If We Really Want to Protect our Downtown…

Last night we discussed whether or not to extend or let expire our anti-chain store ordinance. These are the comments I made during the discussion. Needless to say, there are much, much, much better ways of protecting the downtown than this hollow ordinance.

This text is slightly edited from the original.


The anti-chain store ordinance is, at its heart, an exercise in feel-good politics which won’t do a thing to preserve our downtown.

It hasn’t kept a number of local shops from having to relocate. They ended up having to move, not because of the imminent arrival of some chain store, but because a building’s new owner paid a premium for the property, and had to recoup increased costs. That’s going to keep happening. Unless we do something to make our downtown undesirable, which I hope we don’t want to do.

Meanwhile, more and more of our downtown is owned by fewer and fewer people. If you talk to our colleagues in other cities with consolidated downtown ownership, you’ll find that has far more of an impact on what businesses are there than whether or not a business is part of a chain.

The Planning Commission has recommended to us, multiple times, to let this ordinance die. They will be on the firing line of deciding who gets to set up shop, and they quite correctly worry about the arguments and passions that will be unleashed once people realize many businesses can be opposed “just because”.

Residents and business owners both complain, not about chain stores, but about our lack of parking. Which is due to our downtown being vibrant and thriving and attractive, to both residents and visitors alike. Interestingly, it somehow managed to achieve that stature without the benefit of this ordinance, which was supposedly so critical we had to adopt it on an urgency basis.

Our downtown contains a number of very popular chain stores. Operating alongside locally-owned businesses, which are also very popular. Proving, so far as I can see, that government regulation of who gets to operate in our downtown based on whether they’re part of a chain has nothing to do with creating a great downtown.

If we really wanted to protect our downtown, we’d enact look-and-feel regulations. Store size regulations. And think about ways to encourage diversity of property ownership.

And if we really wanted to help local businesses – a separate goal which this feel-good ordinance tries to address with a wink and a nod — we’d look for ways to expand our downtown. That’s what other cities on the Peninsula are doing, for the same reasons.

But, instead, we’re fretting about who owns the downtown shops.

So I’ll be voting against this empty, feel-good ordinance. Which will come back to haunt us once people realize it doesn’t do what they thought it would.

To really do right by our community, we should take the time to develop effective regulations to foster diversity and maintain an attractive downtown.

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