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.

"What these citizens are saying is, 'We do not want this New Jersey Turnpike development in an urban setting,'" says Al Norman, the Massachusetts author of the book Slam Dunking Wal-Mart: How You Can Stop Superstore Sprawl.

While Pottery Barn is no Wal-Mart, it does share that chain's cookie-cutter efficiency, auto-oriented shopping habits, and potential to attract more chain stores to the same commercial district.

"I don't know why companies like Pottery Barn can't be flexible enough to improve their formula," says Norman. "I'm a strong believer in trying to build multilevel buildings in urban settings that have mixed residential and retail uses. In cities such as San Francisco, the suburban model simply doesn't fit. I don't blame people for resenting a developer who doesn't look at the urban environment and emulate it."

Peter Ferguson

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Genial and loquacious, Matt Holmes is just the sort of man you'd expect to be a successful veteran of hundreds of San Francisco development battles. His company, Epsteen and Associates, is currently brokering lease agreements as part of an effort to repopulate the Fillmore District with a mix of retail stores.

"We're looking to fill up an entire three blocks of stores," he says.

Holmes is also the broker for Pottery Barn and an unnamed, third-party buyer of the Fireman's Fund building at Market and Castro streets. He has sewn up a deal in which a retired South Bay school principal will buy the Market and Castro building for a rumored $4 million from Fireman's Fund. The principal will lease the building to Pottery Barn, which has agreed to finance substantial architectural improvements to the building.

Holmes, along with representatives from Pottery Barn, has spent months meeting with Castro-area neighborhood groups, merchants' groups, and individual residents to sell them on the idea of hosting the new store, he says.

"For the past four months we have been talking to neighborhood groups, trying to see how we could be a more welcome part of the community, rather than just an evil chain. Eighty-five percent of the things they've thrown out to us have been real positive," Holmes says.

But the anonymous retired educator has no interest in the New Urbanist dreams of Stables' group. He wants a steady income stream he can enjoy during his retirement years, with no hassles, Holmes says.

"He's an individual guy looking for a good investment to retire on," Holmes says. "I don't think he wants to be bothered with this. He's been quiet, behind the scenes. He would prefer to remain anonymous. He has left it in the hands of his people to get it worked out. I am one of his people."

It wouldn't make sense to build housing and office space above the Pottery Barn, Holmes says. The company would have to tear down the existing building and create another one, resulting in higher costs. Views of neighbors living behind the store might be blocked.

"You can't tear down the asset and rebuild. The rent you would have to charge would be ridiculous," Holmes says, changing the subject. "We're donating an off-site community room. Other neighbors were more concerned with the living-wage issue. They're looking at providing domestic partners benefits."

Planners, developers, and architects who spoke to SF Weekly say the notion that housing couldn't be profitable at the corner of Market and Castro is laughable.

"To say it doesn't pencil out in San Francisco sounds fairly ridiculous, given the market for residential in San Francisco today," says Rick Williams, principal in the San Francisco architectural firm Van Meter Williams & Pollack. "I would find it very hard to believe it doesn't pencil out."

But Holmes, Pottery Barn, and their unnamed South Bay retired school principal have indicated no intention to budge on this point.

So Stables and his compatriots at CAPA are filing a request with the Planning Commission for what is called a discretionary review hearing. Because the Fireman's Fund building housed an insurance company, and a stereo store before that, Pottery Barn did not have to request a conditional use permit to install yet another retail establishment in the same location. But CAPA is hoping that Planning Commission members at the hearing might become inspired by the Castro architects' New Urbanist dreams.

Holmes says he expects his project to sail through the hearing.

"If you were to poll members of my neighborhood, you wouldn't find a single person opposed to it," says Castro-area resident Steve Ball. "People like the idea."

While Pottery Barn may be a chain store, the Italianate facade, bilevel shopping space, and spacious row of display windows shown in the store's architectural plans represent a far better public space than the drab, gray Fireman's Fund building. What's more, the tasteful, high-end furnishings sold at Pottery Barn are just the sort of thing Castro residents already drive to Stonestown Mall to buy for their homes. This is a fact that opponents of the store recognize as the greatest obstacle to keeping Pottery Barn out of the Castro.

"There are a lot of people who think it would be fabulous that there would be a Pottery Barn there because they shop at the one at Stonestown, or they get the catalog," says Joe Curtin, president of CAPA. "The building has been vacant a long time, and they think something going in there would be great."

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