The San Anselmo town council members found themselves at a standstill late Wednesday night after discussing, for the third time, if formula-retail businesses belong in downtown San Anselmo.
“We are not going anywhere,” Councilman Jeff Kroot said to his colleagues around 9:30 p.m., after more than an hour of a circular discussion that mirrored the last two discussions the council had on the chain stores, first in June and again in July.
Some council members felt the town doesn’t need to do anything to limit chain stores.
Mayor Tom McInerney said there isn’t a need for a ban since San Anselmo hasn’t had any chain stores attempt to come downtown. “It’s a solution in search of problem. I’ve heard comment about not wanting to lose the character of downtown – and we haven’t.”
But other council members shared similar concerns expressed by Jennifer Hansen, the owner of Sax consignment store in downtown San Anselmo.
“There are some major corporations that have been experimenting with creating small niche boutiques,” she told the council during public comment.
One example, Hansen said, is Georgi & Willow, the new San Anselmo boutique created by the Bay Area chapter of Goodwill Industries. “I worry about the precedent. If a big corporation wanted to start opening small boutiques, it would put a boutique that’s not part of the big [corporate] network at an unbelievable disadvantage.”
Councilman Jeff Kroot, who pushed for the council to pass a ban on national chains, said big corporations “do have money, they do have power and they just suck the life out of these businesses. They are kind like sharks and just have to keep moving ahead.”
SOME COUNCILMEMBERS LIKE THE CONCEPT OF URBAN OUTFITTERS, SUR LA TABLE OR CRATE & BARREL NICHE BOUTQIUES
Councilwoman Lori Lopin, Vice Mayor Kay Coleman and Kroot were among the council members who said they want to ensure that a ban wouldn’t put the town at legal risk.
“There is something to be said for free enterprise and competition,” said San Anselmo Interim Planning Director Diane Henderson, who has spoken against the town adopting a ban.
Some council members weren’t horrified at the idea of a corporation opening a niche store in town. “What if Urban Outfitters wanted to open a small store in San Anselmo? I think people would be congratulating it,” McInerney said, after explaining there is nowhere in town for his teenage daughter to shop.
Councilman Ford Greene said he wanted to see an inventory of what businesses would fall under the “national chain” umbrella. “There may be some very tasteful businesses,” Greene said.
Examples could include Sur La Table or Crate & Barrel, which could be nice additions to town, he said. He pointed to the Fourth Street Shops in Berkeley as an example of chains and other local businesses successfully coexisting. “It’s low-key, high-quality and has a lot of people there all the time.”
Lopin expressed concern that the town doesn’t have any tools it can use to block a chain retailer that would be direct competition to local shops. “I don’t want to be reactive. It’s going to be too late to do anything about it once they are here,” she said.
Deborah London, co-owner of the San Anselmo Coffee Roastery, spoke in favor of the town blocking corporations from opening small boutiques. “We’ve been in the coffee business 32 years and the [San Anselmo Coffee Roastery] is our 14th store. We’ve come up against businesses like Starbucks.”
London told the council about Starbucks' attempt to drive them out of their Mill Valley coffee shop in 1986. The community rallied around them, but they ended up having to pay $30,000 and a tripled rent to match the offer Starbucks had made their landlord, she said.
THREE OPTIONS FOR FORMULA RETAIL
Staff prepared three options for the council to address chain stores (included in the attached staff report). They could ban formula-retail in a certain designated area (such as downtown), defer the topic to the Economic Development Committee or adopt a permit requirement for chain stores, which is similar to what Fairfax, Sausalito and San Francisco use.
Earlier in the discussion, it seemed the council was leaning toward letting the Economic Development Committee handle the matter. But after Coleman expressed some concerns that the committee can barely hold meetings due to conflicting schedules, the council had second thoughts.
“I think [we’d be] asking a lot of people who haven’t been involved in government before,” Kroot said.
LITTLE DISCUSSION ABOUT THE PERMIT PROCESS
The council was initially focused on banning the stores or deferring the subject. Coleman was the first to bring up the conditional use permit (CUP) option as a middle ground for the conflicted council, but when staff was asked about it, town staff focused on how difficult it would be to define “formula retail” without explaining how the CUP process works.
It also appeared some council members didn't understand the conditional use permit option.
If the council adopted a conditional use permit requirement, applications for a formula-retail business would be subject to a planning commission hearing.
"KIND OF LIKE PORNOGRAPHY"
Defining formula retail – which would have to be done for either a ban or a conditional use permit requirement - was clearly an overwhelming task for the town officials.
“The definitional challenge is daunting,” Greene said. “It’s kind of like pornography - I’ll recognize it when I see it.”
The council agreed to, once again, bring the item back to the council later, after they have additional discussion with staff on the topic.
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