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.

Stables' group of planners and architects would turn the upper end of Market into a New Urbanism corridor, with 11-story buildings lining either side of Market between Church and Castro. And Harvey Milk Plaza, now just a subway entrance, would be redesigned to become a place where people gather to watch performances, political rallies, and each other. They would widen sidewalks, install a raised performance platform, and add all sorts of casual sitting space, a cafe or two, perhaps a newsstand.

"We want to make Market Street more interesting by having more people on it, more activities and things like that. We want to promote that area as a center of lesbian and gay culture, so we need to attract more of the institutions back to the neighborhood," Stables says. "The idea was to try to get a mix of development along Market Street. In each building we'd like to see ground-level commercial retail. The next floor or two might be office space, the types of facilities that could be rented by gay and lesbian organizations. The upper floors might become housing. That's our idea for increasing density, recognizing as we do that Market Street, especially between Castro and Church Street, are among the better served areas in the city for transit."

A New Urbanist Upper Market would preserve the Castro's role as the practical, as well as symbolic, center for gay culture.

Architect Linton Stables envisions bringing New Urbanism to the Castro.
Paul Trapani
Architect Linton Stables envisions bringing New Urbanism to the Castro.
Pottery Barn is slated to move into the empty Fireman's Fund Insurance building.
Paul Trapani
Pottery Barn is slated to move into the empty Fireman's Fund Insurance building.

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Write Mark Leno about legislation that would limit the size of stores in some neighborhoods

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To this end Stables' group is lobbying to have the Castro area included as one of two Neighborhood Plans the city government will draw up next year. Under this scheme a blanket plan is created, making it easier for developers to build dense, mixed-use buildings.

Supervisor Mark Leno's legislation that would limit the size of retail stores in the Castro area would help foster the growth of small retail establishments.

"What we're doing with this legislation is encouraging locally owned businesses to thrive -- smaller and locally owned businesses," Leno says. "We asked ourselves, 'What can we do to keep out national chains?' We can't legislate against chains, we can't do that. But by fine-tuning the planning code, we might be able to reach our goal."

CAPA, meanwhile, has asked Pottery Barn to build several stories of housing on top of its proposed Castro and Market store. They have asked Pottery Barn to create space for some additional, smaller, stores to occupy its ground level. And they have asked Pottery Barn to add some space that might be rented by local gay nonprofit organizations. They have, in short, asked Pottery Barn to conform its plans to their vision for the neighborhood.

And Pottery Barn has refused.


It's not hard to imagine the antithesis of the ideal, New Urbanist neighborhood. A short drive, or BART ride if you're urban at heart, to Emeryville, El Cerrito, Danville, or most every other place in America provides ample evidence of this. There, you'll find huge, soda-crate-shaped stores surrounded by oceanlike parking lots, served by multibillion-dollar freeways. Sometimes referred to as the Rationalization of American Commerce, this type of retail complex joins just-in-time manufacturing, innovative financial markets, and computerized freight delivery in many explanations of America's late-'90s economic success. They're extremely efficient, in a wasteful sort of way.

Indeed, these massive free-standing stores, easily accessible by car, served by remote, mechanized, computerized distribution systems, have become the envy of the industrialized world.

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, in his book Made in America, explains it best: "We now have twenty of these centers placed strategically in our trade areas around the country -- still mostly within a day's drive, or about 350 miles, of the stores they serve. Combined, they account for more than 18 million square feet of distribution space. We stock over 80,000 items in our stores, and our warehouses directly replenish almost 85 percent of their inventory, compared to only about 50 to 65 percent of our competition. As a result, the gap from the time our in-store merchants place their computer orders until they receive replenishment averages only about two days. That probably compares to five or more days for a lot of our competitors, which don't ship as much merchandise through their own network," Walton writes. "Our costs run less than 3 percent to ship goods to our stores, while it probably costs our competitors between 4 1/2 to 5 percent to get those same goods to their stores."

It's a level of efficiency smaller, independent stores could never hope to compete with.

The result has been the gutting of commercial districts in towns across America. In places such as Red Bluff, Calif., and Twin Falls, Idaho, big box stores have become the communities' principal public spaces. There are traveling conversations and chance greetings in the cosmetics aisles, and girl-watchers in the clothing sections. But nobody has a house behind the key-making machine, or an apartment over the hardware section. There's none of the pride of street, block, and neighborhood ownership that once infused American small towns, and is still present in the best of San Francisco's neighborhoods.

Lately, though, cities around the country have begun to resent this sort of retail rationalization. Communities have risen up against Wal-Marts, Home Depots, Taco Bells, and Borders Bookses.

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