What is a Formula Business in Mill Valley?

As the city continues its ongoing efforts to change commercial zoning regulations for "chain" businesses, we'd like to hear your thoughts on what exactly the criteria should be for a chain/formula business.

For the past 14 months, the Mill Valley Planning Commission has been to the city's commercial zoning regulations. Along the way, the commission has made a number of changes to the original set of recommendations from the city's Business Advisory Board "to improve city processes and promote business development consistent with Mill Valley’s character."

Some of the proposed changes (attached at right) have garnered more attention than others, particularly a move to and obtain a conditional use permit (CUP) to open downtown. That proposal, along with one to set a square-footage trigger for a (CUP), have from the , and .

That got us thinking: What exactly is a formula business?

Much of the chain/formula conversation in recent months has centered around the at 29 Miller Avenue. That effort and was and the .

But with more than 37,000 locations across the globe, Subway is a formula business by any definition. There's a lot of wiggle room between a mom-and-pop shop and the Subways of the world.

Where do you think the city of Mill Valley should set the threshold for what qualifies as a chain?

Here's how the city's current proposed changes define a formula eating or drinking establishment: 

  • An establishment which, along with seven or more business locations, is required by contractual or other arrangements to offer standardized employee uniforms, exterior design, food preparation, ingredients, interior decor, menus, or signs; or adopts an appearance, food presentation format, or name which causes it to be substantially identical to another restaurant regardless of ownership or location.

The city's current proposed definition for formula retail businesses is largely the same:

  • A retail business which, along with seven or more business locations, is required by contractual or other arrangement to maintain any of the following: standardized merchandise, services, décor, uniforms, architecture, colors, signs or other similar features. 

Fairfax and Sausalito, the only Marin towns with formula retail ordinances, have taken a slightly different approach. Fairfax (ordinance attached at right) did not set a minimum threshold for the number of locations, making any business with standardized branding and products a chain. Sausalito permits chain outlets in five different sections of town, forbidding a new chain to be close to another formula retail in town. In 2010, the Sausalito City Council denied a request for a Peet’s coffee to open near the waterfront because of concerns it would pave the way for other chains.

In its , the San Anselmo Town Council has looked at possibly defining chains as those  in the U.S.

So where is the line? How many locations must a business have to be considered a chain? Should number of locations matter? Should they be locally owned? And how do you feel about the standardization of uniforms, menus and branding? 

Tell us in the Comments below!

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Bob Silvestri August 29, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Fairfax got it right. There's no need for any specific number of outlets to quaify as a formula business establishment. It's the characteristics of a "formula" (standardized employee uniforms, exterior design, food preparation, ingredients, interior decor, menus, or signs; or adopts an appearance, food presentation format, etc.) that are the crux of the issue, whether it's a new growing chain or a large established global chain. Another way to understand the significance of this is that the prominent "brand" promoting of chains defaces and is antithetical to the diverse, unique, idiosyncratic, small town character "brand" of the town of Mill Valley.
Nick Lockwood August 29, 2012 at 06:09 PM
The city should be relaxing requirements on "formula businesses" - encouraging growth and job creation, not restraining it. Let's get over the drama - a Subway downtown would do very little to tarnish the "brand" of Mill Valley.
Uncle Fishbits August 29, 2012 at 08:47 PM
I agree with both Nick & Bob - it's more complex than saying "no chains", just as it's more complex than saying "no growth". My two cents: I find it curious, that precarious tight rope someone has to walk so they don't become a "sell-out"--> You are a small local biz (Peets, Philz), then you grow; you *are* that idiosyncratic, quirky, one off shop that makes the town proud, does the job right, and gets the respect of the community coupled with the confirmation that the American Dream still exists, with the rewards that befall an entrepreneur. Then you open another store in a neighboring town. So when are you a chain? The 2nd store? The 3rd? Or just when the fickle zeitgeist turns on you, and you go from being that cute local shop to the corporate enemy? I hate that the word "business" has become a bad word. It's insulting to the endless businesspeople that drive the economy, bring growth and success, or character and culture, to a town. I think we need a less subjective way of defining chain based on our whimsy and collective NIMBY-ism (about a Subway?? REALLY???), and just offer insight and direction to *ANY* business that provides a need to our community. Tiburon did it with Rite Aid and their signage, etc. I think Bob had it right - it's about a lack of sensitivity to the town, and more interest in corporate mandated uniformity, and the like. Just get the biz to be open minded about sensitivity to the surroundings, and they should be welcome.
Barbara Begley August 29, 2012 at 09:54 PM
I would love to see Subway take the space they originally wanted in Mill Valley. One of the best and most original sandwiches I've ever had, with the freshest of ingredients, was at a Subway in a town similar to Mill Valley outside of San Diego. Several other people who live here also feel the same way, but chose not to speak up because it didn't seem "politically correct." What we don't need are more clothing shops and hair/nail salons.
Bob Silvestri August 29, 2012 at 11:13 PM
It seems like a large number of people are misunderstanding what is being debated. The City of Mill Valley does not categorically prohibit chain stores or formula establishments, nor is the Planning Commission suggesting we do that. All that is being debated is that language in the code regarding what "triggers" a public hearing on the application for a chain or formula business. A public hearing and a public notice so the applicant can make his case and the public can have their input. What could possibly be wrong with that? Historically, this has served us well. What happened to Subway happened to Blockbuster more than a decade ago. The public opinion was overwhelmingly against these businesses, so they were either denied (Subway) or they withdrew their application (Blockbuster). Requiring a public hearing is not "NIMBYism." Public debate is healthy and I think we need to embrace it and encourage it.
elliot laurence August 29, 2012 at 11:16 PM
I am so tired of Marin County Cities and Mill Valley in particular having a no growth head in the sand agenda. All it does is create pressure for some big developer, who is the only one who has enough financial resources to fight City Hall long and hard enough, till they have to give in. At that point any project whether commercial or residential has become unaffordable due to delays and having the developer to carry the costs of delay. In the end, the quality is sacrificed and everyone has to pay through the nose for a jar of peanut butter, so to speak. Any small developer with a very creative idea, but with a low subject, doesn't stand a chance. It would be far better to plan a future Mill Valley, with higher density area developments with mixed uses properly thought out, that would in turn create jobs and prosperity for the middle class, let alone the service industry that everyone depends on. Lets face the truth, for over 40 years as long as i can remember, there has been a ruling class in Mill Vally that has held its residents hostage, controlled and restricted the majority. Anyone who has tried to remodel, build a new house, start a business, knows this, but does not have the power to do anything about it. Wake up people and face the future with a sensible plan and not a knee jerk reaction to anything new.
Nick Lockwood August 29, 2012 at 11:38 PM
I disagree Bob. Requiring a public hearing for these types of business applications is too bureaucratic and prohibits growth. It is 100% "NIMBYism" from citizens who believe they are entitled to weigh in on every issue the city confronts. Public debate is great; requiring this level of public approval is overkill.
Bob Silvestri August 29, 2012 at 11:55 PM
The previous comments sound good but are unfortunately inaccurate. As someone who's developed / invested in real estate / business ventures across the county, I can say that compared to most places Mill Valley is one of the easier places to do it. If you think Mill Valley is bad, try San Francisco, Berkeley, New York City, Los Angeles or you name it. Yes, in the past 20 years development / home improvement has become more cumbersome everywhere: more fees, longer process. But there's nothing to support saying this creates "pressure from some big developer, till.... etc." It's just not what's happened in Mill Valley, in fact we've had the opposite happen. And this has nothing to do with the rising cost of living in California or the demise of the middle class. Mill Valley has a history of nuturing innovative businesses like Banana Republic, Smith & Hawken, and The Sweetwater, to name just a few (Tamalpie being our latest shining example). But to believe that building high density development is a net financial positive or will create jobs is simply false. Jobs create housing demand. Housing doesn't create any jobs (except short term to build it) and is a net negative cost on city services forever. Maybe the world has always been "held hostage" by the status quo and government in general has become less responsive these days at all levels. And life is getting very expensive. But a ruling class? The new general plan is being debated now. I suggest everyone get involved.
Bob Silvestri August 29, 2012 at 11:57 PM
Nick, we already require a public hearing. The debate is just about the language. Public hearings are required for endless reasons, many even less important than this, everywhere in the country (in Vermont, they do it for everything in towns that have a few hundred people). Are you suggesting the entire country is filled with NIMBY's?
Nick Lockwood August 30, 2012 at 12:27 AM
Exactly my point - we shouldn't require this level of public approval. And as my earlier post said, we should be relaxing the requirements (read: language). We should be making the language less inclusive, less restrictive, less bureaucratic...
Beads of Marin September 03, 2012 at 04:13 PM
How about expanding the "language" discussion to the entire city of MV and not just downtown? There are as many businesses that contribute to the MV economy and bottom line in other areas as there are downtown, if not more. There are other areas that are part of the city that should also be addressed and not become the dumping grounds for the businesses downtown does not want (more nail salons, more hair salons, etc.). Lower Miller Ave. (and I'm sure other areas that I'm not fully familiar with) has more nail and hair salons than one could count, with more coming. Time to address the City's needs as a whole and not just the Depot area.
Gilda Harger September 05, 2012 at 04:41 PM
I agree with you, "Charuz", I live in unincorporated Mill Valley - Tam Valley, and have friends living in Strawberry - Mill Valley as well as Camino Alto area. There are many varied areas to Mill Valley, which should be thought of as a whole.
Rico September 05, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Gilda, The difference between Tam Valley, Homestead Valley, Strawberry, Alto and Almonte is that they are not in the City of Mill Valley, and the Mill Valley Officials have no say about any areas outside of the City. People and businesses in the unincorporated areas have a completely different set of governance and regulations, and pay their taxes to the County of Marin, that is a huge difference right there.
Jim Welte September 05, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Charuz - You raise a good point. To be clear, although the formula business language and the square footage trigger being discussed only focus on the downtown area, the city is also considering changes that would impact all of the city's commercial areas, including clarifying the permitted uses within them. Click on the staff report at right for more info. Hope that helps.
Beads of Marin September 06, 2012 at 12:16 AM
Ricardo, Lower Miller Ave. is part of the City of Mill Valley not the unincorporated area. This area is the orphan child of the city and does not get treated in the same manner as downtown does, regardless of what is stated elsewhere. Ask any merchant in the area and you'll get a read on what they feel.
Beads of Marin September 06, 2012 at 12:17 AM
Couldn't find the report. Can you please post a link? Thanks.
Jim Welte September 06, 2012 at 12:20 AM
Rico September 06, 2012 at 01:39 AM
Charuz, We all know that lower Miller Ave. is in the City of M.V. Have you seen the Miller Ave. Precise plan ? It was a pipedream to build a bunch of mixed use condos and shops below that went clunk in a big way. They did fabricate the Tamalpais Commons as a mixed use high end condo project, but it went clunk. Nobody in their right mind is going to take out a 30 year loan to inhabit a condo on a busy 4 lane main street near a high school. That was the beginning and the end of the MAPP. They did rent out some shops, but the condo project was "apartmentized". They are now renting those apartments for $4000,00 per month. Even though all of this recent discussion is focused on the downtown (we call it uptown) area, it seems that there are different dreams about the downtown verses any other part of the City of M.V. The problem is, is the people that live here. The developers can come in and take our tax money to pay for studies and plans for anything, but it is truly up to the people whether or not it will ever get built. We are fortunate that these politicians and developers did not succeed in turning the lower part of Mill Valley into another Novato, Petaluma or Concrud.


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