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Trojan Horse 

In a city that loves to hate chain stores, plans for a new Pottery Barn in the Castro are scarcely raising a peep. The neighborhood may regret it.

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999
A young couple meanders past an Italianate storefront at the corner of Market and Castro streets, slowing to glance into the window at earth-tone lamps, tufted rugs, and comfortably oversized chairs inside the new Pottery Barn. Farther down Market, they stop for a pepperoni slice at Uno Pizzeria in the food court, before continuing toward the spare, luxuriant Banana Republic store, the subtly classy Williams-Sonoma store, and the hip, yet unostentatious Urban Outfitters store. The couple has driven to the city from Livermore, and they're whiling away time at the new Market-West shopping promenade before taking in the sights of Castro Street. Without saying so out loud, they both understand that they'll be coming back soon, perhaps with some friends. This is, after all, the Castro District; the Venice of gay culture; the Bunker Hill of queer people's struggle against oppression; a living, geographical symbol of a tolerant American future.

Plus, it's a great place to shop.

This pleasant weekend afternoon never actually occurred, of course. The Livermore couple is made up, and the Market-West shopping promenade doesn't exist -- yet. But some local residents believe it may eventually, thanks to a building permit application now resting in the files of the San Francisco Planning Department.

Pottery Barn, the Williams-Sonoma subsidiary that sells high-end California-living furniture, wants to refurbish the former Fireman's Fund Insurance building at Castro and Market streets, making it the latest addition to the swiftly expanding chain. The new store will no doubt offer a pleasant shopping experience, and will even represent a significant quality-of-life improvement over the stark, single-story cement Fireman's Fund office, numerous Castro residents say.

But some fear the new store threatens the Castro's future.

By putting a single-story, suburban-style, 12,000-square-foot furniture store right at the Castro's gateway, the new Pottery Barn could sabotage efforts under way to turn Harvey Milk Plaza into one of the city's great public spaces. It could sunder some architects' and planners' dreams of turning the upper end of Market Street into a Parisian-style corridor of tallish apartment buildings, with second-story office space for gay organizations and first-floor gay- and straight-owned businesses. In a worst-case scenario, the new Pottery Barn could stunt the Castro's continued emergence as a global center for gay culture, and turn the district into nothing more than a nice place for vacationers from New York or L.A. to visit.

But in San Francisco, where citizens are wont to rise up like a mighty tide against chain drugstores, chain restaurants, and chain coffee shops, there's been hardly a peep from Castro denizens about the new Pottery Barn.

The fact of the matter is, many Castro residents apparently like Pottery Barn. Indeed, if there exists a Castro interior aesthetic, Pottery Barn just may have it down: "attractive, affordable furniture and accessories ... [which] feature seasonally coordinated colors and designs that make stylish home decorating easy," according to a company catalog.

Fewer than a half-dozen neighbors have filed letters with the San Francisco Planning Department opposing the Pottery Barn, a pittance in the annals of San Francisco's chain store battles.

Sure, Pottery Barn brokers have been glad-handing Castro-area neighborhood groups for half a year now. And yes, the company has offered to provide domestic partner benefits. It has promised to rent a room somewhere in the Castro and make it available to community groups, the company's broker says. And the company will donate some money to gay causes.

But still, this is a 12,000-square-foot chain store that's being planned.

In San Francisco, people of taste and bearing can hardly say "Starbucks" without spitting through the first two consonants; abstaining from Rite Aid earns just as many PC prestige points as shunning meat; and well -- do you know anyone who admits to shopping at Wal-Mart? This chain-store-hating-sensibility isn't just talk: Supervisor Mark Leno is sponsoring legislation that would restrict the floor space of stores in North Beach, with similar legislation slated for the Castro, all specifically for the purpose of making life more difficult for chain stores. This legislation comes on the backs of myriad zoning codes that control the size and form of retail establishments.

But discussions about the negative effects of chain stores sometimes miss their mark, focusing on the more benign effects, while ignoring the worst. Chain stores are usually criticized as garish, as driving up commercial rents, and as contributing to neighborhood homogeneity. These effects aren't necessarily as pernicious as they've been made out to be. San Francisco's experience has shown that independent merchants compete against each other for limited commercial space and bid up rents, just like chain stores do. Some home-grown stores are garish and unsightly, too. And in San Francisco's rich panoply of shops and restaurants, it takes an awful lot of chain stores to make an S.F. block look like a Dublin one.

There are, however, some very good reasons for San Francisco to fear the worst sorts of chain stores: the big-box retailers with large sales floors. This kind of development includes Jack Davis Home Depots, Willie Brown stadium malls, and San Francisco Board of Supervisors Sony Metreon Cineplex Centers.

The economic logic of these types of retail establishments -- the large-footprint stores that draw their clientele from miles around -- can be poisonous for neighborhoods.

Many of the problems associated with San Francisco's growing social malaise -- escalating rents; increasing congestion; displacement of the poor, of artists, of the elderly and nonwhite -- can be exacerbated by this massive sort of chain store. Yet, on a fragile piece of urban space like the Castro end of Market Street, residents are courting the worst of chain store problems by admitting the Pottery Barn with little fight.

In the economics of chain stores, Pottery Barns beget Banana Republics, which beget Urban Outfitters, which in turn beget food courts. They encourage people to drive, impeding transit lines; to park, squeezing out potential space for new housing with new parking spaces -- they make Parisian-style pedestrian corridors impossible. Leno's legislation could limit the ability of other large-footprint chain stores to follow Pottery Barn into the Castro. But that's not a sure thing.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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