Should Cities Try to Keep Out Big Chains?

Chain stores. A lot of people hate them because they often muscle
out local businesses that give a neighborhood character (the excellent
film Twilight Becomes Night documents this painful loss in New York City).

But
clearly a lot of people vote with their pocketbooks by spending money
in chains. And the question of the effects of chains on a given
neighborhood is complicated, especially when a recession is creating
more vacant storefronts every day. Today, Streetsblog Network member Saint Louis Urban Workshop asks how — and whether — communities should limit chains:

3470183543_43264ae294.jpgPhoto by …-Wink-… via Flickr.

Should business districts limit the number of national chains that
can open? Are local stores and restaurants at a disadvantage? Over the
past several years a group named Our Town
has successfully pushed for limits on new chain stores in San
Francisco. As a result, today all chain store applications must be
presented to the San Francisco Planning Commission and submitted for
public review.

Now longtime Bloomington, Indiana, Mayor Mark
Kruzan appears ready to limit chain stores from his idyllic southern
Indiana college town…

Of course there’s a flip side to this issue as
well. Local retailers, boutiques and independent restaurants likely
cannot serve all residents. It’s wonderful to have $25 parmesan cheese
available in the city, but what about those who want Provel? This is
especially true with clothing. The recent rumor of an Old Navy opening
in downtown St. Louis would be a welcome trend in this way.

The issue isn’t simple. We enjoy our St. Louis Bread
Company, but now it’s a corporate behemoth. Once upon a time the
California Pizza Kitchen was the model of a neighborhood start-up.
Would you welcome a Peet’s, but not a Starbucks? The Foot Locker and
Blockbuster stores in the Delmar Loop just recently closed and their
departure is being lamented by some who enjoyed their convenience and
those who simply had become used to them.

So where do you
stand on anti-chain store efforts?…Is it enough to limit signage or require a
particular design? Is the issue aesthetic? And what about franchises
owned by locals?

Good questions. Should municipalities try to regulate chains, or let the market have its way? It’s a been a topic of debate since the 1920s. Your thoughts?

More from around the network: The Transport Politic asks how Los Angeles is going to manage its transit ambitions. Kaid Benfield on NRDC Switchboard looks at retrofitting suburban cul-de-sacs with trails for better connectivity. And Austin on Two Wheels notes the advent of the city’s first sharrows.

  • The Partnership for Downtown St Louis just posted its annual downtown residents survey where a comment was made that speaks to this issue. A resident, calling for more retail said “no one can shop only at boutiques”. As a small business owner, I do everything I can to patronize other City independent businesses. I would have to agree though, a trip to Target every once and again is going to happen. It would be nice if there was one downtown.

  • zsolt

    None of us is as stupid as all of us.

    I would hope, though it may be in vain, that the phrase “let the market have its way” has finally lost all its credibility over the past year or so. But, of course, it hasn’t. The cargo cult of “letting the market take care of it all” is ingrained very deeply. I know people who get completely screwed by the system in every which way possible, yet keep voting for the Republican party, which at this point is hardly conservative anymore, but rather only interested in protecting the interests of their corporate masters. (The Democrats of course are not much better.)

    Unlike the author of the story quoted, I don’t think that this is very complicated. But the problem is that we are all complicit in this. We are okay with our local economies being destroyed, as long as we can get cheap clothing at Old Navy. Of course, it’s not cheap at all. It comes at a great cost. But since we want it because we save some money, it is hard to make us see the real cost. Anyone who dares to resist is written off as a communist / leftwing extremist / un-American / doomer. What it comes down to is that plundering of whatever resources we have in the name of profit like there’s no tomorrow, is one of the cornerstones the United States was founded upon.

    “But clearly a lot of people vote with their pocketbooks by spending money in chains.”

    That vote is really irrelevant though, except for those who rake in the profits. By that same measure, McDonald’s must be the best and most nutritious food out there, since they serve far more customers than the local organic restaurant that buys their produce from CSA’s.

  • zsolt

    “A resident, calling for more retail said “no one can shop only at boutiques”. As a small business owner, I do everything I can to patronize other City independent businesses. I would have to agree though, a trip to Target every once and again is going to happen. It would be nice if there was one downtown.”

    Yeah, but it is the Targets that eliminate everything but high-margin elite boutiques! Before the Targets came around, there actually was cheap shopping to be had in independent stores.

  • it really depends on the chain store. One thing I don’t mind having are chain drugstores, particularly chain stores that operate in many states. When I used to travel a lot for work, it was nice to be able to refill a prescription in any state without having to worry about insurance, or other nonsense, and have all my info ready to go no matter where I was.

    However, while some chains do offer “low prices” one has to take into account the cost of that low price. Yes, I can buy socks at Old Navy for next to nothing, but that cost is subsidized by cheap overseas labor. Plus chain stores can’t always participate in the community the way smaller regional chains or locals can operate.

    Finally, there’s the abuse of anti-chain legislation. In San Francisco a family owned business (pizza restaurant) over the years grew quite popular and ended up opening restaurants all around town and even in a few non SF locations. When they tried to move one of their restaurants, one of our more bitter, angry little elected “leaders” derided it as a “chain” and used that as an epithet to delay the move for years. It was petty, stupid, and didn’t take into account that the business was locally owned and a local success story.

  • Dave

    So how would a business like Old Navy fit in. Isn’t it locally owned and managed? Doesn’t its owner live in the city and attempt to contribute to the culture of the city (i.e. art donation to SFMOMA)?

    It feels like this becomes a case of where do you draw the line? It seems like this can easily be used merely to empower local legislators to demand more from applicants. Think of Ed Jew and all the control he had and (mis-)used.

  • How we spend our money is, I would posit, the most powerful tool for change that we have. Where we spend it, what we buy, who the profit goes to, and what systems it supports has a remarkable impact. My goal these days is to lessen my support for big oil, pesticides, mono-culture agriculture, industrial meat production, and in general large corporations of any kind, especially large, corrupt financial institutions.

    To do this, I’ve opened an account at a credit union, buy organic, buy less processed foods, buy free range meat and eggs, support farmers’ markets, buy very little in cans or bottles, shop from small companies on line and in my neighborhood, and take Muni, walk or bike when I can so I can purchase less and less gasoline. In general, I’m endeavoring to buy less overall, only what my family really needs, and when I do shop, buy better quality that will last. I’m also trying to be more careful about food waste.

    All this has resulted in me spending less money,not more. If you go to Target and buy cheap plastic junk you will toss in the trash within a season, have you really saved yourself money?

    I could go into all the ways to create health without relying on unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies, but that’s another post.

  • patrick

    I have what I think would be a simple solution:

    Add a gross receipts tax to any business that has more then 60-80% of it’s locations outside of the city/county/region/state.

    That would both level the playing field for small businesses and keep more of the money spent in the local community.

  • noearch

    well, a lot of this discussion needs to be very specific about which chain..and what can and cannot offer to the community. not ALL chains are bad. I do think SF, where I live, tends to go too far, in defining all chains as bad..

    as for taomom..well, you come across as very arrogant and holier than thou. congrats for being such an outstanding world citizen.

    as for me, I sometimes DO shop at a Target…no, not to buy useless plastic junk from china, but because I can get some of my basic casual clothes, like shorts, t’s and socks are very good prices..Yes, that has saved me money. I dont need all my clothes from Banana Republic or Dolce and Gabbanna.

  • ZA

    It seems to me the ultimate objective is a worthy one: avoiding a monocultured tax base that renders a city indistinguishible from an old ‘factory town’ and everything that means for its economy and politics. The Rust Belt is a warning we should heed.

    A chain store that is in even competition against other chains and independent stores is not inherently a problem, but when they take dramatic market share, this can become a problem.

    San Francisco is a unique situation, because there is so little space to begin with. We can’t invite 3 chains to obtain competition, and the de facto situation of offering limited virtually-monopolistic concessions for some isolated neighborhoods is its own problem: consider how many communities were vulnerable to the Lucky’s crisis, or how long Noe Valley was without a grocery store after the Real Foods place shut down. I think Good Life on Cortland is a successful example of achieving local balance.

    I have to trust in a long permitting process with extensive public scrutiny and comments to be more right than wrong.

  • ZA,
    I’m still sad about Real Foods being gone.

    noearch,
    Sorry to sound holier-than-thou. That wasn’t my intent, but I can see how it came across that way. The way I see it, everyone has their own path in the progression towards resilient, sustainable communities. If yours includes socks from Target, I’m okay with that. I’m sure you do other things to create community and preserve the environment for future generations. I’m certainly not perfect, having admitted to eating some meat and dairy (a vegan diet has a much smaller carbon footprint) and driving a car (many posters on this blog are carless), among other sins. I even shop at Trader Joe’s, which is a chain–no getting around it.

    The point is that how we spend our money helps create the world around us. Every dollar counts. I mentioned the items I did to disseminate some of the things that are possible. After all, it wasn’t until a friend told me she’d completely turned off her heater that I thought, “Oh, I can do that, too.”

    Are all chain stores completely evil? I’d say no. Is a neighborhood with only chain stores a very sad, souless place? I’d have to say yes.

  • noearch – I absolutely consider myself holier than thou – but one man’s Target is another man’s Dolce and Gabbana. I buy my shorts at Costco, you elitist snob!

  • christian

    I think it comes down to price and selection. If independent businesses can compete on price and selection then they don’t need to feel threatened by chains. While I understand the historical, cultural and humanist arguments for protecting independent business I think this needs to be tempered with a bit of realism.

    It’s easy for the privileged ideologues to preach that consumers only shop at independents, but what about low income families? If you go to a wall mart, biglots, or food4less what you’ll see is that they’re packed with families that are there because of the prices and selection that these big chains can offer.

    So let’s support independent businesses, shop there when you can, but don’t outlaw chains based on your ideology alone, realize that there are those who can benefit from the chains.

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