Perhaps you know me as the owner of BlockParty. It’s the only place in town to get a West Hollywood tee shirt or magnet. It’s a place of hometown Pride. Our lease expired a year ago and we have been month-to-month since. When I heard “Flap Jack Johnnies” – a Bible Belt pancake house — had signed a letter of intent to occupy my location I lamented the changes in our neighborhood. I’ve been fighting and fighting to protect WeHo’s historic Boystown and honor its legacy by promoting the idea of an LGBT square at the corner of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards and lobbying for the rainbow flag on City Hall to protect what makes us so special as a city. But lets face it, landlords want maximum rent dollars and Triple-A rated tenants.
As a local retailer concerned about the neighborhood, I wondered if the proposal by City Council members Lauren Meister and John Duran to limit chain stores from opening in West Hollywood was to protect a store like mine. If so, I wish either of them would have asked my thoughts or listened to my concerns these past few years.
The proposal would ban or limit stores with more than 12 locations — what they are calling “formula” retailers — from opening in West Hollywood. The Subway store around the corner from you is probably a locally owned franchise with a national brand name. Is that a “formula” retailer that should be banned? And some Subway stores are also company-owned. How do Meister and Duran propose that we pick and choose among these? Or is this idea geared toward national chains such as Target or Best Buy or drugstore chains like CVS and Rite Aid? These national mass merchants bring low prices to local consumers through economy of scale. Do Meister and Duran want us all to shop outside West Hollywood’s borders to save a buck so that we can afford to live here?
A ban on chain stores is an assault on the free market system. If the federal government adopted rules like that, our form of government would no longer be free market capitalism. The staff report cites San Francisco and Malibu as examples of the ban on “formula” retailers. But those cities aren’t like us. (Those cities didn’t adopt a fur ban or ban short-term vacation rentals or ban the circus from coming to town.) West Hollywood is a little dot in the middle of Los Angeles. We are interdependent with our neighboring communities for most goods and services.
Major restrictions or a ban on chain stores are not the way to protect the culture and integrity of our city. Forcing people on low incomes, or seniors and those with disabilities to travel outside our borders to meet their needs does not protect our community. Why not welcome a Staples or Office Depot to Movietown Plaza rather then have every dollar spent by a West Hollywood business on office supplies going outside our city boundaries. Millions of dollars in sales tax revenue lost — valuable money that could be used to increase our social services budget or fund mass transit. Local jobs for our residents can help to decrease commutes and ease traffic congestion.
Let’s consider one formula retailer “Target’ed” by this proposal. Target was a winner of our city’s Disability Service Award. Target is a leader in hiring transgendered employees. John D’Amico has said many times: “We export the culture that the world consumes.” So why not welcome every chain to West Hollywood to help them implement a national push for gay and transgender rights in the workplace. Let’s not build a wall between West Hollywood and our neighbors. Let’s be open for business and welcome those who want to embrace our community.
“Formula” store regulation adds political dynamite to opening a business within West Hollywood. Businesses that need permission to open here might find that a donation to a City Council member can win them an approval. It’s a new way to pay for play in West Hollywood. Besides, are we going to have to hold a hearing on every store that applies to open in West Hollywood that is part of a chain?
Banning chain stores with Triple-A bond ratings from opening in West Hollywood will kill development. Could that be the main goal behind Meister’s proposal — to stop all development dead in its tracks? I’m not even sure she realizes the force behind this idea. Do Meister or Duran understand real estate financing?
Remember hearing the initials MBS during the financial crisis? They stand for “mortgage-backed securities”. Commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) are a type of security backed by commercial mortgages rather than residential real estate mortgages.. Without the ability to lease to Triple-A tenants, property owners and developers will not be able to borrow at the lowest interest rates to raise the money to fund new projects or sell these projects to investors. The ban or restrictions on chain stores will create fear in those thinking of financing and building in West Hollywood.
There are things we can do to protect and preserve the culture and integrity of our small business community– safe crosswalks, free parking such as Beverly Hills offers to welcome consumers. The city charges me special event permit fee of $180 to have a sidewalk sale– milking every little business promotion. Code enforcement will not allow my business to stay open 15 minutes after the bars close to sell a condom.
The City Council has created some of the problems in the Boystown area that this proposal is seeking to cure. For one thing we can stop approving every retail space change of use into a bar or restaurant. We can encourage diversity in our retail. Good local business starts with ample parking, safe crosswalks and a business friendly City Council. As I talk to my neighbors and watch the turnover around me, I ask the question “Is anybody listening?”
Perhaps they are listening, but I do not think either of these council members understands the ramifications of their proposal. I do not think that we want a city of expensive boutiques. I do not think the majority of us want to travel outside our borders to eat at Chipolte or go to Lenscrafters. That Dairy Queen belongs right here in West Hollywood!
Plain and simple — national chains have the economy of scale and purchasing power to deliver value and convenience to our residents. Ban the chains and we are all forced outside our borders to shop.
Larry Block, a candidate in this year’s City Council election, is a licensed real estate agent and owner of the BlockParty store.