spaces

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The Metreon mall is being revived by a huge Target scheduled to open this fall. Will it put the city in chains?
GUARDIAN ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY HELLMAN

steve@sfbg.com

Shopping malls filled with national chain stores and restaurants are in many respects the antithesis of San Francisco. They're the bane of any metropolis that strives to be unique and authentic. And those just happen to be qualities that make tourism this city's number one industry.

The logic of modern capitalism, and its relentless growth into new markets, has already placed a Target or a Walmart, and a Nordstrom, Macy's, Ross, or a JCPenney — along with a bevy of Starbucks, Applebee's, Jamba Juice, and McDonald's and myriad other formulaic corporate eateries — in just about every town in the country.

Do people really need them here, too? And in a city renowned worldwide for its scenic beauty and temperate (albeit sometimes foggy) climate, do people want to shop in the enclosed, climate-controlled malls popularized in the small or suburban towns that many residents came here to escape?

For me, the answer is no. Frankly, malls have an aura of artificiality that gives me the creeps — but I freely acknowledge that not everyone feels that way. Some San Franciscans may like malls and chain stores while others don't.

But it doesn't really matter what any of us think. Left unchecked, it's the market that matters — and the logic of the market gives chain stores a huge competitive advantage over the mom-and-pops. Their labor and supply costs are lower, their financial resources are more extensive and appealing to commercial landlords, and their business models are based on constantly opening new stores.

All cities have to do is just say yes. And San Francisco has been increasingly saying yes to malls and chain stores.

The economic desperation that set in since the financial crash of 2008 has overcome the trend of resistance to so-called "formula retail establishments" that had been building in San Francisco during the years before the recession.

So now, rather than dying from neglect, the Metreon mall has been brought back to life by a huge Target store set to open this fall, the second Target (the other one at Masonic and Geary) going into a city that had once eschewed such national mega-retailers.

Just down the street, in the heart of the city's transit-rich commercial center, the CityPlace mall that had been abandoned by its previous owners after winning city approval two years ago is now being built by new owners and set to open next spring with "value-based" national chain stores like JCPenney.

Projects funded with public money aren't immune either. The new Transbay Terminal transit center now under construction will have its own mini-mall, with 225,000 square feet of retail, much of it expected to house national chains. Even more retail will be built on the ground floor of the dozen other nearby residential and office buildings connected to the project.

And it isn't just these new malls going in a stone's throw from the Westerfield Mall, Crocker Galleria, San Francisco Center, and other central city malls. All over town, national chains like the Whole Foods and Fresh & Easy grocery stores are replacing Cala Foods and other homegrown markets, or going into other commercial shells like the S&C Ford building on Market near the Castro.

Just a few years ago, the approval of Home Depot on Bayshore Boulevard (since then sold and opened as Lowe's, another national chain) was a hugely controversial project approved by the Board of Supervisors on a closely watched 6-5 vote. Now, Lennar is building an entire suburban-style complex of big box stores on Candlestick Point, hundreds of thousands of square feet — without much controversy at all.

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