Thursday, May 20, 2010
Takin' Care of Business
While walking along a street in San Francisco, the Prolix Patriot saw a strange sign in the window of a shop advising passersby that a public hearing must be held before the store could be sold to new owners. Apparently, shopkeepers in the city by the bay are required to submit detailed proposals for public debate for even the most modest changes.
In this case, a frozen yogurt store had to obtain a fourteen-page document which grants government approval to change the restaurant to a take-out counter. The document also specifies what hours the cafe may be open and also certifies that the change will not cause environmental damage or alter traffic patterns. Moreover, the new owner could not even apply for building permits, let alone begin work, until the approval was granted.
As a more extreme example of the problems caused by a hyper-bureaucratic state, a mob of angry hipsters converged on City Hall last year to protest the proposed construction of a new American Apparel--ironically, a purveyor of hipster-style clothing--in their midst in the gentrifying Mission District. A check of the company's Northern California store locations reveals that the proposed store was never built.
For a vocal minority of neighborhood busybodies, this is undoubtedly a great victory which sends a message to much larger national brands that they had better stay out. However, such draconian policies also carry a high cost for the same "quirky" local businesses that these ordinances are meant to protect. By creating a Gordian knot of bureaucracy, the city discourages potential entrepreneurs from even beginning the process without a sufficient bankroll.
Worse still, a struggling business owner might have to wait months to get through all the approvals necessary to save his or her store from financial ruin. For many businesses, that wait was too long. The San Francisco examiner reported last year that the retail vacancy rate was somewhere near 13 percent and it appears to be holding steady. Neighborhood activists may be winning their battle against big box stores, but at what cost?