SF planners gaining better understanding of chain stores in city 

Hayes valley
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner file photo
  • Proposals to curtail chain stores in The City are becoming increasingly popular. Hayes Valley shops are primarily small businesses, and some would like that to become more widespread.
Chains account for only 11 percent of all stores in San Francisco.

That’s according to an independent study of formula retail that was commissioned by city planners after last summer’s renewed focus in City Hall on restricting such businesses. The study aims to gain a better understanding of such businesses’ impacts on neighborhoods.

“We don’t have a map of where formula retail is located in The City,” said Sophie Hayward, a legislative planner. “We wanted to put together some basic data so we could see the prevalence of formula retail compared to all retail. That way, if we do make policy recommendations in the future, it’s based on understanding the scope of the issue.”

This past summer, a shopping cart full of proposals came forward on what, in political circles, is called formula retail — from changing its definition to further limiting such businesses. That prompted a request from the Planning Commission to the Board of Supervisors for an independent study before any new laws were enacted.

Currently, The City defines chain stores as businesses having 11 or more locations nationwide. They are banned in some neighborhoods, while in most others they have to go through a more extensive review process and obtain a special conditional-use permit that can be appealed.

One proposal from last summer by Supervisor Eric Mar would widen the definition of a chain store to include any business with 11 locations worldwide.

Now the Planning Commission has preliminary data from Strategic Economics, the firm being paid $70,000 to conduct the study. Today, it will be presented with an initial summary of that data as part of the phased study being conducted. It is expected to be completed in April.

In total, there are 1,180 chain businesses in The City. The majority are stores, followed by restaurants, bars and cafes.

Establishments that sell things such as groceries, auto parts and pet supplies are defined as stores and account for 57 percent of all chain retail, or 670 locations. Twenty-two percent of all formula retail locations, or 260 businesses, are restaurants, cafes and bars. While only 10 percent of such businesses in The City are chains, 50 percent of coffee shops fall into the category.

That number is followed by 220 locations, or 19 percent, that are banks, credit unions and other financial institutions. Still, more than 80 percent of all banks and similar financial institutions are chains.

And 2 percent sell products such as pet care and coping services such as counseling. There are 20 such establishments citywide.

Controls on formula retail were first enacted in 2004. A 2007 ballot initiative required conditional-use permits for any new formula retail in all neighborhood commercial districts.

Hayes Valley and North Beach both have formula retail prohibitions.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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