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Cities Reject Corporate America

Among the articles of faith that urban planners hold as self-evident is this: Land use planning is a local endeavor. Many planners even espouse that a town's general plan can influence the "quality of life" through land use regulation. This theory has been at the crux of New Urbanist arguments for revamping development codes. But a funny thing happened on the way to urban design perfection: American-style corporate capitalism intruded. The plethora of the chain coffee houses, stores, and restaurants that grab up space in the neo-town centers the very projects that collect awards at planning conferences are at risk of turning these developments into Everyplace. The result is not a new type of community at all, but simply a new version of a shopping mall, ultimately dominated by the same corporations that controlled the old ones. And while the vast majority of California municipalities are still thrilled when Starbucks takes up residence in their downtowns or in their revamped suburban centers, there is a small but enterprising posse of cities that are heading in a different direction. These California towns let's call them anti-formula towns have taken community development discussions to the next level, beyond discussions of facade treatment and sales tax revenues. These towns have the vision of remaining a place that cannot be replicated. They safeguard a community where retailers and hotel owners like residents are unique and specific to the place, where the geography is Somewhere. The anti-formula towns have acted to stop the halt of the chain businesses by ordinance making good on the promise of local land use control tools. Commonly, these are called "Formula Business Ordinances," and they define such establishments by their common signage, use of uniforms, and corporate doctrines. The tiny Napa Valley town of Calistoga has the most far-reaching of these. Its original version was passed in 1995 and was updated two years ago. "In 1995," said Associate Planner Jo Noble, "there were rumors of a pending application by a fast food chain. The Planning Commission asked staff to explore how such businesses could be restricted from locating here. We do well with the mom-and-pop businesses, and tourists come here for that reason to escape the Burger Kings and Carl's Jrs." Calistoga moved quickly when the specter of the chain business presented itself. "The commission was very active in crafting the actual language. It is targeted to protect both restaurants and lodging establishments," Noble explained. Since the city took action, countless communities have inquired about Calistoga's ordinance, and it is widely viewed as a model. The City of Arcata provided the most recent stab at formula businesses, although that North Coast city's ordinance restricts only restaurants. "There are nine formula restaurants in Arcata, and the ordinance does not permit any more to open here" said Mike Mullen, Arcata's planning program manager. Adopted in July, the ordinance allows a new formula restaurant to come to town, but only if an existing one leaves. What makes Arcata's ordinance interesting is its genesis, which appears to be rooted into the anti-globalization movement. In 2000, Arcata, home of Humboldt State University, amended its Municipal Code to create a committee on "Democracy and Corporations." The committee is charged, among other things, with presenting options to the City Council on how Arcata can "control pattern restaurants from moving into downtown areas" and "to cooperate with other communities that are working on socially responsible investing." Mullen sites the work of the New Rules Project, a Minneapolis-based advocacy non-profit, as the philosophical anchor of the new "Formula Restaurant Limitation Ordinance." (see http://www.newrules.org/). At a practical level, the ordinance protects Arcata's eating and drinking establishments, which form the most important sector of the City's economy, Mullen said. During the five public hearings leading up to the adoption, speakers generally favored the protective ordinance by a 3 to 1 ratio. So far, no legal challenges have come forward in either Arcata or Calistoga. Will the anti-globalism movement sweep the rest of California via formula business ordinances? Not likely. No other Humboldt County cities are expected to follow Arcata's lead, Mullen said. San Francisco's Jim Davis, chief planner in that city's Neighborhood Planning unit says that numerous attempts to pass similar laws in the progressive metropolis have failed. The best that San Francisco has been able to get on the books is a 1999 requirement for a conditional use permit process specific to coffeehouses in North Beach, a measure that seems to target Starbucks. This provocative foray into land use rule-making can be seen as a phenomenon that can be expected in communities that meet a unique set of criteria: a tourism-based economy, relatively small, and a progressive-minded City Hall. Nevertheless, these communities have shown that land use tools can be used effectively to tackle the problem of bland, unimaginative sameness in community character. The success of these cities should give faith to planners that local control is possible. Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.
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