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Chain Reaction: Biz Owner Sees Inconsistencies in Subway Denial

As City Hall ponders “formula” business regulations, apparent inconsistencies in recent decisions cause some to ask for a clearer idea of what is a chain and how far should the city go to protect locally owned businesses. What do you think?

When the Mill Valley City Council earlier this month, the decision drew a burst of applause from a standing-room-only crowd mostly full of vehement opponents to the sandwich shop.

But when longtime Mill Valley resident and co-owner Mark Fong learned of the decision, particularly the council citing Subway’s status as a chain and its potential impact on locally owned businesses as a basis for its decision, he was confused.

“It bothered me, and it has bothered a lot of my customers,” Fong said.

That’s because five months before Subway’s appeal was rejected, the Planning Commission , the 43-store chain owned by Strawberry resident Michael Levy, to open an approximately 4,500-square-foot Mill Valley store in the Alto Plaza shopping center. The store opened last week.

Fong said he doesn’t understand why city officials said they wanted to protect local businesses like and from a powerful chain while not doing so for his business, which has been on Miller Avenue for 31 years. Critterland is a longtime supporter of , and the , Fong said.

“I just don’t get the difference,” he said.

Mill Valley native Brian Murphy, who recently moved back to town, on Mill Valley Patch: “Must we break the news to the NIMBYs that was a national chain, as well? A town must provide varied services to varied tastes, not just what fits your 1 percent tastes.”

For Sylvia "Chipps" Newsom Barsky called out for leadership from city officials.

“It is time that City Hall defined what constitutes a chain and then stand by it when a chain store wants to come into the downtown area of Mill Valley,” . “Yes, there are chains already here. How many more do we need? And at what cost? It is time for City Hall to step up and make a clear decision so that the citizens and merchants don't have to continually defend the unique culture of Mill Valley.”

Though he voted to reject the Subway appeal, Councilman Ken Wachtel said he found it curious that those people who opposed Subway because it was a chain and would negatively impact local businesses never raised an objection to Pet Food Express.

“While I am not generally a fan of protectionism, I am in favor of consistent policy -- especially when it impacts on our small locally owned and local serving businesses,” Wachtel said.

The distinction, according to the council’s decision, is two-fold:

  1. Geographic. The city’s 1989 General Plan, which is in the midst of an update, calls downtown “the primary commercial and civic center for the community” that has a “number of small businesses operated by independent proprietors who are actively involved in the community.” That priority is not explicitly extended to shopping centers like Alto Plaza.
  2. Size. Councilmembers called out the difference between Subway’s 37,000-plus locations and those of smaller chains. 

Geographic distinctions exist elsewhere like San Francisco, where chain businesses face strict regulations in some neighborhoods but much less so in some retail developments.

“My sense is that if we had tried to open in downtown (Mill Valley) it would have been more difficult,” said Levy, who founded Pet Food Express in 1980. “Alto Plaza is a shopping center and it’s distinctly different than downtown Mill Valley.”

As for the size distinction, the Planning Commission met again last month to continue its tweak of the city’s zoning regulations, including . In the latest iteration of those proposed changes, chain businesses were defined as those having seven or more locations and standardization of design, services and products.

Levy said the size distinction is a particularly subjective measurement. He said a locally owned business shouldn’t be penalized for having great success and expanding beyond the seven-location chain trigger.

“It’s a real balancing act in defining a chain,” Levy said. “In Mill Valley, I don’t want to see local businesses chased out by Burger King and McDonald’s either. But , for instance, is not the same thing as McDonald’s.”

As for Fong, his business has survived the continued economic downturn of the past several years and he hopes to continue to do so. He said there isn’t much overlap between Critterland and Pet Food Express, as he focuses less on dog and cat food and offers supplies for a wider range of pets beyond dogs and cats.

Levy agreed, saying he was confident that his new Mill Valley store won’t take out Critterland, in Strawberry or in Tam Junction. Instead, he expects to grow the local pet market by encouraging pet adoptions and allowing customers to choose from a diverse range of independent pet supply retailers.

“It’s not like we want to beat each other’s brains out,” he said. “We’ve never pushed anybody out of business - we’ve expanded the market,” he said.

Fong is hopeful but said he’d like to see some clarity from the city regardless.

“I’ve been here my whole life,” he said. “If you say you want to protect locally owned businesses, be consistent with it.”

Mari May 24, 2012 at 07:47 PM
What is the point of having anything clearly defined in a community plan if it is applied in some cases and not others? Take for example, the Tamalpais Area Community Plan. It states "we do not encourage sidewalks, curbs and gutters in the planning area." So, what does David Parisi do when asked by Roz Hamar, the (now former) head of Marin Horizon School, to design a sidewalk so she can convince her private school clients to walk four blocks? He designs a concrete sidewalk, with curbs and gutters! And people are surprised when there is an uproar? We have exhausted all efforts to reach a win/win solution. Not one person who claims we need a "sidewalk" has offered to join our effort for a "community built" path. We have not received a reply from County re: our proposed alternative plan. Project moves forward. We ask for notice of all actions, but get NO notice when COUNTY decides to give ITSELF an exemption from CEQA - for "existing facilities" when NO concrete sidewalk with curbs and gutters exists in this area!!! Contract has been awarded, we just receive word of a pre-construction meeting on June 7th - and find out that CONSTRUCTION is going to start on June 11th!!!
Mari May 24, 2012 at 07:49 PM
This is no benefit to schoolchildren - it is nothing but bureaucratic BS!! http://www.change.org/petitions/no-million-dollar-slab-for-evergreen-ave
Bob Silvestri May 24, 2012 at 07:52 PM
The banks and Stefanos downtown predate the current General Plan / these companies came in before the GP was written.Of the other "chains" in downtown, Peets was not a "national chain" at the time of its approval (as specifically noted in the General Plan: 2.4.1 Existing Conditions and Projections: Mill Valley / Tamalpais Area Planning Factors - Page 52). And even if the approval of Peets or any other business was faulty in the past (didn't conform to the GP requirements) it's not an argument to continue to not enforce the GP. Of the others Champagne has less than ten outlets even today, Margaret O'Leary was a new retail venture when approved and to date only has 8 stores (and Margaret O’Leary lives in Mill Valley, downtown on Throckmorton), Tyler Florence is just now starting to go into retail (and Tyler also lives here in Mill Valley). Boo Koo is not a chain (and its owner lives in Mill Valley on Sunnyside). Boo Koo started as a sister to another restaurant in Santa Cruz (Charlie Hong Kong), but separated last year. And Alain Pinel is a relatively new real estate company, which is only in Northern California from Napa to Monterrey. Subway on the other hand surpassed McDonalds in 2010 as the largest franchisor in the world (36,000 locations). Subway is clearly the type of business that the GP was contemplating regarding the threat of the unfair competitive advantages of national chain stores and franchises driving out small locally owned businesses.
John May 24, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Bos Silvestri has nailed the issue in both of his posts. Regulations for the downtown retail district are and should be different from those for shopping centers away from downtown. Baskin Robbins also predated the current General Plan, and denying a huge chain such as Subway is consistent with the way the General Plan is currently implemented. The denial was not so much to protect specific businesses as to prevent the camel's nose (huge formula retail chains) from entering the tent (the downtown retail district), and setting a precedent for post-general Plan approvals. Even if one approves of Subway, denial of its application was necessary to preserve the intent of the General Plan and the wishes of most of the City's residents to preserve the unique flavor of downtown, as demonstrated by the numbers who turned out and signed petitions in opposition to Subway's application.
jerry slick May 24, 2012 at 10:36 PM
Nobody ever accused Whole Foods of having low prices, and I just found out that my Organix dog food was 34.99 there, and 39.99 next door at Pet Food Express. So much for their so-called "discount". Won't go back. Ever.

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