Should Cities Try to Keep Out Big Chains?

Chain
stores. A lot of people hate them because they often muscle out local
businesses that give a neighborhood character (the excellent film Twilight Becomes Night documents this painful loss in New York City).

But
clearly a lot of people vote with their pocketbooks by spending money
in chains. And the question of the effects of chains on a given
neighborhood is complicated, especially when a recession is creating
more vacant storefronts every day. Today, Streetsblog Network member Saint Louis Urban Workshop asks how — and whether — communities should limit chains:

3470183543_43264ae294.jpgPhoto by …-Wink-… via Flickr.

Should business districts limit the number of national chains that
can open? Are local stores and restaurants at a disadvantage? Over the
past several years a group named Our Town
has successfully pushed for limits on new chain stores in San
Francisco. As a result, today all chain store applications must be
presented to the San Francisco Planning Commission and submitted for
public review.

Now longtime Bloomington, Indiana, Mayor Mark
Kruzan appears ready to limit chain stores from his idyllic southern
Indiana college town…

Of course there’s a flip side to this issue as
well. Local retailers, boutiques and independent restaurants likely
cannot serve all residents. It’s wonderful to have $25 parmesan cheese
available in the city, but what about those who want Provel? This is
especially true with clothing. The recent rumor of an Old Navy opening
in downtown St. Louis would be a welcome trend in this way.

The issue isn’t simple. We enjoy our St. Louis Bread
Company, but now it’s a corporate behemoth. Once upon a time the
California Pizza Kitchen was the model of a neighborhood start-up.
Would you welcome a Peet’s, but not a Starbucks? The Foot Locker and
Blockbuster stores in the Delmar Loop just recently closed and their
departure is being lamented by some who enjoyed their convenience and
those who simply had become used to them.

So where do you
stand on anti-chain store efforts?…Is it enough to limit signage or require a
particular design? Is the issue aesthetic? And what about franchises
owned by locals?

Good questions. Should municipalities try to regulate chains, or let the market have its way? It’s a been a topic of debate since the 1920s. Your thoughts?

More from around the network: The Transport Politic asks how Los Angeles is going to manage its transit ambitions. Kaid Benfield on NRDC Switchboard looks at retrofitting suburban cul-de-sacs with trails for better connectivity. And Austin on Two Wheels notes the advent of the city’s first sharrows.

  • James Fujita

    The Urban Workshop blog makes an excellent point, which is that not all “chains” are built alike. For example, I would love to see a Trader Joe’s, or a Famima!! or a Whole Foods or even Fresh & Easy in my neighborhood.

    But I would hate to see Wal*Mart. Why? Well, partially it is their infamous corporate practices and partially it is the fact that I’m not a generic big-box retail shopper.

    I honestly don’t think it’s right to keep businesses out because they happen to be chains. I like some chains better than I like the local stores, and what’s wrong with that? I also don’t think a “trendy chains only” policy is going to work. It’s discriminatory and you’re going to get sued.

    The key, I think, is to place size limits on retail. Bigger stores need bigger parking lots and they leave bigger environmental “footprints”. Size limits would effectively kill the big-box retailers, favor local small business, and would allow in the Trader Joe’s, which are smaller and more compact to begin with.

    It dovetails nicely with the whole urban renewal thing, too, since big boxes require big wide open spaces, not urban jungle storefronts.

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