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What’s more divisive – a pet store or a pot club? You’d be surprised

Pet Food Express on Lombard, Part I
The Pet Food Express location on Market Street (Photo: norcalgsprescue / flickr)

At a meeting of the Marina Merchants Association held in October 2012, two possible new tenants for Lombard Street, a pot club and a pet store, were on the agenda. Only one had people raising their voices in opposition, asserting what a negative influence it would have on the neighborhood, and demanding that the association come out against it publicly — and it wasn’t the pot club. It was Pet Food Express (PFE), currently trying to move into the empty Blockbuster building on Lombard Street, which drew venom from a very vocal minority made up of six local pet stores and a couple of citizens (who, interestingly, don’t even own pets). I empathize with the small, independent pet stores that don’t want the added competition — I own a small, independent newspaper. Would I like the Marina Times to be the only newspaper in the Marina? Of course I would, but it’s not realistic in a free market society.

Those six nearby pet stores joined forces with 19 others to form the San Francisco Pet Store Coalition, they say to “keep chain stores out of neighborhoods where they would be detrimental to the unique character of the area,” but what they really mean is “chain stores that compete with us,” because they welcomed the Apple Store to Chestnut Street in 2007 (a year after the anti-chain ordinance was approved). They were also fine with the recent move of Equinox, a gym with more than 60 locations worldwide, into the historic Metro Theater on Union Street, which will now become a mega fitness complex. Let’s be honest: The coalition was formed explicitly to oppose PFE’s move to Lombard, with claims that they are losing money and that PFE will put them out of business. But an economic study, commissioned by PFE, by Conley Consulting Group (CCG) suggests this is untrue. In fact, according to sales tax records, the total sales of the six pet stores in closest proximity have increased by 142 percent, or $8.11 million, since 2006 with a growth rate of more than 20 percent per year. CCG also projects that citywide sales will increase by 8 percent, or $16 million, annually between 2012 and 2017 — in part because San Francisco households have twice as many pets as children — so there’s plenty of business to go around for the city’s 37 pet stores; compare that with the more than 3,500 restaurants in San Francisco all vying for your dollars.

The coalition also claims that the majority of Marina merchants oppose PFE, but Awadalla Awadalla, owner of Hole in the Wall Pizza on Scott Street at Lombard and president of the Lombard Street Association, disagrees. “A lot of people support it, but they don’t want to say so, and I don’t understand why. What are they afraid of?”

One merchant, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, complained that a woman has been going up and down the streets threatening to “have businesses boycotted if they support PFE.” Awadalla says a woman did indeed come into his pizza shop when he wasn’t there and asked his employees to tell him not to support PFE, but he’s speaking out because he thinks it’s the right choice for businesses on and near Lombard. “Lombard needs a lot of help and those other organizations care nothing about Lombard. They concentrate so much on Chestnut, and that’s OK, but if you want to make the neighborhood beautiful you make the whole neighborhood beautiful, and that end of Lombard is mostly empty. That encourages businesses like the pot club to move in. They could never open on Chestnut, but they bought the building on Lombard from the landlord because he was tired of not being able to rent it.”

Awadalla says his main goal is to get those empty buildings rented. “I want to survive. Lombard businesses are struggling. I was betting on foot traffic from Chestnut, but it’s not happening. People have no reason to come by my store, because no one goes to Lombard. We all want PFE, because we need that strong anchor.”

Regarding the pet stores, Awadalla says competition is just part of doing business. “They say the Marina Community Association supports them in opposing PFE, but where was that organization when four pizza places opened in the six years I’ve been here? Where were they to stand up for me?”

Doug Sherer, financial officer for the family trust that owns the Lombard Street building, says they have had only two businesses interested since Blockbuster vacated in 2009: PFE and CVS. “I spent months with CVS but it didn’t work out. We really want to work with people, not institutions. PFE is a great company and they’re wonderful to deal with. Most of us have animals and we get what they do, especially for rescue. They walk the walk and talk the talk.”

The reason the lease is for 10 years, Sherer says, is because the trust will only work with tenants who sign on long term. “We have certain criteria that a business must meet — high credit and a long-term commitment. Our building is too small for national retailers and too big for small businesses. Cole Hardware expressed mild interest in just half the building, but we never saw anything from them in the way of a proposal.”

While the blatant misinformation (“A ton of tenants want that building!”) and unsubstantiated claims (“We’ll go out of business if PFE opens!”) are troubling, the most distasteful part of the coalition’s campaign is the way they use PFE’s numerous animal rescue programs as a ploy. As a tireless advocate for homeless pets, I find it despicable that they cynically talk about helping rescues as being “good business” for PFE. So what if it is? Saving animals’ lives should be applauded, not politicized. I also find it hypocritical, since they are using animal rescue to further their own business objective, namely keeping PFE out of the Marina. PFE, which has cat adoption centers at a number of its stores, plans to partner with Pets Unlimited for the Lombard location. “We are confident this will give our cats the extra exposure they deserve to find their forever homes,” said Pets Unlimited executive director Sally Wortman. But if the coalition has its way, there will be no cat adoption center for Pets Unlimited.

In an ironic twist, a third business recently came forward to express interest in the Lombard property should the PFE deal not go through — Woodlands Pet Food & Treats, a growing purveyor of “healthy and organic” pet supplies based in Marin County. “The guy from Woodlands says he’s interested because it’s an underserved market,” Sherer explains. “And they would be able to move right in because they’re under the chain store limit.” Which means a pet store is likely coming to Lombard Street with or without the San Francisco Pet Store Coalition’s approval. Ah, capitalism.

Pet Food Express on Lombard, Part II »

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Hear Susan Stir the Pot, Saturdays at 4:30 p.m. on KGO radio (810 AM). E-mail: [email protected]