S.F. chain store war could block Chipotle from occupying vacant space

A restaurant's efforts to open in the Castro/Upper Market area is highlighting a growing debate on how best to balance formula retail with locally owned businesses while trying to fill empty storefronts in San Francisco neighborhoods.

Mexican food chain Chipotle wants to take over the former site of Home restaurant, but Planning Commission staff recommend the application be denied because there are already numerous formula retail shops in the area. The application will go before the commission Thursday.

If the recommendation is heeded, it will be the latest casualty in The City's efforts to cut down on chain businesses.

“It's about whether the business adds to the neighborhood.” said Pat Tura, president of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, which is against Chipotle occupying the Market Street space. “It's a very desirable location.”

The recommendation is the result of a new policy approved in May that requires more scrutiny of formula retail in the Castro/Upper Market area.

The Planning Commission lists 10 formula retail locations — including Walgreens, Safeway, Jamba Juice and Starbucks — within 300 feet of the proposed Chipotle and another six stores beyond 300 feet.

The policy requires the Planning Department to reject any application that increases the formula retail concentration within 300 feet of the application to more than 20 percent. If Chipotle is approved, formula retail along Market Street at Church Street will jump to 36 percent.

But if the application is denied, it will leave a large vacant property in the middle of a neighborhood that already has nine vacant storefronts, according to planning documents.

Terry Asten Bennett, president of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, said having a mix of formula retail and small, locally owned businesses is what makes a neighborhood vibrant.

Chipotle being formula retail should not be the basis for denying a business that would occupy a vacant building, he said.

“Formula retail already has a number of hoops to jump through; by automatically denying by arbitrary formula makes it more difficult and stores may not want to come to the neighborhood,” Asten Bennett said.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose district includes the area and who helped create the policy, said it's important to have controls because some property owners don't take into account the needs of neighbors.

“Some people take the perspective of filling a space with whoever applies; I don't agree with that,” he said. “We have a lot of local retailers who want to be in the Castro, and some property owners prefer going with a chain store because it's a more stable business.”

An application for a Starbucks at 2201 Market St. was denied last month under similar reasons, but a CVS Pharmacy was approved 2280 Market St. because it came just under the 20 percent threshold.

Wiener — who could not comment on the specific application — said the neighborhood wants to take a look at applications on a case-by-case basis and this policy allows for that.

During a meeting last month, Planning Commissioner Michael Antonini said he thinks it's “bad policy.”

“Three hundred feet is a very narrow area,” he said. “It really should take in the whole neighborhood commercial district because there may be one block with no formula retail and another block with just some formula retail.”

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