The Board of Appeals unanimously voted Wednesday to deny the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association’s request to file a late appeal of the Planning Department’s determination that Jack Spade is not a chain store. However, to the confusion and surprise of the group opposing the luxury retailer’s arrival on 16th Street, this may not actually make much of a difference for their campaign.
The decision had little to do with the nature of Jack’s Spade’s business and the question of whether or not it counts as “formula retail.” Under the city’s zoning rules for the Mission, retailers with 11 or more U.S. pre-existing locations must seek special permission to move in. Instead, Wednesday’s decision centered around the city’s responsibility to inform the community of their ability to file an appeal following the Planning Department’s issuance of a Letter of Determination.
“This is about a late filing request,” said Board of Appeals President Chris Hwang to a packed City Hall hearing room. The judgment was about “whether there’s been some error on behalf of the City to fulfill notification requirements…which is very distinct from deciding the merits of the Letter of Determination,” she said.
The Board had to decide on a very narrow question: Whether or not the City “inadvertently or willfully delayed” a group’s ability to appeal the Planning Department decision. The Board determined to deny the Valencia association’s jurisdiction request based on this criteria, but will be hearing their case again next week, Aug. 21, when the appeal of two Jack Spade building permits is on the agenda.
Eileen Hassi, owner of Ritual Roaster and chief organizer of the Oppose Jack Spade campaign, came to testify at the hearing despite being nine months pregnant. She found herself baffled by the decision.
“I’m confused about how anyone can win a Letter of Determination appeal,” she said following the hearing.
Melissa Xides, Jack Spade’s vice-president of global sales and retail, was satisfied with the nature of the ruling. “I think it went well and fair. I think they were fair,” she said before being approached by Andy Blue, a Mission resident upset by the decision.
“Is this the last Jack Spade you’re opening in San Francisco?” Blue asked Xides.
“Quite honestly, we don’t have any in other leases in our pipeline,” said Xides.
“No one in this room believes that,” Blue responded before continuing to press Xides for more information about Jack Spade.
The decision came after the Board heard arguments from both representatives of Jack Spade and the Valencia merchants and testimony from 22 members of the community. The hearing also included a highly technical question and answer session with Zoning Administrator Scott Sanchez who issued the September 2012 determination letter.
At times, Sanchez’s answers seemed to confuse even the Board whose members tried to make sense of the implications of overturning a Letter of Determination.
In his testimony, Sanchez explained that letters of determination have little legal significance, and that businesses are not required to get one. Many do so as a sign of goodwill towards the Planning Department and so they can be prepared for future steps in the permitting process, such as potential conditional use hearings. Furthermore, the City’s Planning Code does not require the Planning Department to notify local groups of letters of determination. It’s just something they do as “a matter of policy.”
“The Letter of Determination is not definitive,” said Sanchez and explained that at the hearing next week that focuses specifically on Jack Spade building permits “the board will have full discretion to say if it’s formula retail.”
Despite the narrowness of the scope of this week’s hearing, the public testimony included many impassioned arguments from both sides, although the 17 testimonies opposing Jack Spade outnumbered the five in favor.
Michael Gardner, owner of Siegel’s Clothing, expressed support for Jack Spade based on his feeling that the Mission needs more businesses to help ameliorate the existence of crime, graffiti, and other problems.
“I’ve been in the Mission for 36 years, and this is the lowest level in the Mission I’ve seen. There’s more crime, more homelessness, less city services,” said Gardner. “Anybody that wants to move into a storefront that looks like a bomb went off is wonderful.”
“Sixteenth Street is different from the rest of the Mission, every day I’m cleaning up human excrement,” said Benny Gold, owner of the shop of the same name, explaining why he supports Jack Spade’s arrival. “They’re going into neighborhood that needs repair.”
Those opposed to Jack Spade expressed fear about the threat the store would have to the survival of local businesses and to the unique character of the Mission.
“Having Jack Spade is not a good investment in the neighborhood,” said Breezy Culbertson, owner of Needles & Pens. “Tourists come to neighborhood because it’s unique. Jack Spade would ruin that.”
Many argued that though the retailer claims otherwise, it has a deep connection and reliance to its parent company.
“They are one business. They have one headquarters, one distribution department, one team of employees,” said Jefferson McCarley of Mission Bicycle and the Valencia merchants.
Regarding the definition of formula retail itself and the Planning Department’s application of its definition, Benjamin Wax a resident of the Sunset testified to feelings of frustration with the existing legislation.
“This is a Kafkaesque definition of formula retail,” he said. “Only a lawyer can understand this definition.”
The debate about whether or not Jack Spade is a chain store will continue Aug. 21 at 5 p.m.