Proposal for new Petcostore on Geary draws public ire

by Thomas K. Pendergast

Local pet stores are taking the offensive to stop a proposed Petco pet supply store on Geary Boulevard.

PETCO is considering applying for aConditional Use Permit to open a store at 5411 Geary Blvd., a former Walgreens located near the intersection of 18th Avenue.

The two sides had their first public face-off on Jan. 20 at the Richmond Recreation Center, when the corporation held a city-mandated public meeting to get feedback from the community. The actual store, if it moves in, will be called Unleashed by PETCO.

"PETCO Unleashed is not like traditional PETCO stores. It's got a different look and feel. It's focused on a limited assortment of typically high-end natural types of food and supplies. No animals are sold. No fish are sold. No grooming services are provided," said Kevin Whalen, vice president of corporate communications, when he addressed an audience of about 50 people. "It is a 5,000-square-foot space and that's less than half the size of our PETCO stores."

PETCO now has two of its regular stores in San Francisco, one on Sloat Boulevard and one on 16th Street. There are no Unleashed by PETCO stores in the City.

Andrew J. Junius, a San Francisco land use attorney, explained that it was required for stores classified as "formula retail," like PETCO stores, to get a Conditional Use Permit from the SF Planning Commission.

"That is the primary reason why we need to go to the Planning Commission, because formula retailers along this stretch of Geary Boulevard, like most places in San Francisco now, require Planning Commission approval. Otherwise, there would be no requirement to go to the commission," said Junius.

Bob Starzel, a local resident, fired the first verbal shot across the proverbial bow of the approaching Unleashed by PETCO store.

"I represent about 50 people who, at the time that Cal's Pet Supply was inundated by a contractor's mistake back in June of 2009, gathered together and we invested in Cal's Pet Supply, so we have a very strong feeling about the importance of a community store," Starzel said.

Cal's Pet Supply is at the intersection of 22nd Avenue and California Street.

"Now, you say that the demand is such that you think that this is a good place to be. And perhaps it is if you look at the total demand," said Starzel. "But, if in fact your store is going to take business from Cal's, then we're going, I believe, to oppose in every way we can the installation of a store at this location. The reason for that is that Cal's Pet Supply has been more than a simple pet supply store. It has been part of the community.

"It has nothing to do with what your ideas are and why you're here. We've talked to you before this meeting. You're fine people. We believe that commercially you probably know a lot about what you're doing here. But, understand that if this threatens the continuation of Cal's Pet Supply then you will have us as a very hostile community," Starzel said.

Matt Crowell, the West Coast district operations manager for the Unleashed division, responded to Starzel by claiming that the company's data showed many of the customers that come to their other San Francisco stores are coming from the Richmond District.

"What we're really looking to do is hopefully keep those customers in this area, keep them shopping in the Richmond, to be able to benefit the community and not take away from Cal's but to actually add to the value of being able to take care of your pet without having to drive across town."

One participant at the meeting noticed that there are already about five pet supply stores within a two-mile radius of the proposed store.

One of the closest is B&B; Pet Supply, near the intersection of 12th Avenue and Geary Boulevard. The co-owner is John Todgya.

"Cal's is a quarter mile away from this site. And I'm the co-owner of B&B; which is a quarter mile away from this site as well," Todgya said.

Crowell responded: "Beautiful, yeah. Great."

"Great?" Todgya responded.

"Yeah, I think that is great," Crowell said. "You put Burger King and McDonalds on the same street."

"We're not as enthusiastic as you are about this," said Todgya.

A woman pointed out that PETCO is a large corporation but the other pet supply shops are mom and pop stores.

Crowell claimed that Unleashed by PETCO has 28 stores across the country and "they haven't put any pet stores out of business."

Kathleen Dooley, a commissioner with the San Francisco Small Business Commission, then addressed the PETCO representatives.

"The Unleashed I went out and took a look at is very standard, formula retail. There's nothing personal, nothing boutique, nothing charming whatsoever about it," Dooley said. "As a commissioner, I have to say we are very concerned with the fact that when we have run the statistics, an independent, owner-run business brings back the money into their community ten-fold to what a formula retail does. We're very concerned citywide at this sort of attempt to drain the local economy. We don't believe that you contribute as much as the small, independent-owned business."

On the other hand, said Brian Jones, the owner of Rhinoceros Security on Geary Boulevard, right now there's no business at all at the proposed site.

"I'd just like to point out that that's an awfully big retail space and it's been sitting there empty for a year and a half. I don't think that does anything good for the community to have an empty store there," he said. "It's a big place. A formula retail store of some sort is going to be able to move into a space like that. And it's better than just sitting empty. I'm not in the pet business but I think it would help my business and I'd just like to see something move in there."

Ben Lazzareschi, vice president at C.B. Richard Ellis, speaking on behalf of PETCO, addressed the issue of vacant retail space in the Richmond District, claiming that it has about five times the vacancy rate as the San Francisco average.

"That's purely retail space. That doesn't include space that is vacant that's for sale. It doesn't include space that's vacant for development. It doesn't include office. It doesn't include industrial," Lazzareschi said. "The current vacancy rate, the average in San Francisco, is about four percent. The inner and outer Richmond vacancy rate, as it stands today, is a five-fold increase from Q1 2008. In Q1 2008, the vacancy rate here was five percent, now it's at 28 percent."

"You're making our argument," Starzel replied. "We don't want more empty space. We do not want these local pet supply stores to be killed. You'll just have more empty space."

Local resident David Hirtz agreed with Starzel.

"You'll never convince me that a multi-million dollar corporation is going to be as friendly to the neighborhood as somebody that either lives in the neighborhood or comes to the neighborhood everyday, keeps money in the neighborhood, invests in the neighborhood," said Hirtz. "Show me a plan that you're going to invest 10 percent of your profits to help the senior center down on Geary Boulevard."

"There's no report that you can show me that's a national report that shows a national use coming in, puts out local businesses," Lazzareschi replied. "If you could find that I'd be happy to see it 'cause I've been looking for it for some time."

"It's obvious here," Starzel countered. "We don't have to show you anything. It's obvious what will happen if you come in here."