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.

Comments

No, its because they are too lazy to travel, and too afraid to do anything but shi* in their own backyards

Posted by Greg on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 10:18 am

What's the big deal if a Target and so forth open up... Where do folks shop there, because no small business has the range or prices of these stores.

Why should the rest of us be forced to put up and shop at these stores? In reality, there is room for both and of course, there are things large stores do better. Costco allows me to purchase organic food, for example, at 1/3 the cost of a small store.

Also ironic to see an area that heavily exploits outsourcing and cheaper migrants over Americans in the IT sector, to rant about protecting the little guy. Not to mention, I am sure no one in the bay area shops online either of course.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 9:50 am

Denying consumer choices to others is a far bigger problem.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 10:34 am

Go rent the movie "The High Cost of Low Prices"

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

The witchunt vilification of "chain stores" (11 stores nationally... WTF?) and anything made outside 15 miles of SF is misguided policy by progressive supervisors (past and present) based on half truths, opinion, guesswork and so called "neighborhood input" (NIMBYS) that has hurt the city and it's neighborhoods more than helped them. SF already has one of the most difficult approval processes for retail businesses in the country, but it's not enough. clowns like Supervisor MAarr favor total ban on specific uses of certain categories of retail and protecting certain categories. After the happy meal ban pet stores and chains are next. Ever been to the Richmond lately? Highest retail vacancy in the city. Mr. jones thinks it's horrible that JC Penney is coming to mid market where it's better to have piss stained, graffitid, vacant storefronts with crack dealers and porn stores than national chains in his mind. He feels awkward in a Safeway i guess. What did you want the metreon to bcome? A urban garden, lasertag, art gallery, homeless shelter? It was built as a retail project you moron. Other businesses follow target and JCPenneys in and around these projects and oftentimes are local retailers and restaurants. Go to the metreon, you can see for yourself if you could bear the site. The transbay terminal "god forbid" might have retail stores. Really? It's a terminal for god sakes. Target is taking over two spaces that were previous large box stores. Guess we should just let spaces sit vacant and wait for 120000 square foot local yarn store. There was an I magnin dept store here 50 years ago you know...... Why does nobody ever talk about the other jobs created (other than employees) for people when a company opens up a business. Much goes on in the background that employs many people but progressives would never mention or bear the thought of mentioning this just focus on the evil corporation and their fleecing of the stupid masses that go there The professionals referenced in the article prefer a "dynamic" view of neighborhoods. How do you pay for these ideal park, open space, car free, neighborhoods if you could? Tax dollars. Where does most of city revenue come from? sales tax. Especially RETAIL sales tax. Theatres and grocery stores and gyms and drugbstores don't open due to useless red tape and small businesses opportunities to open. I'm just a sheep brainwashed by chain stores I guess.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

Every time I go to San Francisco is a real treat for me, I can find there whatever goes through my mind and it's a beautiful city as well. I hope I'll get back there soon, I am planning some business trips there.

Posted by san francisco burrito on Sep. 13, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

In the absence of government intervention in land use, through height and minimum setback restrictions, segregation of residential, commercial and institutional use of land, impact fees being too low for low-density land use and too high for infill, and property taxes based on the combination of land and building rather than the value of the land alone, big business would not be economically competitive, as the chains require greater amount of transportation infrastructure (both consumers travelling by car and suppliers travelling by truck) and would be paying much more in property taxes per square foot of land.

Posted by Danny Handelman on Jul. 15, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

Anyhting that constrains business imposes a cost to business, which translates to lower wages and higher prices.

Government costs you far more than just the taxes you pay. It's a frictional impediment to all economic activity, and mostly for stuff you don't want or need.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 15, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

Some consumers do love the malls exactly because of their national chain stores and restaurants. This could be due to the familiarity of the brand names and due to the consumers being already accustomed to patronizing those places which are considered common. Well, it is also true though that the authenticity of a place will be diminished or fully eliminated but as time goes by and as economic progression takes over, some things are simply too inevitable not to occur.

Posted by Jeanette Hayworth on Oct. 24, 2012 @ 1:43 am

Just wear one of these beauties to a party and see the attention you will be receiving. You do not have to approach any women.

Posted by aisin on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 8:05 pm