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Wednesday, Apr 14 1999
Community Development
The one-story building at the corner of Diamond and Wilder in Glen Park has always been homely. Since it was damaged by a fire last November, 2815 Diamond St. has been a shuttered, soot-stained wretch of a place.

Quite despite itself, it is also the object of passionate attentions.
Several national retailing chains -- Rite Aid and Walgreens drugstores among them -- are climbing over each other trying to strike an agreement to develop the 13,250-square-foot property, or, at the very least, sign a long-term lease for the use of the building, which once housed a popular grocery store and delicatessen.

Located one block from the Glen Park BART station, the property is obviously an attractive business location. To Walgreens and Rite Aid, the soot streaks on the building look like the sweetest lipstick on the most beautiful supermodel.

The site looked so good, the predacious chains had sniffed out the availability of the property a mere month after the fire, and long before it went on the market. (It still isn't for sale.) The insurance company hadn't even drawn up a settlement for the owner, a family trust headed up by an elderly heir in Oregon, when some of the covetous chains began offering to lease the property.

The local neighborhood organization, the Glen Park Association, is adamantly opposed to having a chain store in the neighborhood. It's easy to see why.

Glen Park is small-scale San Francisco at its finest. The neighborhood, sandwiched between San Jose Avenue and Glen Canyon Park, is characterized by one- or two-story buildings that house mostly independent businesses: coffee shops, bookstores, bars, diners, veterinarians. Until last fall's fire, 2815 Diamond housed the beloved Terry's Meat & Deli.

A chain operation would not only mar the character of the neighborhood, it would also create all sorts of predictable economic side effects, including higher commercial rents and, because chains have all the economy-of-scale advantages, a deep cut in the profit margins of small businesses in the area.

Because the property in question has an out-of-state owner who might be concerned more with revenue streams than the well-being of the neighborhood, the neighbors who want to keep chains out of Glen Park might seem to be facing an insuperable task.

Quite the contrary, actually. Truth is, it's never been easier for organized neighbors to defeat chains in San Francisco -- at least, those oversized, scale-changing chain stores that require "conditional use" permits from the city. Five years of political organizing by residents from all over San Francisco have finally made it a political liability to support the development of chain outlets. Every year since 1994, when Inner Sunset residents took on Blockbuster Video, neighborhood groups have organized against one chain store or another, in one neighborhood after another.

All the while, the anti-chain forces were showing how the popularity of their position was growing. Petitions bearing the signatures of 3,000 residents grew quickly to 8,000 by the time North Beach residents defeated a proposal to locate a Rite Aid store there last year. The Borders Books chain was stunned when it was refused permission to locate one of its megastores amid the petite shops of Union Street.

The numbers eventually added up, and politicians began to take notice. With the advent of district elections for supervisor posts, a few thousand anti-chain votes could become a formidable block; even moderate, pro-business supervisors such as Gavin Newsom and Mark Leno started warming up to the idea of taking on chain stores. It wasn't just wacky-left, anti-corporate rhetoric anymore. Not if the Merlot Prince of Castel D'Newsom was on board.

As 1999 dawned, defeating chain developments at City Hall by blocking building permits and approvals had become a relatively simple game. One, two, three. No fuss, no muss.

So naturally you'd expect the Glen Park neighbors to follow this route.
You'd expect wrong.
The Glen Park Association isn't interested in playing the political power game. Not right now at least.

The association wants to try a little persuasion first. The group wants to see if it can convince the owner of 2815 Diamond to forgo easy riches in favor of socially responsible neighborhood development.

If the interests of property owners usually fall by the wayside in battles over chain developments, the Glen Park neighbors are making them central to their efforts. They want to help the property owner build a profitable development, so long as it doesn't involve a chain outlet.

Their proposal marks a new departure in the fight against chain stores.
Instead of merely stopping something from happening, which is where land-use activism in San Francisco usually begins and ends, the Glen Park neighbors want to help build something.

The approach is refreshing. It is also tricky and maybe just a little bit unrealistic.

What could the neighbors possibly offer an out-of-town property owner that's sweeter than above-market lease payments?

The answer is nothing -- nothing except a compelling moral argument, and an equally compelling threat.

The Glen Park neighbors will try to convince the owner of 2815 Diamond St. -- a family trust headed up by a septuagenarian heir named Anita Stelling -- to accept a plan that produces less profit than leasing to a chain might bring, but ultimately recognizes the character and well-being of a neighborhood. And then, if the owner declines and opts for the easy bucks a chain can offer, the neighbors will go to war at City Hall and attempt to block any and every permit the developer requires.

"The owners are naturally looking at the bottom line," says Zoanne Nordstrom, president of the Glen Park Association. "They are thinking, 'We can sell this property for a zillion dollars.' It's our job to convince them that money isn't everything."

Nordstrom pauses for a second and considers what she has just said. A slow smile crosses her face. "Good luck," she says to no one in particular, and bursts out laughing at the romantic nature of the neighbors' quest.

About The Author

George Cothran


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