Despite new policy,
chains seek permits
by Matthew S. Bajko
A new policy aimed at curbing the number of chain stores along upper Market Street has not deterred several national retailers from seeking to open along the main thoroughfare in San Francisco's gay Castro district.
Both coffee brewer Starbucks and burrito chain Chipotle, founded by a gay chef, plan to seek permits for prime corner storefronts on Market despite vocal opposition to their applications. Planning officials had already stated they plan to recommend both be rejected, even prior to the adoption last week of the new formula retail guidelines.
As reported online Thursday, April 11 by the Bay Area Reporter, the Planning Commission unanimously adopted a new provision requiring planning staff to recommend any retailer that brings the concentration of chain stores within a 300-foot radius to 20 percent or greater not be recommended for approval. The policy applies to the stretch of Market Street between Octavia and Castro.
Retailers in violation of the cap can still seek approval from the Planning Commission, though projects disapproved by staffers rarely receive a favorable vote. The wiggle room in the policy is meant to ensure that chain stores that do have significant community backing can still open along the retail corridor.
(Photo: Courtesy CVS)
One such example of a company facing minimal opposition is pharmacy chain CVS, which is seeking to open in a large ground floor space at the Market Noe Center where Tower Records had been located. The company dropped plans to sell alcohol and has been working with neighborhood leaders and planners on a new facade for the building in exchange for support of its permit application.
It is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission May 16. In another concession to neighborhood groups, it has proposed a see-through lattice material for a portion of the building fronting Market Street and unique signage made of white aluminum lettering with red backlit LED lights.
"We want to be good neighbors," said company spokesman Mike DeAngelis when asked about the design changes CVS has agreed to incorporate at the site.
If its permit is approved as expected next month, construction could begin in August with a store opening in early 2014.
A fourth chain, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, had announced plans to open in a corner space attached to Market Street gym Fitness SF. But planning staff has indicated they do not support seeing the company move into that storefront, and the owners of the gym are now seeking a different tenant.
"Things are in flux with tenants there so I am not able to discuss the matter further at this time," gym co-owner Sebastyen Jackovics told the B.A.R. this week. "Our goal there is to bring a compelling and exciting retail experience that works well for the neighborhood and the gym use and can be sustained."
With roughly a dozen new mixed-use buildings under construction or proposed for upper Market, most located on prominent intersections, residents and local merchants have expressed alarms that only chain stores would be able to afford the new retail spaces in those buildings. Already Whole Foods and Bank of the West have secured leases and permits to open in two of the projects.
Backers of the new policy, which the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association helped craft, hope it will lead landlords of the new buildings as well as existing ones with vacant storefronts to seek out locally-owned stores rather than national retailers.
"This slows down the process long enough to potentially get some of the local merchants in there and a chance at finding some balance of creating a vibrant local neighborhood with character instead of giving away the whole farm," Wendy Mogg, a co-owner of Market Street pastry shop Sweet Inspiration and a leader of the coalition working to defeat Starbucks' expansion plans. "Starbucks was the springboard for organizing the neighborhood from Octavia to Castro on what can we do to help shape this and create the neighborhood we want."
Reaction to the policy has been mixed. Merchants of Upper Market and Castro President Terry Asten Bennett, whose family owns Cliff's Variety, questioned how effective it would be in helping fill vacant storefronts in the area.
"I think the change is short-sighted and has the potential to make the vacancy situation even more devastating. There is nothing about this policy that makes it more desirable for a small business to open up. However, large vacancies certainly make it less desirable," she told the B.A.R.
She added that she "finds it disturbing that no one from the planning department or the supervisors office reached out to the merchants to discuss this policy change."
Planning Department spokeswoman Joanna Linsangan told the B.A.R. that MUMC was not consulted since the policy does not impact Castro Street. In addition to DTNA, planning staff met with the Castro/Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association and the Lower Haight Merchants and Neighbors Association.
District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who is supportive of the policy, said his office did mention it to MUMC.
"It is not in any way a secret, it was quite public," he said. "Ultimately, it was a decision for the Planning Commission, the planning department, and its staff."
Due to the possibility that appeals of any permit denials could come before the supervisors, Wiener declined to discuss specific retailers' applications.
Mogg, who sits on the board of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District, is hopeful the policy will lead to more dialogue about what kinds of retail would be welcomed along one of the city's main retail corridors.
"I do think this is an absolutely critical moment for neighbors, merchants, or anyone interested in the neighborhood to be engaged in these questions, whatever their opinions are of what should come in," she said. "We have an opportunity over the next two years to influence the way we want the neighborhood to be for a long time."
The first test of the new rules is expected to come Thursday, May 9 when Starbucks goes before the Planning Commission to seek a conditional use permit to open a new store at 2201 Market Street at Sanchez. The Seattle-based company announced in 2011 plans to move into the space.
Technically, it would be its fourth Castro location, as it has stand-alone stores on 18th Street and in the Safeway shopping plaza, as well as a kiosk inside the grocery store. But company officials have said they need additional stores to handle customer demand.
The 18th Street store, which attracts such a hirsute crowd it has been dubbed Bearbucks, is particularly cramped, even after a recent redesign of the space.
Company spokesman Zach Hutson was out of the office this week and unable to comment. Danny Cowan, a spokesman for Starbucks who works at the public relations firm Edelman, confirmed with the B.A.R. that Starbucks has no plans to abandon the corner space on Market Street and will seek approval for the new store.
Cowan added that Starbucks has "received significant support" from residents in the area and MUMC. A petition against the chain, however, has attracted more than 5,000 signatures.
Linsangan confirmed this week that the location "will be impacted" by the new formula retail policy and that staff is recommending it not be approved.
Mogg, who is helping to coordinate rallies for opponents of the coffee chain on the day of the hearing, said having formula retailers at prominent intersections along upper Market would brand the area more as a "strip mall" than a local neighborhood.
As for Chipotle, which wants to open at the old Home restaurant location at the corner of Market and Church streets, it is expected to go before the Planning Commission in June. Linsangan said planning staff has yet to determine if it triggers the new policy and should be recommended for disapproval.
Both foes of the store and the company have launched online efforts to drum up support. In an email this week, company spokesman Chris Arnold acknowledged the hurdles the Mexican fast food chain is facing in securing its permits.
Nonetheless, the company is "looking forward" to making its case for why it would benefit the Castro, wrote Arnold.
"We recognize that there is some opposition to this project (and to formula retail in general), but there's also been strong support for what we are looking to do there," he wrote. "All we're asking for is a fair shake."