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.

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.

Castro and Market Streets: Gateway to the Venice of gay culture, and soon-to-be shopping haven?
Paul Trapani
Castro and Market Streets: Gateway to the Venice of gay culture, and soon-to-be shopping haven?
Broker Matt Holmes is helping ease Pottery Barn's foray into the Castro.
Paul Trapani
Broker Matt Holmes is helping ease Pottery Barn's foray into the Castro.

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RELATED LINKS

E-mail Supervisor Mark Leno
Write Mark Leno about legislation that would limit the size of stores in some neighborhoods

Pottery Barn Store Locator
Find the Pottery Barn nearest you


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For the Castro, some residents fear, the Pottery Barn that is being so blithely accepted into the neighborhood may prove a furniture-filled Trojan horse.


Linton Stables, a thin, balding architect with a gracious, laconic manner, walks west from the Bagdad Cafe on Market Street, describing a nightmare.

"People are fond of calling it the Castro truck stop," Stables says, glancing across the wasteland of gasoline stations, low-slung cement buildings, and empty lots that populate Castro and Market, the entrance to one of the most famous urban neighborhoods in the world.

The traffic along this inelegant thoroughfare picks up speed as motorists whip rightward up Twin Peaks toward the widely spaced, single-family homes of the Sunset and Excelsior districts, creating a hazard for pedestrians and an impediment to the eight transit lines that squeeze through this intersection. The traffic, the gas stations, the uninviting single-story buildings, and the empty lots create a nearly impenetrable border between the north side of Market and the gay businesses and homes on the south side.

"There's a lot of underbuilt one-story and two-story buildings along this section of Market Street, and it could be great if they were replaced. There's the fireman's credit union building at the corner of Castro and Market. There's one down by Church Street that's a pool hall painted red," Stables says. "These are examples of very low use of property that really ought to be built up higher, the worst example being the parking lots and gas station."

Stables is pointing up a rarely noted aspect of San Francisco's urban landscape -- many areas of the city are hardly San Francisco-esque. The dense, mixed-use commercial-residential neighborhoods San Francisco is known for -- like Noe Valley, the Marina, North Beach, and Russian Hill -- are actually in a minority, and there even exist sections of those neighborhoods sparser than reputation would suggest.

Reversing this sort of underuse of available land could solve serious problems the Castro is facing, Stables says.

As gay culture flowers worldwide, the gay population of the Castro barely grows, thanks to scarce and dear housing. Gay nonprofit organizations, which once saw the Castro as the only place to be, are more frequently looking for less expensive office space elsewhere. As rents continue to rise, the Castro is becoming ever whiter and richer. In short, the economic and social forces that are draining diversity from all of San Francisco pose a special threat to the neighborhood that best symbolizes diversity.

The answer, says Stables, who is vice president of a group of Castro planners and architects called Castro Area Planning and Action (CAPA), is to apply the tenets of New Urbanism to the upper end of Market Street. According to this design philosophy, which is being applied to suburban housing developments and urban core renewal projects all over the country, 1920s urban design is often better suited to modern living than anything that succeeded it.

This urban design movement seeks to replace wide, hostile boulevards with the warm clutter and human scale of a Haight Street or a Noe Valley, creating the sort of urban villages that once characterized all of America's cities. Shops, post offices, and restaurants might be tucked into the bottom floors of tallish apartment buildings, which might include some offices on the second and third floors, with several floors of housing above. The aim is to allow people to walk to a corner store or bank, instead of driving; to interact as pedestrians once again, and foster a sense of community. In neighborhoods such as these, fear and crime go down, and pride and property values go up. At its simplest, the movement would turn America's hostile modern cityscapes into the densest, most eclectic areas of San Francisco.

In these spaces, with their critical mass of apartments, small businesses, and public spaces, people take up habits they don't indulge elsewhere: alfresco lunches; strolling to pick up a newspaper in the afternoon; popping out to the store for trivial items. These spaces provide new paths to and from work, and a seemingly endless array of places to pause. These are sociable places, and you'll see more couples and groups, people meeting, exchanging goodbyes. There is a higher proportion of women here, even though this is where one finds the most conspicuous girl-watchers. It's where one finds some of life's richest pageants: lovers cuddling; excited rendezvous of friends; intent discussion among colleagues. There are traveling conversations, where two people move about, alternating roles of listener and talker. These performers block pedestrian traffic, as if purposefully pushing themselves into the center of the flow, allowing themselves to be jostled about. But pedestrians don't complain. They wend their way through, stepping to avoid people parked in their way. Chance acquaintances form by the dozen, building upon each other until communities are forged.

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