April 7, 2004

Battling Chain Stores

Do chain stores kill off a neighborhood's "sense of place?"

Clearly, strip malls do, if they're surrounded by huge parking areas that make for a pedestrian-hostile environment. So do "big box" retailers.

But what if a nationwide retailer moves into an already-existing space?

That's been the debate in places like Harvard Square in Cambridge and New York's Times Square, where critics say centers that were once truly unique have been turned into the equivalent of outdoor shopping malls, with many of the same chain stores you can find in malls around America.

Now, San Francisco officials are trying to institute an ordinance that would protect some neighborhoods from major corporate retailers, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"People come to San Francisco [because] it's a city of neighborhoods," Paul Lord, a city senior planner, told the Times. "Chinatown doesn't look like the Mission, which doesn't look like North Beach."

Critics say the measure deprives San Francisco of revenue and jobs.

However, it's worth remembering that high-density areas, whether urban centers in San Francisco or downtown business districts like Framingham's, can't compete with shopping malls on drive-in convenience. The mall with its acres of parking wins that contest. Destination-type city/town centers win on ambience once you're there, such as Boston's North End -- their "sense of place" along with an enjoyable, human-scale, pedestrian-friendly environment. Question: How far would you be willing to drive to get to the North End if most of the restaurants were places like Olive Garden and Pizza Hut?

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