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...

A young couple meanders past an Italianate storefront at the corner of Market and Castro streets, slowing to glance into the window at earth-tone lamps, tufted rugs, and comfortably oversized chairs inside the new Pottery Barn. Farther down Market, they stop for a pepperoni slice at Uno Pizzeria in the food court, before continuing toward the spare, luxuriant Banana Republic store, the subtly classy Williams-Sonoma store, and the hip, yet unostentatious Urban Outfitters store. The couple has driven to the city from Livermore, and they're whiling away time at the new Market-West shopping promenade before taking in the sights of Castro Street. Without saying so out loud, they both understand that they'll be coming back soon, perhaps with some friends. This is, after all, the Castro District; the Venice of gay culture; the Bunker Hill of queer people's struggle against oppression; a living, geographical symbol of a tolerant American future.

Plus, it's a great place to shop.

This pleasant weekend afternoon never actually occurred, of course. The Livermore couple is made up, and the Market-West shopping promenade doesn't exist — yet. But some local residents believe it may eventually, thanks to a building permit application now resting in the files of the San Francisco Planning Department.

Pottery Barn, the Williams-Sonoma subsidiary that sells high-end California-living furniture, wants to refurbish the former Fireman's Fund Insurance building at Castro and Market streets, making it the latest addition to the swiftly expanding chain. The new store will no doubt offer a pleasant shopping experience, and will even represent a significant quality-of-life improvement over the stark, single-story cement Fireman's Fund office, numerous Castro residents say.

But some fear the new store threatens the Castro's future.

By putting a single-story, suburban-style, 12,000-square-foot furniture store right at the Castro's gateway, the new Pottery Barn could sabotage efforts under way to turn Harvey Milk Plaza into one of the city's great public spaces. It could sunder some architects' and planners' dreams of turning the upper end of Market Street into a Parisian-style corridor of tallish apartment buildings, with second-story office space for gay organizations and first-floor gay- and straight-owned businesses. In a worst-case scenario, the new Pottery Barn could stunt the Castro's continued emergence as a global center for gay culture, and turn the district into nothing more than a nice place for vacationers from New York or L.A. to visit.

But in San Francisco, where citizens are wont to rise up like a mighty tide against chain drugstores, chain restaurants, and chain coffee shops, there's been hardly a peep from Castro denizens about the new Pottery Barn.

The fact of the matter is, many Castro residents apparently like Pottery Barn. Indeed, if there exists a Castro interior aesthetic, Pottery Barn just may have it down: “attractive, affordable furniture and accessories … [which] feature seasonally coordinated colors and designs that make stylish home decorating easy,” according to a company catalog.

Fewer than a half-dozen neighbors have filed letters with the San Francisco Planning Department opposing the Pottery Barn, a pittance in the annals of San Francisco's chain store battles.

Sure, Pottery Barn brokers have been glad-handing Castro-area neighborhood groups for half a year now. And yes, the company has offered to provide domestic partner benefits. It has promised to rent a room somewhere in the Castro and make it available to community groups, the company's broker says. And the company will donate some money to gay causes.

But still, this is a 12,000-square-foot chain store that's being planned.

In San Francisco, people of taste and bearing can hardly say “Starbucks” without spitting through the first two consonants; abstaining from Rite Aid earns just as many PC prestige points as shunning meat; and well — do you know anyone who admits to shopping at Wal-Mart? This chain-store-hating-sensibility isn't just talk: Supervisor Mark Leno is sponsoring legislation that would restrict the floor space of stores in North Beach, with similar legislation slated for the Castro, all specifically for the purpose of making life more difficult for chain stores. This legislation comes on the backs of myriad zoning codes that control the size and form of retail establishments.

But discussions about the negative effects of chain stores sometimes miss their mark, focusing on the more benign effects, while ignoring the worst. Chain stores are usually criticized as garish, as driving up commercial rents, and as contributing to neighborhood homogeneity. These effects aren't necessarily as pernicious as they've been made out to be. San Francisco's experience has shown that independent merchants compete against each other for limited commercial space and bid up rents, just like chain stores do. Some home-grown stores are garish and unsightly, too. And in San Francisco's rich panoply of shops and restaurants, it takes an awful lot of chain stores to make an S.F. block look like a Dublin one.

There are, however, some very good reasons for San Francisco to fear the worst sorts of chain stores: the big-box retailers with large sales floors. This kind of development includes Jack Davis Home Depots, Willie Brown stadium malls, and San Francisco Board of Supervisors Sony Metreon Cineplex Centers.

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. [page]

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.

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.” [page]

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

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.

“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.”

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. [page]

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.”

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.

“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. [page]

“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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