The malling of San Francisco - Page 5

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

"They are exploiting the economic recession by saying they're bringing much needed jobs into the city and serving low-income residents," he said. "But when you bring out the facts about the impact of these low-road retail stores on neighborhoods and small businesses, there is a net loss of jobs and a lowering of labor standards."

 

 

VALUING MALLS

Yet the fate of those controls is uncertain at best, particularly in a tough economic environment in which the city needs revenue, people are desperate for jobs, and many residents have seen their buying power stagnate, making the cheap goods offered by Target and Walmart more attractive.

"It's complicated stuff," Michael O'Connor, a local entrepreneur and former member of the Small Business Commission who favors formula retail controls, told us. "Stores like Target do appeal to lower income families...The progressive agenda needs to understand that working-class families need somewhere to shop."

O'Connor acknowledges how small businesses like those he owns, including a clothing store, often can't compete with national chains who buy cheap goods in bulk. So he said he favors protections in some neighborhoods while allowing chains in others, telling us, "I don't have a problem with the Target going into the Metreon."

That argument also held sway with city officials when they considered approving the CityPlace project two years ago, which was presented as a mall filled with "value-based" stores that would be affordable to median income San Franciscans.

"At the time, the decision was around whether a value-based retail operation made sense in that location, and the answer was an emphatic 'yes,'" Barbary Coast Consulting founder Alex Clemens, who represented the project, told us.

On a national or global level, there are good arguments against reliance on national chains selling cheap imported goods, which has created a huge trade deficit between the US and countries such as China that costs American jobs — ironically, the very things that some use as arguments for approving chain stores.

"The recession has created a climate of desperation where cities are more easily swayed by the jobs argument," Mitchell said, noting the falsity of those arguments by pointing to studies showing that the arrival of chain stores in cities usually creates a net loss in employment. Finally, supporters of chain stores say the cash-strapped city needs the property and sales tax revenue "Because they say they'll produce a lot sales tax revenue, they're going to get away with all kinds of shit," Cornell said, arguing that shouldn't justify city policies that favor big corporations, such as tax breaks and publicly financed infrastructure. "I certainly don't think [city officials] should be giving them any advantages." There are few simple solutions to the complex and interconnected problems that result from the malling of San Francisco and other cities. It's really a question of balance — and the answer of whether San Francisco can regain its balance has yet to be answered. "Given the mayor's approach to economic development, it's inevitable that we'll have more coming into the city," Sup. Mar said. "But the '50s car culture, and the model of malls that came in the '60s, don't build communities or strong neighborhoods."