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Home creepo
Sup. Tom Ammiano's big-box legislation could hamper the hardware megastore.

By Cassi Feldman

FOR 89 YEARS , Beronio Lumber just off Bayshore Boulevard has sold everything necessary for laying floors, building decks, and installing windows. Now the possibility of a giant Home Depot store moving in down the street could mean the end of the family-owned business. "Historically, they are fairly predatory," Beronio president Mike Casassa said. "It's certainly got us scared."

It has Bernal Heights scared, too. Community activists have been fighting the Atlanta-based hardware giant tooth and nail. You would think they'd have no trouble finding support. In recent years Home Depot's reputation has suffered from several high-profile discrimination suits, environmental concerns, and a slew of in-store accidents. But it's not that simple.

The store location is on the edge of the Bayview, a neighborhood badly in need of economic investment. Some Bayview residents say they want Home Depot and resent the intrusion of a whiter, more affluent community into their five-year-old planning process (see "Bernal vs. Bayview," 9/12/01).

Now Sup. Tom Ammiano has jumped into the fray with legislation that, if passed, would require stores larger than 50,000 square feet to get special "conditional use" permits before moving forward. It would force the San Francisco Planning Department to consider the economic and social impact of "big box" stores and give neighbors the chance to appeal any decision to the Board of Supervisors.

Although Ammiano denies that his resolution is aimed at Home Depot, Bernal residents say it would strengthen their bargaining power – while Bayview residents say it could sabotage theirs. Both sides are busy getting the word out, hoping to rally support for a Jan. 24 Board of Supervisors committee hearing.

Meanwhile, Home Depot is getting nervous. The company has hired Barnes Clarke and Associates to lobby on behalf of the project, a 148,500-square-foot megastore with a three-story parking garage. It's a logical choice: the firm has also represented Kmart, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, and Neiman Marcus. Home Depot spokesperson Chuck Sifuentes told the Bay Guardian that right now the company is focused mostly on defeating Ammiano's legislation. "We see it as impeding the progress of the store," he said.

So does the Bayview Hunters Point Project Area Committee, which has been privately negotiating with Home Depot. Although PAC chair Jim Martin declined to say exactly what offers the store had made, he assured us that Home Depot would be a welcome addition to the empty Goodman Lumber-Whole Earth Access site at 491 Bayshore. "Home Depot provides a tax base, employment opportunities," he said. "Home Depot will become a strong philanthropic neighbor."

At a Jan. 17 meeting of the PAC, the board voted to oppose the big-box legislation. "For us, it's not just about Home Depot," Martin said. "The legislation as it has been authored was the next step on behalf of a group of people in the Bernal community.... They're looking to buy time in order to do what they want to do with the Bayshore corridor."

If that isn't the case, he wonders, why didn't they protest when Best Buy, a big-box electronics chain, was OK'd in SoMa?

Buck Bagot, a Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center board member, said that Best Buy had slipped under the radar, something that wouldn't happen if Ammiano's legislation were in place. "It's not anti-big box," he said. "It permits full public discussion and debate and a reasonable opportunity to appeal." He said he respects the Bayview PAC but thinks it may be giving Home Depot too much credit.

The store could bring 200 new jobs into the area (with wages starting at $11 an hour), but only half of those would be full time, Sifuentes said. The company does not allow employees to join unions, and it does not extend benefits to domestic partners. And although he promised the store would "make every effort to hire as many local employees as possible," Sifuentes could not say how many jobs that might mean.

That's one of the reasons supporters like Ammiano's legislation; they hope it would turn the usual soft promises into requirements enforceable by the Planning Department. When Costco Wholesale moved onto 10th Street in 1992, the store worked with the Mission Hiring Hall/South of Market Employment Center to offer jobs to low-income San Franciscans. But the organization's director, Don Marcos, told us there has been little follow-up with the store since then. "There's been no monitoring," he said.

That type of hands-off approach worries Home Depot's critics, who say the company can't be trusted. In Southfield, Mich., 12 current and former employees charged Home Depot with racial discrimination; their suit was settled when the company agreed to be monitored for two years. In 1997 the company agreed to pay $87.5 million in a 25,000-person West Coast class-action suit that accused it of not promoting women. Home Depot did not admit wrongdoing in either situation. Last August another gender discrimination suit was filed in Houston.

Home Depot already has 1,327 stores, 155 of which are in California, and the company plans to open 200 more this year. In 2000 it raked in $45.7 billion but hopes to raise that to $100 billion annually by 2005. Accomplishing that means forcing others out of business. In Washington, D.C., the store drove out Hechinger's, a popular competitor, and then took over its empty stores. Other regional chains, such as Rickels, Grossman's, and Pergament Home Centers, have also been pushed into bankruptcy.

To dispute this notion, Sifuentes faxed us several articles on small hardware stores across the country. But only two featured stores that had survived Home Depot for a year or more.

Sifuentes said that Home Depot could generate $400,000 to $500,000 a year in local sales tax revenue and could attract shoppers to the area, but there could be a downside, too. A 1999 report by UC Irvine associate professors Marlon Boarnet and Randall Crane found that "the aggressive entry of supercenters such as those operated by Wal-Mart" could cause an overall loss of $1.4 billion in wages and benefits a year in southern California.

Rod Heisler, a local construction estimator, said he considers Home Depot worse than a chain supermarket or electronics store because it has the lowest prices and no large-scale competition. "It drains the city of small-business owners, while taking all the profits out of the city to corporate headquarters."

Casassa from Beronio is more evenhanded. "Naturally we believe in free enterprise as much as the next person," he said. "Speaking on behalf of myself as an individual resident of San Francisco, my personal preference has always been for smaller, more local businesses, but that's ultimately a choice that the people have to make."

The Board of Supervisors' Housing, Transportation, and Land Use Committee holds a hearing on Ammiano's legislation Thurs/24, 11 a.m., City Hall, Room 263, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, S.F. (415) 554-4441.
E-mail Cassi Feldman at cassi@sfbg.com.