For the folks living in Western Addition who weren't stoked about having Chase Bank move in on an already chain-heavy block of Divisadero (despite creepy ads trying to convince them otherwise), last night was a long one at City Hall. A neighborhood activist's appeal to deny Chase a permit to build on the corner of Oak and Divisadero was denied, and his other tabled pending an absent board member's vote next week on Wednesday, March 23.
We caught up with the man who'd filed the action against Chase, Dean Preston, around one a.m. as the rest of the hearing's audience -- which included residents on both sides of the issue, including a very vocal contingent featuring Joe O'Donoghue, ex-president of the Residential Builders Association -- was rubbing their eyes and wondering how the hell they had sat in City Hall for the last seven hours. “The Board of Appeals is blindly deferring to the planning department,” Preston told a small assemblage of supporters. “We had hoped that they would uphold the letter of the law.”
Chase's future on Divisadero hangs, as so many things do, on the definition of several ambivalently-coded words in the city's planning screeds. On the Board of Appeals' podium, Preston debated with Christine Griffith, Chase's representative, about the meaning of the city's formula retail law.
Do financial services fall under the purview of one of SF neighborhood activists' most important tools for fighting back the spread of chain stores within city limits? Preston said yes, Griffith and departmental representatives said no, and the board seems to be siding with the bank on this one – every member present voted to allow Chase to continue building, with the exception of Chris Hwang.
Board member Tanya Peterson commented that Prop G, which made the formula retail controls applicable city-wide back in 2007, was mainly intended to prevent mom and pop store from competition by big box companies, a phenomenon she found inapplicable to financial services.
Other issues raised in Preston's appeal were square footage concerns. The blueprints for the branch, which would take up three storefronts on the block that were once occupied by Country Cheese and Five Star Truffles (which has since relocated to the Castro), indicate that the bank would clock in at 3,946 square feet – suspiciously close to the 3,999 square foot cut-off after which a conditional use community hearing is required. In addition, to avoid a planning code violation the bank relocated a prospective 24-hour ATM inside the building, potentially bringing the square footage total above the limit. "That's just reflective of the way the company works," said Griffith. “Measuring space according to planning code, there's an art to that,” Preston commented drily.
But for the Western Addition area residents who stuck it out through the board's many hours of neighbors haggling over dormer window permits and unwanted cell phone company boxes to speak their piece about the new corporation on the block, at issue was more than acreage. Some older residents welcomed the bank to an area that once suffered from financial redlining, and there were a few voices that claimed the neighborhood suffered from a dearth of banking options.
The balance of voices in the audience was weighted on the side of the opposition, tipped perhaps by organizing around the issue done via Facebook. The block already has a Bank of America on it, and another Chase location lies six and a half blocks away on Masonic and Fulton streets.
Public commentors cited the already pedestrian-daunting nature of the block between Oak and Fell (two heavily-trafficked one ways), home to two gas stations and already an unattractive, unsafe stretch for the burgeoning small business area's pedestrians and bicyclists. They questioned Chase's motivations for moving into that specific block (“it's a great billboard location”) and reminded the board that San Francisco residents and voters demand community input when a corporate chain, regardless of the business category, moves into a thriving neighborhood. A bar owner wondered whether the wealthy bank's intrusion would encourage other property owners to hold their storefronts empty, waiting for a likewise deep-pocketed tenant to express interest.
Despite an actual Chase employee's attempt last night to comment during the time reserved to the general public to the contrary, it's not a friend to small businesses. We're not stupid.
But mostly, it came down to shaping the future of the neighborhood, long plagued by empty storefronts and now experiencing a renaissance of nightlife, retail, and food. “If Chase is too big to fail,” one neighbor summed up nicely. “It's too big to be on Divisadero.”