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Should We Rein in the Chains on 24th Street?
By Denise Minor
To control retail businesses in Noe Valley or not to control -- that is the question.
And it is a question which comes up year after year, in coffee shop discussions between friends and in formal meetings of neighborhood associations. Many fear that the influx of chain stores and fast-food vendors threatens the hometown character of Noe Valley. Others think that the free market should decide who survives on our 24th and Church Street commercial strips.
This spring the issue may be coming to a head. Supervisor Sue Bierman, backed by the Friends of Noe Valley, is taking steps to make permanent a temporary moratorium on takeouts and specialty shops such as coffee stores and juice bars on 24th Street. (Twenty-fourth Street already has quotas on restaurants and liquor stores, established in the 1980s. The only way new restaurants can come in is if they replace a similar business or win an exemption from the Planning Department.)
In early March, Bierman introduced legislation before the board to reinstate the moratorium, which expired in October after being in effect for a year and a half. According to one of her aides, the bill was sent to the Housing and Neighborhood Services Committee, where it will be reviewed and returned to the supervisors with a recommendation within a few weeks.
But the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association is taking issue with the fact that Bierman did not contact the group before presenting her bill. Over the next month, Merchants Association President Robert Roddick plans to poll his membership to see if the group can form a consensus on permanent limits on specialty shops on 24th Street.
Whether the merchants have a united voice or diverging opinions, Roddick plans to make their views known at City Hall. "Sue Bierman did not contact us, so we will contact her," he said.
Besides getting their assessment of the moratorium, Roddick is also questioning members about chain stores. He knows that most business owners in Noe Valley have strong opinions about chains, and they are not alone.
In an informal survey, the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations recently found that chain stores were the number one concern of shopkeepers across the city.
"Many of us feel that chains raise rents and drive out the small, locally owned stores," explained Roddick. "But on the other hand, many of our association members are chains and really do a service for the neighborhood."
Harry Aleo, owner of Twin Peaks Properties on 24th Street and a longtime association member, is a past president of the citywide Council of District Merchants.
Aleo supports the continuation of the moratorium and believes that chain stores are often detrimental to Noe Valley. "They replace the mom and pop stores and destroy the character of our neighborhood," he said. "But you can't keep out a chain store just because it's a chain store. I don't see how you can do that with legislation."
Aleo believes that the neighbors and merchants can exert their influence over who or what moves into retail spaces on 24th and Church streets. They can also attempt to control the looks of a storefront or outdoor sign.
"For instance, when Thrifty drugstore got taken over by Rite Aid, they changed their sign," he said. "Well, that ugly, glaring sign does not fit in with our neighborhood at all. It should be changed."
Noe Valley resident Carol Yenne is another association member and the owner of Small Frys on 24th Street. She understands the antichain store and specialty shop sentiment, but thinks the issue has two sides. "For instance, everyone comes down on Starbucks, but they [the Starbucks at 24th and Noe] have been very good neighbors. They keep their sidewalks clean and donate things for events, such as hot chocolate at Christmas for the kids," said Yenne.
"But Radio Shack is an example of a chain that does nothing. They rarely sweep the sidewalks," she said. "They don't give back to the community."
Sometimes chain stores provide needed services. "Do people really want to go back to the days of the corner drugstore that had dirty windows and closed at 6 p.m. every day?" asked Yenne. "I think many senior citizens are thrilled that we have Walgreens, which has a late-night pharmacy.
"I live in the neighborhood, and there have been many times when I've been glad it's there, such as when I find out in the evening that my kid needs construction paper for a school project the next day," she said.
On the other hand, Yenne would hate to see a Baby Gap come into the neighborhood and put her out of business.
One way that Noe Valley has successfully controlled its retail spaces is by limiting the size of the shops. "For instance, the space next to Bell Market on 24th Street that used to be the Spanish Church has 5,000 square feet on the bottom floor," Yenne said. "The owner was asked to break it into three storefronts, and in that way we don't get some megastore like Pottery Barn coming in."
Roddick agrees that the issue is cloudy. "What is a chain store anyway? If it's a store with more than one location, then Star Magic was a chain store. And worse, it was a chain store controlled by an out-of-state owner." (Roddick had already professed his fondness for Star Magic in a story about the shop's closing in the March Voice. For the record, our Star Magic was the flagship store and the only one of its kind on the West Coast.)
Over the past 20 years, the main group keeping tabs on 24th Street has been the residents association Friends of Noe Valley. Claire Pilcher, a founder and longtime member, says it is important to remember that 24th and Church streets (and parts of Castro) are zoned NeighborhoodCommercial by City Planning. "It is the least intensive commercial zoning classification, and is meant to be predominantly retail shops that serve the residents of the neighborhood," she said.
Trendy cafes and gourmet and specialty shops typically draw people and traffic from outside the neighborhood. And that is what she sees happening to Noe Valley.
"On Saturdays, hordes of people from other neighborhoods come to see how cute we've gotten," said Pilcher.
The reason the Bierman moratorium singles out specialty shops is because coffee vendors like Starbucks -- which are somewhere between a cafe and a store -- fall into that category. If our shopping districts are truly meant to serve the needs of neighborhood residents, Pilcher believes it is a safe assumption to say Noe Valley has enough coffee shops.
"Everyone can say what they'd like to see on 24th Street. But have you ever heard anyone say, 'Gee, I'd like to see another coffee shop'?" asked Pilcher.
She is also puzzled by the recent negative reaction to the extension of the moratorium. "It was in place for 18 months, and to my knowledge, there were never any complaints during that period."
But Roddick is afraid that renewing the moratorium only serves those chains that are already in the neighborhood. "If you put a moratorium on coffee shops now, who are you keeping out? The only one I can think of is Peet's Coffee.
"I just wanted to raise these questions and see where our members stand," he said.
Roddick, an attorney who runs his legal practice out of an office on Castro Street, has been president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association for about a year.
Under his leadership, the association has grown from 32 to 118 members, making it the second largest neighborhood merchants group in the city. With that many members, Roddick said, it's hard to speak with a single voice. But during the next month, he will try to get a solid feel for where the business owners stand in the moratorium and chain stores debate.
The Noe Valley Democratic Club had planned to sponsor a forum on chain stores this spring in which neighbors and merchants could have equal time to sound off. But Club President Dave Monks says the members have decided to postpone the forum until later in the year so that they can concentrate on their June election forum, to be held April 8 at the Noe Valley Ministry.