- This Week
07.10.12 - 4:51 pm | Steven T. Jones |
Even Walmart — the dreaded poster child for huge corporations that use their market power to drive down wages or force local stores out of business — is reported to be actively looking to open "a couple" of stores in San Francisco (see "Walmart sets sights on San Francisco," June 24, San Francisco Chronicle).
To Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich and others who have long encouraged San Francisco to embrace the kind of urbanism advocated by famed author and activist Jane Jacobs — which emphasizes unique, neighborhood-based development that enhances public spaces and street life — accepting the malls feels like giving up on more dynamic urban models.
"It's sort of an admission of failure," Radulovich said. "It's the failure of urbanism in San Francisco."
Mid-Market Street is a bellwether for the type of city San Francisco may become. Every mayor since at least Dianne Feinstein in the late 1970s has called for the redevelopment of Mid-Market into a more active and inviting commercial and social corridor, and few have done so more fervently than Mayor Ed Lee.
Several city studies have explored a wide variety of ways to accomplish that goal, from eliminating automobiles and transforming Market Street into a lively pedestrian promenade to using redevelopment money, tax breaks, and/or flashy lighted signs to encourage distinctive development projects unique to San Francisco.
"But the city failed, so the market filled the void," Radulovich said.
It isn't that all shopping malls or enclosed commercial areas are necessarily bad, Radulovich said, citing the influential work by writer Walter Benjamin on the roles the enclosed "arcades" of Paris played in public life. "They work when they are an extension of public spaces," Radulovich said.
Yet that isn't what he sees being built in San Francisco, where what gets approved and who occupies those spaces is largely being dictated by private developers who are more interested in their bottom lines than with the creation of a vibrant urban environment where people are valued as more than mere consumers or workers.
San Francisco isn't alone in allowing national chains to increasingly dominate commercial spaces. In fact, Stacy Mitchell, a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said that until recently San Francisco was one of the best big US cities in controlling the proliferation of chain stores.
But the city has lost ground since its anti-chain high water mark in 2007, when voters approved Proposition G, which expanded the controls on formula retail outlets — generally requiring them to get a conditional use permit and go through public hearings — that the Board of Supervisors had approved in 2004.
Those controls are only as good as the political will to reject a permit application, and that doesn't happen very often. A memo prepared last July for the Planning Commission — entitled "Informational Presentation on the Status of Formula Retail Controls" — found that of the 31 formula retails applications the city received since 2007, just three were rejected by the commission, six were withdrawn, and 22 were approved.
It's gotten even worse since then, as the two Targets and other chains have been courted and embraced by Mayor's Lee's administration, whose key representatives didn't respond to Guardian interview requests by press time.
Mitchell said it's not nearly as bad in San Francisco as it is in Chicago, New York City, New Orleans, and other iconic US cities whose commercial spaces have been flooded with chains since the recession began.
"It's nothing compared to the no-holds-barred stuff going on in New York City right now," Mitchell said. "Walking down Broadway now is like a repeating loop of the stores you just saw further up the street."