Chain stores go shopping for approval in San Francisco 

Just because San Francisco has a well-documented aversion to chain stores doesn’t mean the national retailers can’t finagle their way into the market — they just have to woo the neighbors first.

Three chains seeking approval to enter or expand in San Francisco — Target, Petco and Chase Bank — are having three distinct experiences ranging from warm welcome to open hostility. According to backers, that specialized scrutiny was always the goal of voter-approved Proposition G, which requires all chain stores to get special approval before entering The City’s neighborhoods.

Since its passage in 2006, the Planning Department has actually approved most of the so-called conditional-use permits sought by “formula retail” companies. Of 37 applications from chain stores since 2007, 23 have been approved with nine rejected or withdrawn and five still in the process.

But chain-skeptical neighborhood residents have been successful in keeping out some and discouraging even more from applying in the first place.

Former San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who fervently supported Prop. G and sponsored other legislation applying more scrutiny to chains in 2004, said this is exactly how the system should work, both to protect small businesses and to let neighborhoods pick and choose which companies to allow.

“What that says to the chain stores of America is, ‘Make sure you have community support before you come into San Francisco,’” Peskin said.

The Planning Commission held a hearing  Thursday about the state of retail franchise approvals, when a roomful of anxious residents awaited their turn to weigh in on various matters for the three chain suitors.

Target, which had its permit for a location at Geary Boulevard and Masonic Avenue approved by the commission Thursday, has faced little opposition in its quest for two new San Francisco locations, despite a boycott by LGBT groups in 2010 over the company’s donations to a gubernatorial candidate opposing same-sex marriage.

Having engaged in past lawsuits with The City over animal cruelty allegations, Petco became subject to microlegislation earlier this year when the company wanted to open a new store on Geary Boulevard. Supervisor Eric Mar introduced a measure, approved last week to ban all pet-supply chain stores on Geary between 14th and 28th avenues. Planning commissioners were expected to reject Petco’s permit application Thursday, but the matter was continued.

The case of a new Chase Bank branch on Divisadero Street sparked resident concerns that it would displace local businesses, but the Planning Department currently doesn’t interpret Prop. G to include banks in the chain category. Supervisor Scott Wiener sent a letter saying he wants planning staff to begin treating bank branch permitting the same as other chains — and if they don’t, he’s considering legislation to make it so.

“Having too many banks in a neighborhood can undermine its vitality,” Wiener said.

Wiener said he’s glad San Francisco has stopped short of banning chain stores outright, but the extra permit requirements give residents a good deal of power to choose. Planning Commissioner Ron Miguel said the legislative change for banks is worth exploring, and while the requirements are meant to protect mom-and-pop operations, they also help the commission and the public better consider what belongs where.

“The conditional-use process works,” Miguel said. “As much as it is touted to protect small business, it also ensures a good mix of uses within an area.”

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Dan Schreiber

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