As Jim Welte related in his recent article about the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, “,” the chamber's board sent a letter to the city of Mill Valley Planning Commission and held private meetings with commissioners to lobby for revisions to our zoning code. Among the changes they are seeking are the elimination of public notice and public hearings for almost all downtown properties and removal of code wording (‘formula retail and restaurant language’) that offers zoning protections against chain stores and franchise businesses downtown.
These changes could have a significant impact on the future of Mill Valley and the character of our downtown. In particular the letter recommends that the “trigger” for a “conditional use” public notice and public hearings be increased from its present limit of 1,500 square feet of selling space to 4,000 square feet of total space. In other words, if a new business wants to rent a space downtown, so long as that space is less than 4,000 square feet, there would be no public notice or public hearing or Planning Commission or City Council input on whether or not that business is appropriate or otherwise in compliance with the spirit or intent of our General Plan. It would be automatically permitted.
Keep in mind that the 1,500 square foot “trigger” does not restrict any business from occupying more square footage. It just requires the application’s approval or denial to be reviewed at a public hearing. So the existing code is a public protection against businesses that could harm smaller, less capitalized locally owned businesses or negatively impact our town’s character, not a restriction against larger businesses, as the chamber’s letter incorrectly characterizes it.
To put into perspective how impactful such a change might be, it would allow most of the types of small footprint chain stores you now find in the Corte Madera Town Center and Village shopping centers to come and set up shop in downtown Mill Valley without any ability to stop them. It would also invite property owners to combine existing retail spaces to accommodate larger tenants whom they could charge higher rents.
This provision would also have allowed Subway to open regardless of the public’s opposition. Considering that the petition against Subway quickly garnered the signatures of more than 1,200 residents and over 100 Mill Valley businesses (and almost all the businesses downtown), it’s hard to understand why the Chamber would be so out of touch with public opinion. In order to understand the situation better, I decided to do some research.
First I wanted to know just how many businesses there are in Mill Valley and how many of them were members of the Chamber of Commerce. The Business Licensing person at the City told me that there are perhaps as many as 800 businesses in Mill Valley that are “bricks and mortar” businesses – in other words businesses that rent commercial space and offer goods and services. On top of that, a few hundred more rent small spaces or share spaces here and there that are not licensed. Home-based businesses push the current consensus total guesstimate to about 2,400 businesses in Mill Valley.
The next thing I wondered was how many businesses were members of the Chamber of Commerce. I thought this was important to know because the Chamber always presents itself at public hearings as being “THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE” and the voice of Mill Valley business. And the Chamber enjoys special access to city officials, is always given special treatment at public hearings (no 3 minute limits for them), they get free office space from the City (okay, it’s more like a closet but it is free), they get free support services from city agencies for some of their events, and the city has even bailed them out financially when they needed money. So understanding just who these people represent seemed important. So I called the Chamber and asked them how many members they had and who they were.
The person who answered the phone said she didn’t know but it was on the website. I explained that it wasn’t and showed her that although they have a services directory, they don’t list their dues paying members. Then she asked me who I was, so I told her. She asked me why I wanted a list, and I told her I just wanted to know and growing more puzzled at this “teeth pulling” conversation, asked her if the list was some kind of secret. She hesitantly said she thought it might be about 200 to 230 members then went back to grilling me about what I was going to do with the list. I got tired of this so I gave her my phone number and asked if someone could call me about how to get a list of members. No one called me back.
This was the most curious conversation I’ve ever had with Chamber of Commerce or similar types of organizations (and I used to have to call dozens of them around the country when I was a real estate developer). The normal response is gracious, inviting and super helpful. In other words, the exact opposite of what I experienced calling the Mill Valley Chamber.
But what is most puzzling to me about this is that as a nonprofit organization, the Mill Valley Chamber is regulated by an elaborate list of federal and state laws and special rules. And among those regulations is one that says that their financial records, lists of donors or dues paying members, must be made available to anyone for any reason upon request. Hmm… perhaps the Mill Valley Chamber didn’t get the memo.
For the sake of discussion, let’s say the Chamber has about 225 members, which means that at best it represents about 9 percent of Mill Valley businesses (225 is about 9 percent of 2,400). Now one would think that if the board of directors of the Mill Valley Chamber sent a letter to the city, asking for changes in business zoning regulations and implying that they were speaking for their members, that that letter would have been based on some kind of polling or vote of their membership. However, it appears that’s not the case.
When a few community members called and emailed the owners of several downtown businesses, they discovered that not only didn’t the Chamber board confer with them before sending out their letter but that these members were taken aback that the Chamber could take such a position. But anyone could have guessed this would happen since almost every downtown business signed the petition against Subway, a “formula” chain store that was only stopped because of the existing 1,500-square-foot rule that required a public hearing.
So I think it’s legitimate to ask who exactly the board of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce represents. I also wonder if the Chamber has procedures and rules in place governing how they conduct themselves publicly, as would be expected for an organization that takes taxpayer funds and enjoys special access to City Hall. Since no one’s called me back, I suppose I’ll never know.
There are several other things about the Chamber board’s actions that I find disturbing.
That an organization like the Chamber would promote its own agenda is to be expected. But that the Chamber Board would want to open the door to larger chain store tenants seems very out of touch with the wishes of the community to protect and preserve the most special thing about Mill Valley, the small town character of our downtown.
As I said, the letter was signed by the entire board of the Chamber, including Mill Valley Mayor Garry Lion. What is surprising is that Mayor Lion would put his name on a letter that attempts to influence public policy on an issue that is still under deliberation by our Planning Commission. That’s always been a “no comment” situation for our elected officials. But what’s even more odd is that Mayor Lion would endorse the Chamber’s controversial recommendations knowing full well that it will taint the 2040 General Plan Update process before it’s even had a chance to get underway. One would hope that a public official in this situation would have recused himself at the outset.
Chamber board members made some strange comments about small businesses at the Planning Commission meeting when their letter was presented. As reported in the Mill Valley Patch, among them was that smaller rental spaces should be discouraged because small businesses using smaller spaces “drive lower rents, which tends to attract under-financed entrepreneurs with a misguided vision.” The incongruity of Mill Valley endorsing public policies that are “anti-entrepreneurial” aside, I’d ask the Chamber Board to consider that among those “under-financed entrepreneurs” with ”misguided vision” they’d find Banana Republic, the Sweetwater, Smith and Hawken and Piazza D’Angelo when they first opened their doors, and pretty much every great little entrepreneur we have left in downtown including Stefano’s Pizza, Famous for our Look, Two Neat, 142 Throckmorton, and Tony’s Shoe Repair and The Depot Bookstore, among others. And this coming from the board of an organization that says it promotes a thriving business environment?
It seems that the Chamber leadership seems to have forgotten something far more important than square footage codes and rental costs. The vibrancy and financial success of our downtown is not based on the various businesses that decide to open shop here, as the Chamber seems to believe, but rather on the residents and visitors who decide to come and spend their money here. And the number one reason that they come from around the world to do that is because of Mill Valley's "small town character." That special sense of place and ambience, that small-scaled environment that invites them to stroll down winding streets past little shops and stop and talk with neighbors and local business owners. And it’s that small town character that offers businesses the opportunity to thrive here, not vice versa.
I would just suggest that it might pay to remember that.