Tonight, city council votes on ordinance to ban formula restaurants
on February 1, 2011
Point Richmond is known as a tight-knit community with a unique, small town charm, and a vote today by the Richmond City Council will determine if people in the community can keep out businesses they think will mar that ambiance. The Council will vote this evening on an ordinance to prevent so-called formula restaurants from setting up shop in the neighborhood until next January.
Only one chain restaurant has applied to the planning commission for a permit to set up shop in Point Richmond at this time, but it was enough for residents to mobilize in opposition.
Jeff Ritterman, the councilmember who introduced the ordinance, said that the purpose of the ban is to give residents of Point Richmond time to make a decision about their desires for the future economy of the community. He said Peter Minkwitz, president of the Point Richmond neighborhood council, approached him last fall saying that residents were interested in increasing community involvement in city planning in the district, and preserving the Point’s historic mom-and-pop feel.
Although a Starbucks has operated for years on Park Place in the heart of Point Richmond, last November residents began rallying against chain restaurants when a Subway restaurant franchise was proposed at 213 Tewksbury Avenue, next to Edibles, a mom-and-pop deli. Residents worried that Subway would be the first of many chains that would undercut locally owned restaurants in the Point and detract from the unique feel of the neighborhood.
Late Monday afternoon, Ilona Oliver, who owns Edibles, was packing up her van outsider her deli, preparing for a trip to her native Germany where her nephew was getting married. She said that when she heard a Subway was trying to move in next door, she was worried. So she started knocking on doors, and collected upwards of 200 signatures from Point Richmond residents to block restaurants like Subway from setting up shop in the neighborhood.
“Little owners, little businesses, built Point Richmond,” said Oliver, who has owned Edibles since the 1980s, “and now that it’s a desirable place, places like Subway want to move in.”
But, she said, small businesses can’t compete with franchise and corporate operations that can leverage their size for better prices from wholesalers. “They buy their tomatoes for $12,” she said in a strong German accent. “I buy the same amount, $50. How can I compete with that? Nobody has any money, so they are going to buy a sandwich for $5. I can’t sell that same sandwich for that much.”
The issue is not just about competition for mom-and-pop shops, says Bernice Rapaport, who stopped by to chat with Oliver. Taking a break from work at Giapetto’s Antique Restorations, which she runs a few doors down from Edibles, she said that Point Richmond’s historic and small business character brings in tourists and visitors, and that local charm is threatened by chain restaurants.
“So many of the businesses are family-owned, and that’s the whole ambience of what Point Richmond is about,” she said. “[Tourists and visitors] come from Europe, but they come from San Francisco and San Rafael also because it’s nice here.”
Oliver is hopeful the ordinance will pass, but if it doesn’t, she is still braced for a fight. “There are 3,000 people in Point Richmond, and even if it puts me in the grave I will knock on every single door and let them know to protect Point Richmond from franchises,” she said. “I’m 64 years old—don’t mess with me.”
For Joshua Genser, who owns several retail buildings in the heart of Point Richmond, there is more to the issue than preserving the area’s historic look. He said that there are so many empty storefronts that the community should not be turning down any good offers from renters. The economy in Point Richmond wasn’t healthy to begin with, Genser said, and since the national economy tanked he’s had to cut his asking price for business space by nearly half, and he still has relatively little interest.
“You’ve got to be realistic. A business, whether it’s a formula business or not, it brings in tax revenues and jobs,” Genser said. “Sometimes people are afraid of formula businesses because they’re going to put someone out of business, but that just means they’re running their business better. We shouldn’t protect businesses that can’t compete freely.”
Genser said that chain restaurants bring in jobs for unskilled workers—and Richmond has many—as well as opportunities for them to climb the corporate ladder, whereas mom-and-pop stores are often family operations that do not hire a lot of people.
Genser said that Richmond already has a reputation of being unfriendly to business owners, and he worries that banning chain restaurants will only serve to deter businesses from moving in. He said Point Richmond would be better off trying to work with chain businesses and property owners to preserve local character by reducing conspicuous branding. “You can’t prohibit a business just because they’re competition, even though that’s the real reason—you have to do it by proxy, which is what is really happening,” he said.
Point Richmond is not the first community to initiate bans against formula restaurants. In the 1980s, the city of Carmel, in Monterey County, became the first community to ban chain restaurants. Other cities have adopted more restrictive ordinances. In Calistoga, in Napa County, the ban includes restaurants as well as corporate retail sales, services, hotels, wholesale and industrial businesses. In these and most other cases across the country, the communities cited an interest in maintaining a unique historical and local character that attracted visitors, and expressed concerns that an influx of chain restaurants would deteriorate that quality.
Mary Renfro, Richmond’s assistant city attorney, said the city “can’t regulate business on the basis of competition,” but that formula retail bans have been upheld in numerous cases around the country when they are written to protect local character.
The ordinance up for vote at tonight’s council meeting defines “formula” restaurants as those that are “required by contractual or other agreement” to offer “standardized menus, ingredients, food preparation, décor, uniforms, architecture, or similar standardized features.”
If the formula restaurant moratorium ban is adopted, the Subway restaurant proposed for Point Richmond would likely be prohibited from setting up shop. Approval for the proposed Subway franchise was held up late last month when planning commission members split evenly on whether to approve the business’s application for a conditional use permit. Manoj Trpathi, who applied for the permit, has the option to appeal the de facto denial to the City Council.
According to Renfro, if the ban passes, in the thirty day grace period before the moratorium goes into effect, Trpathi would have to take the necessary steps to ensure a legal claim on the right to open the business, which includes winning the conditional use permit appeal and investing money into renovating the space to show he is using the space prior to the ban taking effect. However, Renfro said that the city council does have the option to pass the moratorium and choose not to include businesses with permit applications in process.
Councilman Jeff Ritterman says that the ordinance could come off as something of a “boutique” issue for Point Richmond, but he said that there are wider implications for the rest of the city and for public health. As the city struggles with high rates of obesity, he said fast-food restaurants often play a role. “They particularly cater to high-caloric, cheap, dense food,” he said.
Ritterman said he chose to support the effort by proposing the ordinance because communities should have the right to determine the kind of businesses operating within them. “It’s a real question of economically self-reliant community,” he said. “We want every neighborhood to have that much interest and that much control of their surroundings.”
Tonight is the second and final reading of the ordinance. In the first reading, the Council voted unanimously to approve the measure and bring it forth for the final reading. Only six councilmembers will vote. Councilmember Tom Butt cannot vote because he owns business property in Point Richmond, and would be affected by the moratorium.
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