Should Sacramento limit or ban strip-mall chain stores?

On the chaining of Curtis Park

There’s going to be a lot more beige stucco in and around Curtis Park in the next few years. The 72-acre Curtis Park Village project is a great urban infill opportunity in a great urban neighborhood—putting a bunch of new residents and businesses in the old rail yards next to Sacramento City College. But the Curtis Park Village developer Paul Petrovich of Petrovich Development Co. is planning a very Petrovich-ian retail landscape there, a cluster of national chain stores that could have been cloned from any of his other projects or from any new suburban strip mall anywhere.

And other developments have Curtis Park residents fretting about the beige-ification of their little corner of the city. The Sacramento Children’s Home, which owns the land at the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Sutterville Road has decided to give beloved Mexican supermarket Mercado Loco the boot in order to bring in a CVS Pharmacy in a city that is already saturated with big corporate drugstores. Last check, about 560 residents had signed a petition asking the Children’s Home and CVS to leave the local market alone.

“We’re worried the overpreponderance of those chains will snuff out the character of the neighborhood,” says Bruce Pierini, a Sacramento City College professor and Curtis Park resident. Pierini is one of several residents pushing the city to adopt limits on chain businesses.

A lot of cities are trying out these “formula business” restrictions. San Francisco’s ordinance started in one neighborhood and has since grown to encompass several neighborhood business districts. Sometimes cities ban formula businesses outright in a certain neighborhood or they cap the number or they make such businesses subject to “conditional use” approval, as in San Francisco.

There are a lot of reasons that developers like Petrovich keeping cloning a certain kind of generic strip mall, and a lot of it has to do with reassuring the national banks that finance their projects. “It’s just easier to build the same thing again and again,” says Stacy Mitchell, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for local business and limits on chains.

This being Sacramento, any kind of formula business restriction would surely be painted as anti-job. Region Builders and the Sacramento Metro Chamber managed to eliminate Sacramento’s rules requiring economic-impact studies for new big-box stores, by arguing (without much evidence offered) that the rules hurt job creation. Mitchell counters that, “There is extensive evidence that local businesses employ more people.” They source locally, and the profits are more likely to be invested locally, too.

City councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents Curtis Park, has in the past sided with the chamber and the developers on the big-box rules, and he has taken a lot of money from Wal-Mart, the chamber and developer groups.

Still, the Curtis Park folks are hopeful Schenirer will help with formula business restrictions. His chief of staff, Joe Devlin, says, “We are looking into it,” and adds that Schenirer will be meeting with neighbors next month, along with Portland, Ore.-based consultant Michele Reeves.

Bites wrote a bit about Reeves’ ideas on adaptive reuse and retrofitting suburban retail corridors in a previous column (see “Downtown is important,” SN&R Bites, January 2). She is skeptical of chains, but she’s skeptical of formula business restrictions, too. “You have to be careful about trying to rule things out. Because there can be all sorts of unintended consequences.”

Reeves says the trick is building good relationships between developers and local business and neighbors. “You want to encourage and reward what you do want to see, rather than punishing what you don’t want,” she adds.

To be sure, the Curtis Park folks say they want to find positive ways to promote local business, and not just to ban things. “Every neighborhood in this town should be thinking about how to distinguish itself,” says resident Kathleen Ave.

And Ave notes there’s no Curtis Park Village without the Curtis Park neighborhood. “[Petrovich] called his place Curtis Park Village, because he wanted to benefit from what this neighborhood is all about.”

And the way Bites sees it, the neighborhood wouldn’t be nearly as desirable without the tremendous public investment that went into it. That includes City College, the light-rail station, and the grand old park itself. If developers want to benefit from the neighborhood and the public amenities that made it possible, they ought to do better than beige suburban-style strip malls. If they don’t think so, maybe we do need some new rules.