first published in Mesh Magazine #4, April/May 2004
REINING IN THE CHAINS
by Matt Gonzalez
WE’RE ALL PRETTY USED TO IT by now. A chain store moves into a neighborhood commercial district and starts to sell its product. In some cases they are even welcomed – good product, friendly service, reasonable prices. So what’s wrong with it? Proponents of the retailers appeal to a democratic review: let the consumer decide. If folks don’t want chain stores, they should vote with their wallets.
But the justice of the marketplace is an illusion. American consumerism is King. We behave selfishly when we’re out shopping. We’ll do what is good for us individually in the moment.
Collectively we may decry the appearance of a Walgreens; but if we need some aspirin, “hey, what’s the big deal?” The truth is that chain stores are often bad for us in ways that are not readily apparent. The jobs they create are low paying minimum wage jobs. Store decisions are not made locally, so don’t expect the chain store to contribute to that local school fundraiser like the independent neighborhood store used to. Commercial rents are driven up because chain stores can afford it, driving out neighborhood serving retail, like shoe repair shops and laundry services.
By the time consumers figure out that their actions (yeah, the decision to buy that aspirin), are resulting in these consequences, an entire commercial district can be spoiled. Not much can be done to reverse the mess. Wouldn’t you rather fight to preserve your neighborhood character now, rather than focus on dismantling the new strip mall later?
The homogenization of America isn’t just limited to formula retail establishments. Unfortunately it’s part of a larger trend. We live in an age of media consolidation, where decisions about the music played on radio stations across the country, are increasingly centralized. Forget thinking that you’re going to hear Hank Williams in Texas, the Neville Brothers in New Orleans, or the MC5 in Detroit. These days you can’t even get local news coverage over most radio stations.
In San Francisco it’s appalling to hear The Chamber of Commerce argue for the chain stores saying we need the jobs or that it’s good for the economy. Does the Chamber really think people want to come to San Francisco so they can shop in the same stores they have back home? The tourist trade is a fragile market that is premised on our uniqueness. Spoil it and you lose much of the charm that a city like San Francisco offers. And as for those jobs: full time, minimum wage jobs in California get you $14,000 a year ($17,500 with San Francisco’s new minimum wage law) well under what you need to makes ends meet in a city where the cost of living is 84% higher than the U.S. average.
Moreover, the whole claim that chain stores are good for the economy is actually not true. A recent study in Austin, Texas concluded that chain stores are more likely to take money out of the local economy, while independent local merchants are not. The findings are quite astounding. Chain stores only reinvest $13 out of $100 spent in their stores in the local economy. By comparison, for every $100 spent in independent neighborhood stores, $45 is reinvested in the local economy. The study concluded that if each household in Travis County, Texas redirected $100 of planned holiday shopping from chain stores to stores that were locally owned, the local economic impact would reach approximately $10 million dollars. Not a bad way to revitalize the local economy.
San Francisco is fighting the harmful effects of corporate consolidation and homogenization. Just this past week, a new law took effect allowing for greater neighborhood notification, a heightened conditional use permitting process, and in some cases, if a neighborhood wants it, a prohibition on chain stores from moving in to a neighborhood commercial district altogether.
Formula retail establishments, which are required by contract to adopt standardized architecture, décor and services, are covered under the statute. First, in all neighborhood commercial districts, formula retailers will have to notify neighbors within 150 feet of the proposed location that they plan to locate there, giving neighbors an opportunity to seek review before the Planning Commission.
Districts that want greater protection can opt into a heightened level of scrutiny, called a conditional use permitting process, which automatically triggers a hearing before the planning commission, or they can opt into an outright ban of all formula retail establishments that already have 12 outlets.
The new statute also gives the Planning Commission some guidance on what factors to consider during the formula retail hearings. Determining whether or not to allow a chain store into a neighborhood will now include: a discussion of the existing concentration of formula retail establishments within a neighborhood commercial district, the availability of other similar retail uses within the district, the architectural compatibility of the proposed store with the existing aesthetic character of the district, and existing retail vacancy rates within the district.
At the end of the day this measure promotes business by letting formula retail establishments know where they are wanted in advance, averting lengthy and costly planning battles. It saves neighbors hundreds of hours of organizing against stores they don’t want. And of course, it offers decentralized self-determination. Each neighborhood decides for itself.
A small victory perhaps, but a significant one. Your neighborhood is free from chain stores sneaking in as they have in the past. Now you and your neighbors get to decide, in a truly democratic way, what your community – the space that you live in – looks like. Score one for the preservation of the commons. Score one for preserving distinct neighborhood charm.