National chain stores are flooding into a city that once led the nation in protecting neighborhood businesses and setting limits on commercial spaces
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.
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."
It isn't that these cities are actively courting the national chains in most cases. It's just that in the absence of strong local controls, developers and large commercial landlords just prefer to deal with chains, for a variety of reasons.
"If you're just going with the flow of what developers are doing," she said, "you always end up with national chains."
And that's what San Francisco has started to do.
Stephen Cornell, the owner of Brownie's Hardware and a board member of the nonprofit advocacy group Small Business California, said chains have a huge competitive advantage over local businesses even before either one opens their doors.
"In general, landlords tend to like chains more," said Cornell, whose business has struggled against Lowe's and other corporate competitors. "The landlord always worries: is this guy going to make it and do they have the funds to back it up?"
Big corporate chains have lawyers and accountants on staff, and professional systems established for everything from buying goods to opening new stores, whereas most local entrepreneurs are essentially figuring things out as they go along.
"They're very good at selling themselves," Cornell said. "They're going to manipulate the system perfectly, whether it's the city and its codes or dealing with neighborhood merchants."
And for large malls, Cornell said the problem is even worse. Brokers that fill malls have standing relationships with the national chains — most of which are publicly traded corporations seeking to constantly expand and gain market share — and no incentive to seek out or take a chance on local entrepreneurs.
"Chains have a lot of advantages," Cornell said.
Mitchell said there are two main ways in which malls favor national chains over local businesses. In addition to the relationship between mall brokers and national chains, malls are often built with financing from financial institutions that require certain repayment guarantees.
"What they want to see are credit-worthy clients signed onto those places, and that means national chains with a credit rating from Standard & Poors," Mitchell said, noting how that "automatically locks out" most local businesses.
Cornell also noted that national chains have already figured out how to maximize their efficiency, which keeps their costs down even though that often comes in the form of fewer employees with lower pay — and less reliance on local suppliers, accountants, attorneys, and other professionals — which ends up hurting the local economy. In fact, big chains suck money out of the city and back to corporate headquarters.
"All those people are making money and spending money here, so you have to look at the full circle," Cornell said.
Mitchell said there are often simple solutions to the problem. For example, she said that city officials in Austin, Texas recently required the developer of a large shopping mall to set aside a certain percentage of the units for locally owned businesses.
So rather than hiring a national broker to find tenants, the developer hired a local broker to contact successful independent businesses in the area who might be interested in expanding, and the project ended up greatly exceeding the city's minimum requirements.
Mechanisms like that, or like the formula retail controls pioneered in San Francisco, give her some hope. But she said, "Whether the counter-trends will be enough to counter the dominant trend, I don't know."
The increased malling of San Francisco isn't simply the result of official neglect. Often, the city's policies and resources are actively encouraging the influx of chain stores. A prime example is the massive redevelopment project on Hunters Point and Candlestick Point that city voters approved in 2008 after mega-developer Lennar and most San Francisco political officials pushed the project with a well-funded political campaign.
"If you're selling the land to Lennar for a dollar, and then building all the automobile infrastructure for people to get there, then that's a massive public subsidy," Radulovich said of the big-box mall being built on what was city-owned land on Candlestick Point.
That public subsidy creates a cycle that makes San Francisco less intimate and livable. Creating commercial spaces on the city's edge encourages more people to drive on congested regional roadways. These spaces are filled with national chain stores that have a direct negative impact on small, locally owned stores in neighborhood commercial districts all over the city, causing some of these businesses to fail, meaning local residents will need to travel further for the goods they once bought down the street.
"Those neighborhoods are going to be less walkable as a result," Radulovich said, noting how the trend contradicts the lip service that just about every local politician gives to supporting local businesses in neighborhood corridors. "There's a certain schizophrenia to San Francisco's economic development strategy."
Sup. Eric Mar has been working with Jobs with Justice San Francisco and other groups to tweak city policies that have allowed the chains to proliferate. Last year, Mar held high-profile hearings in City Hall on how national chains impact local businesses, which pointed to the need for additional protections (see "Battling big box," Jan. 3).
This year, he's working on rolling out a series of legislative initiatives designed to level the playing field between local interests and those of Wall Street and the national chains it champions.
Last month, the Board of Supervisors approved Mar's legislation to add banks to the city's formula retail controls, a reaction to Chase Bank and other national banks snapping up vacant stores in neighborhood commercial corridors such as Divisadero Street.
Now he's working on legislation that would mandate minimum labor and community benefit standards for chain stores — including grocery outlets such as Fresh & Easy — and study how chains affect San Francisco's overall economy.
"There should be good neighbor policies when they come into a neighborhood," Mar said. "Some neighborhoods are so distressed they may want a big box grocery story coming in, but we need to try to mitigate its negative impacts."
One of his partners in that effort is his brother, Gordon Mar of Jobs with Justice, who argues the city needs to have a clearer picture of how national chains impact local communities.
"We've definitely seen an increase in corporate chain stores coming into San Francisco in the last year, and nobody has really been tracking it," he said.
While the Planning Department's quarterly pipeline report shows that applications for retail outlets has held steady at about 3 million square feet on the way in recent years, it doesn't break out how much of that is national chains — let alone how that impacts the city's economy and small business sector.
The city's Legislative Analyst is now studying the matter and scheduled to release a report later this summer, which Gordon Mar said will be helpful in countering the narrow "jobs" rhetoric that now dominates City Hall.
"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."
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."