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On the Books

Unchain My Block

By David Boyer

These days it seems everybody's bitching about how the chains--Starbucks, McDonald's, Blockbuster et al.--are ruining this city and sapping our neighborhoods of their charm and individuality.

The latest battleground: the corner of Divisadero and Fell, part of an area politicos call "the Divisadero Corridor" and locals consider either the Lower Haight or Western Addition. There a new Burger King franchisee is scheduled to break ground as The Metropolitan goes to press. Neighborhood residents feel slighted about not being given a chance to say "nay," but according to David Serrano-Sewell, special assistant to the mayor on such matters, no rights have been impinged.

"The Burger King as a fast food retailer is a legally permitted use," Serrano-Sewell explains. "You're allowed to open up fast food restaurants; it could be a Burger King, it could be a falafel place, it could be mom and pop ... whatever--it's allowed in that part of San Francisco." And so it seems the residents can huff and puff all they want, but the Burger King will be built.

Alas, Serrano-Sewell does offer a less-whiny-more-proactive way for neighborhoods to keep out (or let in) the heretofore-mentioned riff raff. "Essentially, it's called an NCD, a Neighborhood Commercial District." An NCD outlines the land-use priorities for a given area--what kind of development the merchants and neighborhood wants to foster and which they don't.

Explains Mary Gallagher of the San Francisco Planning Department, "If a neighborhood works with the Board of Supervisors to develop new neighborhood commercial zoning regulations to prohibit fast food restaurants or stores of a certain size or type, then, in essence, their saying 'no' to chain stores works all the time, and they don't have to review each one." Sure, it's less fun than putting up inflammatory posters and chaining oneself to the drive-thru kiosk, but it's a helluva lot more likely to get results.

So, should you choose to, here's how your neighborhood can become a "No Chain Zone":

  1. Call a meeting for the merchants and residents of your neighborhood.

  2. Decide what you want to see in your neighborhood and what you don't.

  3. Contact the city's Planning Department (415/558-6377). Look at existing NCDs from other neighborhoods and talk with Planning Department staff to help draft a document for your neighborhood.

  4. Create a document everyone (or perhaps majority plus one) agrees upon.

  5. Get on the hearing calendar of the Planning Commission, which will hear and vote on whether or not to recommend the NCD to the Board of Supervisors.

  6. If recommended, the NCD is passed to the Board of Supervisors which ultimately adopts it as city policy.

  7. If adopted, the contents of the NCD are set in stone (not literally, but I suppose a neighborhood could do so).

  8. Any exceptions or changes to the NCD require special legislation from a Board member.

  9. Enforcing the intent of the NCD is up to you. So stay active and look alive. Keep periodic tabs on the Planning Department and the Department of Building Inspections to find out who and what is filing for permits and building inspections in your 'hood.

In the end, keeping out chains depends on the strength and perseverance of the residents and merchants. Serrano-Sewell points out the effectiveness of the North Beach district where the merchant association is "vigilant" and routinely thwarts outsiders (i.e., Starbucks a few years back) who try to set up shop into their neighborhood.

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From the December 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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