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.

Though Planning Commission members haven't looked at the Castro Pottery Barn issue yet, they are giving New Urbanism principles some serious thought, says Commission Vice President Beverly Mills.

"I think we do have to look for ways to make land used with great efficiency in San Francisco. Whenever we get retail and housing on the same lot in San Francisco, we should find out ways to encourage it," Mills says. "My feeling is when you look at chains, you have to ask, 'What is the diversity of chains in a neighborhood?' The second is, 'Are they urban?' They should have an urban approach to things. It's very helpful to mix retail with housing. But I think a lot of these national chains don't even think that way. So you have to make it seem like an attractive thing for them."

Creating the perfect marriage of retail store operator and housing developer is easier said than done, says Dan Solomon, a San Francisco architect and planner considered an intellectual author of the New Urbanism.

Peter Ferguson

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"It's a tough but desirable thing to impose on a developer," Solomon says. "The housing component works fine. It's potentially profitable. Any place you can find to tuck housing in San Francisco, it pays for itself. But doing that on a mixed-use corridor is difficult."

Given San Francisco's requirement that each new unit of housing include a whole parking space, the building would be extremely expensive, and cause further congestion around the Castro-Market intersection.

"The tough nut for mixed use in an urban setting is parking," Solomon says.

The obvious solution, a solution at the heart of much New Urbanist thinking, is to eliminate the parking requirement. But this is an extremely controversial notion in San Francisco. As healthy as the idea may be for a city's urban fabric, cutting the number of parking spaces required for a 10-story apartment building would be a hard sell among well-heeled, car-owning Castro neighbors, who might find their street parking impinged, CAPA members acknowledge.

Worse, CAPA's community outreach so far has been less than overwhelming. Patrick Batt, president of Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, for one, is unclear on what exactly the group of planners and architects have in mind.

"They want to tear everything down and rebuild it, build parks or something," says Batt, a mail-order adult novelty vendor.

Even Mark Leno's stringent anti-chain store legislation is likely to be of little help, the supervisor says. Though it would quarter the size of stores such as the one Pottery Barn plans for the Castro, Leno acknowledges that Pottery Barn's building permit will likely be approved before his legislation is. The legislation may, however, dampen the spread of other large chain stores around the Pottery Barn when it is finished.


So the Pottery Barn may very likely be installed at Market and Castro in precisely the form Williams-Sonoma Inc. prefers -- 12,000 square feet, low slung, with parking on the roof.

Couples from Livermore may stroll by the Italianate storefront. And CAPA's Parisian corridor may never be built along Market between Church and Castro.

Which, an afternoon stroll along Castro Street suggests, is unfortunate, but not hopeless. In front of Walgreens -- which sports large display windows in the spirit of city planning guidelines designed to prevent the sort of windowless, uninviting chain stores typical of the suburbs -- male couples meander past the entrance, taking their turn in conversation. Friends greet each other, then stand in the way of other pedestrians, who don't really seem to mind. People watch passers-by languorously, subtly, unconsciously mimicking each other's gestures, postures, and attitudes.

Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

But without the furniture-filled Trojan horse of the Castro, there's a chance San Francisco's most famous neighborhood could become much, much better.

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