I recently had an unsettling experience in a parking lot in Lompoc. I was standing in the middle of an enormous asphalt parking lot, surrounded by large buildings emblazoned with the logos of national retail chains, and, for a split second, I didn't know where I was.

I don't think that I was losing my mind, at least on this occasion. The real problem was that the landscape had been taken over by the signs and symbols, the logos and trademark architecture, of the national chains. Nothing local or regional was in view. I realized that if I had awoken from a deep sleep and looked around me, I would not know whether I was in South Jersey or North Carolina or Santa Barbara County. Although Lompoc, like all places, has its own history and topography, I had no way of knowing that I was in Lompoc. In actuality, I was in Anywhere, USA. And, to paraphrase Neil Young, everybody knows that Anywhere is nowhere.

I suspect that nearly every Californian, perhaps every American, can recall an experience similar to my aphasia in Lompoc. Local officials have begun to confront this “formula retail” problem.

Although different cities have different legal definitions for the phenomenon, let's define formula retail simply as national retail chains who use familiar logos and/or building design to establish their presence in any given market. What is crucial here is that consumers are already familiar with the brand long before the retailer puts up a sign in a new location. To borrow the language of semiology, the golden arches are a “signifier,” that is, a bearer of meaning that stands for something larger and perhaps better known than a shopping center in Lompoc. The golden arches stand for McDonalds as a collective entity, as a societal force, rather than a single building. Recognition by itself creates trust, and people obviously will spend money where they feel comfortable. That is the genius of branding. And that power, beyond the ugliness or garishness of any particular sign, is why formula retail is bad for cities. A branded landscape can overwhelm the set of images and meanings that make a town a recognizable place.

The question, then, is how to best strike a balance between the legitimate claims of a business owner, whether or not I approve of its marketing campaign, and the need of communities to give urban design standards the upper hand in the competition for visual supremacy.

Cities, of course, always have the option of negotiating each new building on a case-by-case basis. In Arcata, the city in Humboldt County where this story is being written, city officials recently conducted talks with developers regarding the design of a Target outlet. The city insisted on a design that conforms to the city's residential character, especially Arcata's large stock of Victorian and wood-frame houses. The solution, which I think successful, forgoes Target's traditional big white box in favor of exterior walls covered in dark, multi-colored brick. The brick is accented by four white structures that look like pitched roofs and break up the massiveness of the building.

Arcata takes a more systematic approach to formula restaurants, which the city tightly restricts (see CP&DR Trends, October 2002). San Francisco has gone much further with the systemic approach. The desire to protect a four-block area in Hayes Valley, a rejuvenating neighborhood, was the impetus for a 2004 ordinance championed by then-Supervisor Matt Gonzalez. With Hayes Valley showing new life thanks to the city's redevelopment effort, the big chains were sniffing a new market. Gonzalez asked Deputy City Attorney Sarah Owsowitz to prepare an ordinance that controlled formula retail. In the preamble to the ordinance, formula retail is characterized as unfair competition to local business startups because formula businesses are “typically better capitalized and can absorb larger startup costs, pay more for lease space, and commit to longer lease contracts.”

The ordinance defines formula retail as a chain that has at least a 11 other existing outlets, and “maintains two or more of the following features: a standardized array of merchandise, a standardized façade, a standardized décor and color scheme, a uniform apparel, standardized signage, a trademark or a servicemark.”

As approved by San Francisco's Board of Supervisors one year ago, the ordinance bans formula retail outright from Hayes Valley's commercial streets. In the rest of the city, with some exceptions, the ordinance enables local residents to request a public hearing and challenge the formula retail applicant's request for a conditional use permit. In the Cole Valley neighborhood, any application for a formula business automatically triggers a public hearing, even if neighbors do not ask for one. Significant exceptions to the regulation include Fisherman's Wharf and the area surrounding Union Square, both of which are rife with national brands and presumably past all hope.

The ordinance also directs the Planning Commission to develop guidelines for evaluating formula retail applications that come up for public review. Among those guidelines are considering the existence of other formula retail businesses in a given neighborhood, determining whether comparable goods are already available within the same area, judging the compatibility of the proposed business with the character of the neighborhood, taking into account the retail vacancy rate in the area, and the balance of neighborhood-serving versus citywide or regional-serving businesses.

This is the type of bold, almost radical solution that can work in the Bay Area but may not be able to travel south of Silicon Valley. One can already hear the raised voices of protest from those who believe in completely unrestrained free-market competition - as if a national chain and a local entrepreneur compete on the same level. If cities do not hold up their end of the debate, however, the commercial strips of every city will become little more than bulletin boards for corporate brands, and a lot more people will find themselves unsure of exactly where they are.