By Barbara Kate Repa
Almost exactly two years ago, when Polo Ralph Lauren became the first business to encounter San Francisco’s new ordinance limiting chain stores in the neighborhood, the company’s leaders promised that their Fillmore store, if approved, would become engaged in the neighborhood and support local causes.
They even put it in writing.
“We feel the proposed shop, which will carry both men’s and women’s fashion, will be a perfect fit with this neighborhood,” wrote Wayne T. Meichner, president of Polo Ralph Lauren retail stores. “Our team has compiled a list of actions to demonstrate to you how we can best use our skills and resources to partner with the local community.”
Two years later, Polo’s promises to become involved in the local community have not been fulfilled.
Among Polo’s promises:
• “We will seek to adopt a local high school” by spring 2009 to teach students about careers in fashion and retail.
• “Ralph Lauren commits to hosting a minimum of two annual in-shop events to raise funds for reputable and nonprofit organizations.”
• “Ralph Lauren would like to contribute to the cohesive feeling on Fillmore Street through increased communication. To do this, we propose using a local community board, which can be used by retailers and residents alike.”
• “Up to three times per calendar year . . . Ralph Lauren is willing to make visible within its shop reminders for events that are sponsored by the Fillmore Merchants Association.”
• “To continue our commitment to diversity in our team members, we would be willing to consider working with a nonprofit or government-supported employment agency in an effort to identify potential employees to work at our shop.”
Paul Wermer, a director of the Pacific Heights Residents Association, led the group’s opposition to the store before his group was persuaded — in large part by Meichner’s letter — to withdraw its objections. Wermer says the one civic-minded act he’s aware of since the store opened was a fundraiser for some of the area’s private schools.
Thomas Benjamin Chamberlain, assistant manager of Ralph Lauren on Fillmore, says the store recently hosted “a lovely event” with California Pacific Medical Center, but could give no details, nor would he confirm the local school drive. “I am actually not allowed to give any additional information,” he says. “I would have to redirect you to our corporate liaison.” Ironically, Meichner’s letter emphasized Ralph Lauren’s “original commitments to the community,” which specifically included “giving the manager of the shop the authority to deal directly with neighborhood concerns or requests.”
Nor has Ralph Lauren become “an active and participating member of the Fillmore Merchants Association,” another of Meichner’s commitments.
Soon after he wrote his April 4, 2008, letter to the residents association and merchants association, Meichner was elevated to president and CEO of the entire Polo retail group. No one from Ralph Lauren’s corporate hierarchy provided information about the company’s local activities.
Wermer says the company’s apparent failure to fulfill its promises points up one of the weaknesses of the city’s planning process: a lack of enforcement.
“The number one problem I see is that the conditional use laws are substantially toothless,” he says. “Enforcement depends on the local community paying attention and being engaged,” says Wermer. “Unfortunately, communities that have lots of problems are the ones that tend to be engaged. People get active when their ox is getting gored. And let’s face it, on upper Fillmore, the ox is pretty safe.”
Wermer also finds an irony in the changes that chain stores — known to city planners as formula retail — can bring to a neighborhood. “The reason Ralph Lauren wanted to come to Fillmore Street was because it didn’t look like a mall,” he says. “We had a good laugh, because that just made our case about formula retail,” he says. “But I don’t think the landlords heard that message.”
Wermer blames landlords for making empty spaces on Fillmore hard to fill. “I’m very worried that the only ones that will be able to get the property are the chains that have the money it takes,” he says. “Landlords are aggressively reaching out to these guys rather than trying to get creative in renting their properties. Instead, they follow a simple business model: I charge as much as I can. Ultimately, they’re not building a community that will be successful in the long term — and ultimately, the businesses won’t be successful either.”
But Pam Mendelsohn, a commercial real estate broker with Johnson Hoke who has handled a number of local listings, says the blame is misplaced. “Landlords have been incredibly fair — particularly on Fillmore Street,” she says. “Currently there are just some landlords on the street who aren’t in as big a hurry to have the spaces filled as the retailers are. Fillmore is pretty stable — and most landlords here are in for the long haul, not the short term.”
Mendelsohn adds: “The whole thing about chains running up rents — there’s no truth to that. Chains pay less.”
She maintains the chain store ordinance has had the opposite of its intended effect. “It has scared off some retailers,” she says. “Unless someone has the money and time to go through the process, it can be offputting. It takes a major corporation. So I wonder whether we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot” with the chain store rules.
“We need a balance between small businesses and recognizable names,” she says.
Despite the city’s attempt to limit formula retail, many residents and retailers say they prefer chain stores to empty storefronts — as long as they are “the right kind of chain store.”
Werner says the problem is in the definition. “We lack a robust assessment about what is good and what is not good about formula retail,” he says. “Formula retail stores that participate in the neighborhood and support the community and get involved — by bringing clients to the area who will also shop at other stores, by joining the local merchants association, by helping keep the streets organized and by supporting activities like the small merchant used to do — they may be an asset to the neighborhood,” he says. “But the sort of chain operations with the main focus of bringing in as much revenue as possible, not contributing to the community, hiring people at minimum wage — they’re problems.”
Filed under: Retail Report